For the first time in. a while, it looks like WVU’s defense may be the one that takes a step forward this year. Thanks to a large rotation last season, the Mountaineer defensive line is one of the most experienced and talented position groups on the roster. With coach Jordan Lesley at the helm, the d-line has a chance to be the pace setter for this football team.
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning’s system is all about creating chaos for the offense. The front the offense sees will vary between 4-2-5, 3-2-6, and 3-3-5 depending on the situation. This plays right into the depth the Mountaineers have on the line and the versatility they bring will help this defense get after some of the best quarterbacks in the nation in the Big 12.
Starters: Defensive end Taijh Alston (6’4″, 252 lbs) redshirt sophomore
Alston has found himself as a major breakout candidate coming out of junior college. Of course when Mountaineer fans think of JUCO defensive lineman, Bruce Irvin is the first man who comes to mind. It may be a stretch to say that Alston will have that kind of impact right away but he definitely has the opportunity to be a big part of a talented group of defensive lineman.
Alston signed with East Carolina out of high school, enrolling early for spring ball, but transferred to Mississippi’s Copiah-Lincoln Community College over the summer where he would take a redshirt in his first season. As a redshirt freshman, he emerged as one of the best players in junior college, tallying 78 tackles, 7 sacks, and 15 tackles for loss on his way to becoming a top 100 JUCO recruit nationally. After enrolling in January, Alston has made huge strides in the weight room, adding 19 pounds to his 6’4″ frame while showing an uncanny talent for rushing the passer. Look out for Taijh Alston as a major source of chaos in opposing backfields throughout the season.
Nose Tackle Darius Stills (6’1″ 292 lbs) junior
Darius Stills has been biding his time for two years, serving as a steady force in the d-line rotation since he was a freshman but the presence of Lamonte McDougle in 2017 and Kenny Bigelow in 2018 kept the Fairmont native from being the focal point on the interior of the Mountaineer line. That all changes this year as the new staff will rely on Stills to anchor the middle of a group that has the chance to impact games an a massive level.
Stills fell right into the space eater role that defensive tackles mostly served in Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5 stack but he is certainly not limited to that style. He made just 12 tackles last season as a result of the system but when he was let loose in the bowl game, he showed his ability to get after the quarterback, recording a sack and a hurry on Syracuse QB Eric Dungey. Alongside brother Dante, Darius Stills has the opportunity this coming season to prove that the front seven on this WVU defense is a force to be reckoned with.
Defensive Tackle Reese Donahue (6’4″, 285 lbs) senior
If anybody is going to emerge as the spiritual leader of this WVU defense, its going to be Reese Donahue. An Ona, WV native and graduate of a powerhouse Cabell Midland program, Donahue will be relied on as one of the most experienced players on the roster and has already been singled out for his leadership ability by Neal Brown’s staff. Donahue’s success goes all the way back to his high school years where he became the first defensive lineman to win the Huff Award as the best defensive player in the state of WV. A two-year starter and three-year contributor, Donahue will be a big part of this defense no matter what form it takes.
Donahue finds the most value in his game as a run stopper, picking up 24 tackles, a sack, and two tackles for loss in a very successful junior campaign last season. The big man isn’t going to wow anyone with his athleticism or record double digit sacks, but his steadiness, strength and leadership will be a major part of the projected success of this Mountaineer defensive line. You can take it to the bank that Reese Donahue will be one of the most important players on the WVU roster this season.
Defensive Tackle Dante Stills (6’3″, 295 lbs ) sophomore
There are only three positions listed on the defensive line on the WVU depth chart, but the defensive tackle spot is listed with two potential starters. The first is Reese Donahue and the second is the younger son of Gary Stills and younger brother of Darius Stills, former blue-chipper Dante Stills. One of the most hyped prospects in recent years at WVU, Dante made an outstanding first impression as a true freshman, cracking the rotation almost immediately. There is a lot of talent on this line, but Dante Stills may have the most raw ability out of anyone
Stills was all over the stat lines once he started getting on the field a few games into the season. He made 16 total tackles, with 6 coming for loss, as well as 3 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. This defensive tackle position will be very fluid in the new defense and it is entirely possible that Dante Stills could see time at all three spots on the line this coming season. It seems now it’s not a matter of if Stills will break out, it’s when.
