The last time West Virginia defensive end Taijh Alston played competitive football was Sept. 7, 2019. After more than 450 days of recovery and rehab, Alston played a handful of snaps in WVU’s loss to Iowa State this past Saturday.
The Mountaineers were in Columbia, Missouri playing a non-conference game against the Missouri Tigers when Alston was injured. While chasing then-Missouri quarterback Kelly Bryant, a Tiger offensive lineman blocked him in the back and Alston crumpled to the ground. He was diagnosed with a torn patella and required surgery, ending his 2019 season after just two games.
Heading into the 2020 season, Alston was nearly fully healed from his patella tear. In what WVU coach Neal Brown described as a “freak deal”, Alston sustained an Achilles injury this summer, an injury that required further rehab for the redshirt-junior.
“Taijh has done unbelievable as far as how he’s attacked his rehab,” Brown said Tuesday. “He had a unique injury in a patella and that’s hard to come back from, it’s a long rehab. He was almost completely done with that and getting released to start running and he had an Achilles injury. That’s usually an injury that happens to people my age. It was kind of a freak deal, he wasn’t really even sprinting and it popped on him.”
Now, seven months after the second injury, Alston has finally returned to the field for the Mountaineers. He finished with one tackle and a forced fumble Saturday against the Cyclones.
Yesterday's game was the first time in 452 days Taijh Alston suited up on the field, after suffering both a torn patella and achilles.
Welcome back 12🙌 pic.twitter.com/gkT4LEem6q
— WVU Football (@WVUfootball) December 6, 2020
“He was at the point where he was so excited about being back, he stayed here through the quarantine as much as he could and had been able to get treatment. He got the patella healed and he was ready to go, then boom,” Brown explained. “That happened in June and he played 12 or 15 snaps [Saturday]. He was rusty but he did okay. He’s got to get some technique thing fixed and he was anxious and all those types of things but I’m really proud of how he handled the rehab and kept a positive outlook and worked extremely hard to give himself the opportunity to play in these last games.”
“Taijh is really kind of amazing. How he’s handled his business to get back to this point with the injury that he had says a lot about Taijh,” WVU defensive line coach Jordan Lesley said. “He had some rust Saturday, but he was definitely in the gameplan with what we were trying to do and did a good job.”
2020 is Cowan’s third season at WVU, and yet Saturday was just his fifth game in the old gold and blue. After transferring from Alabama, Cowan sat out the entire 2018 season to fulfill his transfer requirements. He was suspended for the first four games of 2019 and made his Mountaineers debut against Texas. He had four tackles and a sack against the Longhorns but suffered a season-ending knee injury the very next week against Iowa State.
Like Alston, Cowan came into this offseason healthy enough to participate. WVU’s coaching staff expected Cowan to play a big role in the Mountaineers’ defense and through the first two games of the season he had six tackles 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. In that second game against Oklahoma State, however, Cowan sustained another injury that forced him to miss the team’s next six games.
“We get here last Spring, he showed some promise and we get into the season and has a knee injury,” Lesley explained. “Then with COVID, going into this year was a little bit different but he was healthy and he was ready and then at Oklahoma State, it happens again and you feel for the guy. He’s done a great job getting back, did some good things Saturday.”
Again like Alston, Cowan returned to the field against Iowa State and had two tackles. Although the Mountaineers lost to the Cyclones, defensive end Jeffery Pooler said just having Alston and Cowan back out there was nice for the team.
“It was exciting,” Pooler said. “It’s been over a year since Taijh went down and since he’s been here he’s only really had one and a half games until today. So that was definitely fun for Taijh. It was nice having those guys back out there.”