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2019 West Virginia Football Position Preview: The Defensive Line

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A lack of depth across the defensive front has largely defined West Virginia's defensive identity for a generation - do we have the pieces to make a successful transition to Vic Koenning's 4-2-5?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 01 Belk College Kickoff - Tennessee v West Virginia Photo by Jay Anderson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

West Virginia's decision to play the 3-3-5 over the last two decades was heavily influenced by concerns that we weren't able to recruit enough guys to fill out a 4-man front. Despite that, we've still had some very solid individuals and units over the years, but by design they were mostly role players whose job was to occupy blockers while our linebackers and safeties made plays. It wasn't much, but it was honest work. That all changes this year with the transition to Vic Koenning's 4-2-5.

First, a quick chalk talk session to clarify how Koenning's defensive fronts generally align themselves. Here's a graphic for you to reference as you read the next section:

The defensive ends in Koenning’s system are 5-techniques, which means they line up on the weak side offensive tackle’s outside shoulder. The nose tackles are usually a 1 or 2i- technique (though every now and then they're a 0), meaning they're somewhere in between the center and guard in the weak side A gap. Koenning's defensive tackles are generally 2 or 3-techniques on the strong side, lining up either heads up over the guard or just off of the outside shoulder. The Bandit, which is a DE/OLB hybrid, will generally line up as a 6, 7, or 9-technique on the strong side depending on the presence of an inline tight end. Good enough? Giddy up.

The Ends

The ideal 5-technique has to be athletic enough to generate a pass rush off the edge, but also needs to have enough girth to stand up to an offensive tackle and control both the B and C gaps against the run. Our rotation features a few guys who are natural fits for the position, as well as a couple who had to put in some considerable work to prepare themselves physically.

The starter at this point appears to be JUCO transfer Taijh Alston. At 6'4 252lbs Alston has ideal size for the position and quickly established himself as one of our better defensive players this spring. Simply put, he's good at all of the things he needs to be good at to be an effective 5- technique - he uses his length and hands really well to keep blockers at bay and combines that with solid quickness to both close down weakside cutback lanes against the run and get around the edge as a pass rusher. Taijh seems to be chomping at the bit to make the most out his second chance in Morgantown after spurning the Old Gold and Blue out of high school, and I'd expect him to be out there for most of our crucial downs this year.

Next in line behind Alston is probably Reuben Jones, this year's edition of "guy we rescued from blue blood defensive lineman rooms". Jones only has one year to make an impact here after spending the last four at Michigan, but his experience at the position and 6'4 250lb frame make him an ideal rotation guy. The word out of camp is that he'll at the very least be serviceable in that role, and is already significantly more than serviceable as a high-energy/positive influence guy in the locker room. Realistically you can't ask for much more than that from a graduate transfer.

The third rotation guy is Jeffrey Pooler. We've been waiting on Pooler to emerge for a year or two now but he finally seems to have found himself a home at the 5-technique after the coaches asked him to slim down and move over from the 3. By all accounts he had an awesome offseason and is down almost 20lbs from the 272 he played at last year, and the combination of 3-technique power and newfound quickness seems to be serving him extremely well on the edge.

The last two guys we need to mention here are both in-state kids. First we have redshirt freshman and Martinsburg native Tavis Lee, who appears to have found most of the weight that Jeff Pooler lost. Lee was just 225lbs when he arrived on campus but has since bulked up to a stout 252, and when combined with the athleticism that helped him win WV State DPOY in 2017 you have the makings of a very nice edge player. Reuben Jones’ transfer probably means Lee is ultimately a year away from becoming a key contributor, but he's definitely one to watch for the future.

And finally there's Morgantown native Stone Wolfley. Wolfley is a 6'4 255lb redshirt senior who's seen a decent amount of action over the past two years, albeit mostly on special teams. You have to figure he'll be heavily involved in the third phase again this year, but he actually looked good enough in the spring game that I wouldn't be surprised to see him out there on the occasional regular down, as well. He's likely an injury or two away from any kind of significant playing time, but you could certainly do a hell of a lot worse at the end of your rotation.

The Nose Tackles

The prototypical nose tackle is generally a girthy fella who eats many blockers. Think Vince Wilfork. Fortunately the expectations for this position won't change much under Koenning, so we should have plenty of folks who can do a job there.

The starter for now seems to be Darius Stills. The older Stills bro put in a very solid shift for us a year ago, and anybody who's been paying attention to his social media over the summer knows that he is HIGHLY motivated to build on that in 2019. At 6'1 and "just" 292lbs, Stills is probably a bit slighter than a lot of guys that you'd see at the nose, but he's shown us repeatedly over the last two years that he plays with the power, the leverage, and most importantly, the tenacity, to more than hold his own against some of the better interior lineman in the country. I think our defensive line is going to surprise people this year, and I think Darius Stills having a big year is going to play a central role in that.

Behind Stills is Brenon Thrift. The 6'1 290lb redshirt senior only appeared in five games last year and has only made one career tackle for us, but as a fifth year journeyman he'll provide some much needed experience to the rotation.

The final guy in the mix here is much more exciting: 6'2 295lb true freshman Jordan Jefferson. Jefferson was a late addition to the class of 2019 and didn't have any connection to us pre-Neal Brown, but it seems like he could end up being a real diamond in the rough. Real Deal Neal described him as one of the best interior lineman prospects not only in Florida, but in the entire country, and the fact that Florida State tried to flip him on Signing Day would seem to validate that. He's raw for now, but according to the coaches he's unbelieveably powerful and will definitely see the field this year. It should be fun to watch him develop.

