Meet the Mountaineers is a series previewing every position on West Virginia’s football team for 2020. Every day we will focus on a different position group and look at all the players we will see there in 2020. Last week we finished the offense and started on the defense, going over offensive tackle, the interior offensive line, tight ends and fullbacks, the defensive coaching staff and defensive tackles. Tomorrow we will stay in the front seven with linebackers.
While areas of West Virginia’s defense like safety and linebacker could suffer from a lack of depth this season, the defensive end spot is in no such trouble heading into 2020.
Defensive end was a very different story last season, however. The spot looked strong heading into the 2019 season. The Mountaineers broke camp with a three-man rotation of returner Jeffery Pooler Jr., junior college recruit Taijh Alston and Michigan transfer Reuben Jones. A season-ending knee injury to Alston in week two threw a wrench into the Mountaineers’ plans, however. With Alston out, Jones’ and Pooler’s snap counts skyrocketed. Pooler played more than 30 snaps in 10 games and of 874 total defensive snaps during the season, Pooler played 59.5% (520 of 874).
This lack of depth boiled over in a late-season victory on the road against Kansas State. To combat the run-heavy Wildcat offense, West Virginia shifted from its typical three-man front to a four-man front. With only five defensive linemen to play those four spots, Poolers, Jones and defensive tackles Reese Donahue and Darius and Dante Stills each played upwards of 70 snaps.
“We can’t do this all the time, we played that four-down front basically with only five guys that played in the game,” head coach Neal Brown said after the game. “All five of those guys played a bunch of those snaps.”
This offseason, Brown seemed determined to not let the same issues hold the defensive line back in 2020. On several occasions, Brown expressed his desire to bring in a transfer or two to bolster the defensive line. Brown eventually got his wish, bringing in redshirt junior Bryce Brand from Maryland in May and redshirt sophomore Joseph Boletepeli from NC State in June.
Brand is the more experienced of the two, having played 26 career games in three seasons with the Terrapins. Brand had 12 tackles with a sack last season. Boletepeli played six games in 2019, with 11 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
While Pooler and Alston figure to be the team’s primary options at end, Brand and Boletepeli could have bigger roles than they had at their previous schools. A larger rotation of players would help to protect the Mountaineers from a situation like last season when one injury threw the team’s plans out of wack. It would also help keep Pooler and Alston’s workload down.
Aside from the transfers, Brown also brought in a highly-touted freshmen class of ends, including top in-state prospect Sean Martin as well as Akheem Mesidor and Eddie Watkins.
Reuben Jones – Graduation
Returning Players (2019 Stats):
R-Sr. Jeffery Pooler Jr. (26 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks)
R-Jr. Taijh Alston (1 tackle, 1 TFL, 1 sack)
R-Fr. Jalen Thornton
R-So. Tavis Lee
R-Fr. Rhett Heston
R-Jr. Russell Tanson
R-So. Joseph Boletepeli (NC State)*
R-Jr. Bryce Brand (Maryland)
Fr. Eddie Watkins
Fr. Sean Martin
Fr. Akheem Mesidor
The main battle in camp should be for who all makes it into the defensive end rotation and who big of a role they get. Pooler and Alston are basically locks to see significant playing time and Brand and Boletepeli’s previous experience make them valuable backups, but a player like redshirt-freshman Jalen Thornton, a highly-rated recruit in WVU’s 2018 class, could work his way into consistent playing time with a good enough camp performance.
R-Sr. Jeffery Pooler Jr.
Pooler was WVU’s week one starter last season and improved considerably as the year went on. He should be an important part of WVU’s defensive line this season and depending on how Alston can come back from his knee injury, the 2020 defensive end rotation could be even better than 2019’s.
Update: July 22, 2020
Despite announcing his transfer to WVU on Twitter, Joseph Boletepeli enrolled at Maryland in July and will play for the Terrapins this season.