Backups: Defensive End Jeffrey Pooler, Jr. (6’2″, 255 lbs) redshirt junior
If the coaching staff is to be believed, and they’ve given fans no reason to distrust them yet, Jeffrey Pooler may just be the most improved player on this defensive line. After lining up at defensive tackle in his first three years on campus, the Ohio native dropped 20 pounds in the offseason as part of his move out to end. Pooler is a long, fluid athlete with a lot of natural ability that has been caught behind some very talented players the last few seasons.
Pooler served as the third man in the rotation at DT last year, playing in 11 games behind Darius Stills and Kenny Bigelow, making one solo tackle and one sack along the way. With his move out to end, he will have a chance to showcase thew innate athleticism that led the new coaching staff to shift his position in the spring. Now that he’s in the rotation, Jeffrey Pooler has a good shot to contribute in 2019.
Nose Tackle Brenon Thrift (6’1″, 290 lbs) redshirt senior
Brenon Thrift has been around the block more than once to say the least. Now on his third Division I program in his college career, he has finally cracked the two-deep at WVU and will look to make an impact this coming season. After a redshirt year at Temple, a JUCO season at Lackawanna College, and a lost season at Penn State that would wind up being a medical hardship, Thrift made brief appearances last year but will be relied on much more in 2019.
Thrift played in five games during the 2018 season, mostly showing up as depth at the defensive tackle spot. but it appears that he may have just been buried behind some very talented players as he has beat out some promising young guys for this spot in the depth chart. Brenon Thrift has the experience and the grit to make an impact in the trenches for WVU this season and it looks like he’ll have the chance to early and often.
Others To Watch: Defensive End Quondarius Qualls (6’1″, 240 lbs) redshirt senior
Quondarius Qualls has been a bit of an enigma since his arrival in Morgantown two years ago. He was an elite pass rushing linebacker in a 3-4 system while in junior college but under the previous staff, there was not a role for that type of player. This led to most of Qualls’ junior season being spent on special teams before an offseason knee injury led to a medical redshirt this past season. With a new coaching staff comes new opportunities and Qualls seems like one of the most likely to take advantage of those chances. Look for this Louisiana native to be a staple on third down, causing havoc for quarterbacks throughout the Big 12.
Defensive Tackle Reuben Jones (6’4″, 250 lbs) redshirt senior
While there is talent in bunches for this Mountaineer line, leadership was not one of the units strong suits this past spring. As a result, Neal Brown went out and got an injection of experience with the addition of Michigan transfer Reuben Jones. While Jones played sparingly in Ann Arbor, he was widely sought after coming out of Lakeland, Florida and played a limited role on some very talented defensive lines. With the size and versatility to play three positions, as well as a good bit of Power 5 experience, Reuben Jones will be important to the success of this group in the coming season.
Nose Tackle Jordan Jefferson (6’2″ 295 lbs) freshman
If there was ever someone you wanted to be the first man off the bus for WVU this year, its the freshman Jordan Jefferson. A record-setting powerlifter in his home state of Louisiana, Jefferson may have just graduated high school, but he has the physique of a college junior. If Jefferson’s skills can catch up with his physical gifts this season, WVU’s opponents had better be put on notice because that is would be a scary sight. He may be a deep sleeper to play big time snaps, but keep a careful eye out for Jordan Jefferson’s number 95 jersey when the Mountaineers kick off in a few weeks.
Defensive Tackle Stone Wolfley (6’4”, 255 lbs) redshirt senior
Stone Wolfley is the definition of a lifelong Mountaineer. The son of former WVU standout Dale Wolfley, Stone has grown up a part of the Mountaineer family and had an outstanding spring which should lead to some increased playing time this season. Look for the Morgantown native to bring some much-needed grit to the trenches in 2019
Defensive End Tavis Lee (6’2”, 252 lbs) redshirt freshman
West Virginia high school football has not seen a dominant defensive player like Tavis Lee in a long time. Part of a feared Martinsburg defense that allowed just 9.5 points per game his senior season, Lee is one of the most successful players in the history of the state. After getting a late start at WVU last season, he took a redshirt and worked on his strength and conditioning, earning scout team champion for the Texas Tech game week.
Defensive Tackle Jalen Thornton (6’2”, 260 lbs) freshman
Jalen Thornton has gotten some very high praise from one of the greatest Mountaineer defensive lineman in history, his father John. The elder Thornton has gone on the record to say that his son has a very good chance to be better than he ever was. That sounds pretty promising considering John is a ten-year NFL veteran with two First Team All-Big East Honors to his name. Look out for Jalen Thornton’s advanced level of skill in the Gold and Blue this season
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