MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — By anyone’s standards, filling the shoes of Darius Stills is intimidating. Losing a two-time All-Big 12 selection on the defensive line was a major hit for new defensive line coach Andrew Jackson. As he tried to get his initial bearings on the West Virginia program, one name began to stick out: Akheem Mesidor.
Stills’ incumbent, Mesidor’s journey to the Mountaineer starting nose tackle spot has been anything but conventional. The Ottawa, Ontario native moved down to Clearwater, Fla. to play high school football at Clearwater Academy International. With Mesidor’s help, the Knights went 8-2 in 2019 and secured a national ranking of 229, among thousands of high schools. After Mesidor finished his senior season with 92 tackles, an average of 9.2 a game, WVU head coach Neal Brown knew that he needed to be in a Mountaineer uniform.
Mesidor came to Morgantown as a true freshman. The defensive end was quickly moved to nose tackle, backing up Darius Stills, but he wasn’t concerned about living in the shadows for a season.
“It did surprise me,” Mesidor said. “Coming into college, I expected to be a practice player or have a role on special teams. But once I got here, I realized I could compete with these college O-linemen. It just felt normal.”
Mesidor, who weighed in at around 260 pounds coming out of high school, had to specifically work on nutrition and lifting techniques in the West Virginia offseason. Now, with his sophomore season within reach, he’s up to 275. As a defensive leader, his weight progression isn’t stopping there.
“Last year I came in at 260,” he said. “Now I am 275. I feel like I got stronger, more powerful, and quicker to the ball.
“I would like to work up to 285 since I’m playing nose and I have to defeat a double team a lot.”
The coaching staff acknowledges his hard work in the offseason, but it goes beyond his physical presence at the line of scrimmage. His football acuity is high, and he is able to quickly pinpoint the offense’s weaknesses. For offensive line coach Matt Moore, lining up across from Mesidor is a huge threat.
“That’s the good thing about going against Mesidor every day,” Moore said. “If your hands are wrong, he’s going to make you pay. If you’re leaning, he’s going to make you pay. That’s how good teams become great teams. They go against really good people, and you can’t be unfocused. You can’t be not giving full effort. You’ve got to do those things and that’s what helps teams take that step from being a good team or an average team to being a good team or a great team.”
Mesidor’s true freshman season saw 250 defensive snaps. He led the Mountaineer defensive line with five sacks and tied for ninth in the Big 12 for sacks per game. Coming into his own this season will be crucial for paving the way toward the NFL; although it’s early, Jackson says that he would not be surprised at all to see Mesidor eventually taking his talent to the next level.
“I think he’s going to be really damn good,” Jackson said. “I don’t know what the end goal of that is or what that means, but I could see that guy playing on Sundays.”
A staple of defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley’s scheme, Mesidor plays with a quick twitch and a steady hand, and doesn’t get easily overwhelmed by the weight he now holds on his shoulders. Playing alongside WVU veteran Dante Stills inspires not only comfort, but versatility. The two bonded over the offseason, working explicitly on the chemistry that had fizzled without Darius.
“I’ve said this when we got here, explosion and power mean more to me than straight-up size,” Lesley said regarding his decision to move Mesidor closer to the ball. “Those are two players that can do that at a high level. It’s good for them to be able to play both positions and cross train them because it makes them more versatile for whatever their next move is.”
“Coach told me I was ready for the nose and asked me if I wanted to play inside,” Mesidor said. “I told him I was ready for the challenge. I said, ‘Put me on the field wherever you want and I will execute.’
“It’s a little more challenging due to the fact that I am inside and have a lot less space to work with, but I’m getting used to it.”
He’s up for any challenge and he understands the ramifications of opponents envisioning his head on a platter.
“Mentally, he accepts any challenge,” Jackson said of Mesidor’s talent. “The biggest thing for him is to understand the blocks are on you a lot sooner when you’re that close to the ball. Obviously, you’re more inclined to be double-teamed, so he’s accepted it well. A little bit more of a shock to him at first, going through the spring, but I think it’s fine now. He’s doing a great job.”
It’s not always easy though. Mesidor meets fellow sophomore Zach Frazier at the line. It’s a match-up that the entire coaching staff has mentioned.
“Mesidor – Frazier has been really fun to watch,” Jackson said. “I wouldn’t say that one person has won that battle in practice more than two periods or two practices in a row, and I think it’s a play-to-play deal. They’re both good, young talents, and obviously I think that the improvement of those kids is the fact that they challenge each other every day.”
Even head coach Neal Brown had picked up on the animosity between Frazier and Mesidor.
“Both those kids, Zach Frazier and Akheem Mesidor, they’re all in,” Brown said. “They don’t say a whole lot as far as they’re going to give you everything they have all the time. They love to practice. They love to compete, and they battle. They appreciate each other, and I think that’s important. If you come in here and ask Akheem, he knows that Zach Frazier is making him better. Zach Frazier really values the fact that Akheem Mesidor is making him better. Those two guys, I think they’re really high level players. We’re fortunate to have them.”
With an abundance of raw strength beside him and across from him in practice, is Mesidor ready to finally capture an All-Big 12 Conference First Team award to add to last season’s Second and Third Team honors? Coach Jackson wouldn’t be surprised.