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From JUCO to Nationally Ranked: Taijh Alston’s Trajectory

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – When WVU Football’s Taijh Alston was a teenager growing up in Lumberton, N.C., football was his life.

At Union Pines High School, Alston was a three-year varsity starter at defensive end. During his sophomore season, he finished with 54 tackles and followed that up with a 77-stop junior campaign that featured five sacks and 13 tackles. Senior year, his 96 tackles, seven sacks, and 16 tackles for loss proved sufficient to place him on the All-Cape Fear Valley 3-A Conference First Team and secure a three-star rating on 247Sports and Scout. Those high school stats brought in the Division I offers, including NC State, Appalachian State, North Texas, and Western Kentucky, along with his decision school, East Carolina. He signed a grant-in-aid with the program instead of a letter-of-intent (per NCAA policy) in order to come to campus a semester early in the winter of 2017.

When Alston got to Greenville, N.C., a quick two-hour drive from home, as an early enrollee in January 2017, Pirates head coach Scottie Montgomery immediately redshirted him. Hoping for increased playing time and rehabbing an injury, Alston transferred to Mississippi to play at Copiah-Lincoln Community College a year later. His redshirt freshman season, he registered 78 tackles, seven sacks, 15 TFLs, a forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries. He helped Copiah-Lincoln to a 6-4 record in his single season with the program, earning All-Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges First Team honors, the premier ranking for a junior college player.

That production was enough to get him on even more Division I radars, including Troy.

“We knew a little bit,” WVU defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley said of his knowledge of Alston’s skill prior to WVU. “He’s from [Copiah-Lincoln Community College] down in Mississippi, so I had knowledge of Taijh because I recruited there when we were at Troy and I obviously coached there. So I had an idea of skillset, what we had. As a player… really didn’t because we didn’t have the opportunity to get him out [to Troy].”

In 2019, once WVU head coach Neal Brown and his staff had relocated to Morgantown, Alston joined them in January, hoping to show off his skill at a higher level. He had committed to play for Dana Holgorsen’s coaching staff, but found himself in a prime position to grow alongside the new guard.

WVU’s history of JUCO cultivation spoke for itself, and Alston knew he could find a home at West Virginia. Unfortunately, his hope for success in 2019 was fleeting.

The 6’4″, 245 lb- Alston played in both the season opener against James Madison, a game which logged his first Mountaineer sack and tackle for loss, and the following Week 2 loss against Missouri, but injury cut his rebound short.

“He actually had a really impressive play in the first quarter against Missouri in ’19,” Lesley said of Alston’s D-line potential. “He had a really impressive sack against James Madison; the same type of play, it was actually the play he got hurt on, against Missouri. He would have sacked him if he didn’t injure his knee. So, I had an idea, but how far he’s come since then, we didn’t know, but it’s good to see.”

His season-ending knee injury became one which plagued him in 2020 as well, precluding him from adding any 2020 stats until the Liberty Bowl. Alston reprised his defensive end role during the 24-21 victory over Army, adding a solo tackle and a forced fumble. Having rehabbed his knee injury, Alston was primed for a breakout season in 2021; now four games in, the nation is watching.

“You watch Taijh Alston through three games,” Lesley said today. “He’s really brought something that we haven’t had… Mainly power and explosiveness. I’ll say this about Taijh: A lot of people talk about Taijh as an extremely high level player, and that shows.”

Alston’s play during last Saturday’s Oklahoma loss bumped his season stats up to eight solo tackles, five assists, and 4.5 TFLs accounting for an opponent loss of 26 yards. Oklahoma’s Heisman-caliber Spencer Rattler proved to be a non-issue for Alston, who sent the quarterback into the turf twice, adding to his 1.5 sacks the week prior, aimed at Virginia Tech’s Braxton Burmeister. Between the two games, Alston pushed opponent field position back 21 yards.

It was more than enough for the Big 12 Conference and national rankings to take note. Alston found himself not only atop the conference rankings, but getting verification of his hard work at the national level as well. Week 4 produced a No. 3 ranking in the Big 12 and a seven-way tie for No. 12 nationally in sacks, 3.5 thus far. Alston is also making a name for himself in another category: tackles for loss, coming in at No. 8 in the conference and part of a thirteen-way tie for No. 36 nationally, 4.5 deep on the season.

Alston was a huge piece of Lesley’s defensive presence against the then-No. 4 Sooners, helping the WVU secondary to a No. 23 ranking in rushing defense (90.5), No. 25 in scoring defense (16.8), and No. 36 in total defense (308.2). Alston’s sacks boost the defense’s sack count to 14; an average of 3.5 per game ties WVU with Kansas State and Oklahoma for No. 1 in the Big 12 Conference, and propels the defense to No. 14 nationally.

The redshirt junior Alston is prepared for a stellar remainder of conference play this season, and the Mountaineers are more than happy that he’s found a home among the hills.

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