The Defensive Tackles

The prototypical 3-technique has to be very gifted physically - big and strong enough to handle double teams against the run and athletic enough to shoot the B gap and win 1-on-1's when rushing the passer. Fortunately for us, our 3-technique rotation features both our most experienced defensive lineman as well as the guy who's probably our most talented.

Starting with the former, Reese Donahue has been a mainstay in our d-line rotation for four staight years now, and as an in-state kid out of Cabell Midland, there's no other player on the roster who better embodies our program and what we stand for. The 6'4 285lb senior has never been overly explosive, but it's hard to imagine anybody performing more consistently than Donahue has during his 37 career appearances over the last three years. He's one of the unquestioned leaders of the team and I honestly couldn't feel better about him as both an on-field presence and picture-perfect role model for our younger guys.

Speaking of which, Donahue's "understudy" Dante Stills might just be the most talented player on our defense. It's been a long time since we've had any kind of significant interior pass rush, so it kinda figures that it'd be the son of one of our all-time greats who would show up and reignite some of that late-90's fire. At a surprisingly nimble 6'3 295, Stills is one of the few guys on our roster who has the potential to be a legit game wrecker, which is to say that he's capable single-handedly breaking an offense on any given play. We saw flashes of that last year during a Freshman All-American campaign that yielded 3 sacks and 2 forced fumbles, but based Neal Brown's presser on Tuesday that dominance now seems to be manifesting itself consistently. If Stills is truly ready to ascend and be an every-down difference maker this year, it completely changes the ceiling for both our defensive line and our defense as a unit.

The final guy in the rotation here is another late-90's legacy. Jalen Thornton, son of Mountaineer legend John Thornton, stands 6'1 and is a relatively slim 262lbs, but the coaches are already raving about how well-coached he is for a true freshman (which I suppose is to be expected as the son of an NFL defensive lineman). Though he's not quite as advanced physically as his classmate Jefferson, it sounds he'll be on the same development plan - both will receive a handful of snaps for the first few games, at which point we'll decide whether it's worth burning their redshirts.

The Bandits

The Bandit is part defensive end and part outside linebacker, and as the guy who will allow us to fluidly pivot between three and four-man fronts without changing personnel, he's 100% the most important player in Koenning's scheme. Finding a Bandit has proved tricky for us because it's the one position we didn't utilize in the 3-3-5, which means that our roster isn't well-stocked with guys who fit the bill physically.

The one guy who really does is Alabama transfer VanDarius Cowan, but unfortunately it was just announced that he's been suspended for the first 4 games of the season due to "eligibility issues". Cowan is a middle linebacker by trade, but as I suspected back in January, the combination of his 6'4 235lb frame and next-level athleticism ended up being too juicy for Koenning to pass up, and he eventually made the switch to Bandit just prior to the spring game. And honestly, it makes sense - Cowan's as athletic a guy we've had at that size since at least Bruce Irvin, so if we're looking for a spot to feature him, why not the spot that makes the entire defense go? As for my expectations for him this year, prior to his suspension I picked him as my Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year in our internal Musket conversations, so obviously I view his absence as a real kick in the nuts shame.

The second guy in the mix at the Bandit, and now the likely starter, is redshirt senior Quondarius Qualls. Multiple coaches have noted that the 6'1 240lb "Q" has the best “get off” of anybody on the team in addition to being the most natural pass rusher. I still think that Cowan's the starter once he's back, but Qualls definitely has a role to play as a pass rushing specialist on a team that was far too dependent on blitzing to generate any sort of pressure last year.

Filling out the rotation are redshirt juniors Zach Sandwisch and Charlie Benton, senior Adam Hensley, and freshman Jared Barlett. Sandwisch got a bunch of playing time at middle linebacker last year after Dylan Tonkery got hurt and actually acquitted himself reasonably well before getting a little banged up himself. He probably doesn't have as high of a ceiling as the guys in front of him, but I think we can feel 100% confident in his ability to do a job this year if called upon.

It feels like there’s a little less certainty around Benton, not only because we haven’t seen much of him when the bullets are flying, but also because he's been curiously absent from the Bandit discussion since the start of fall camp after previously being listed there on the July depth chart. Either way, I would remind everyone that he was the starter at the Sam linebacker last year before getting hurt in the season opener, so if he’s all the way back to being that guy then you have to figure that his athleticism and versatility will see him involved in some capacity this year, whether that's here or one of the two linebacker spots.

Hensley is another guy who has provided solid depth and been reliable on special teams for a few years now, and at 6'2 232 he has the size needed to be successful at the Bandit. If we're being objective, he's probably a guy who hasn't quite lived up to his billing out of high school, so it'll be interesting to see if a position change helps bring about a more memorable senior season.

As for Bartlett, he's probably one for the future, but at an athletic 6'2 and 210lbs he has a very nice foundation to build upon. Expect a redshirt this year, followed by him reporting to camp at about 230lbs next spring.

The Best of the Rest

So that's everybody who's likely to see the field this year, but we'd be remiss to finish previewing a position group without mentioning everybody in the position group. The rest of the guys in the room are a mixture of in-state kids, walk-ons, and in-state walk-ons. There's 6'4 275lb redshirt junior Nate Green from Wellsburg; 6'2 248lb redshirt sophomore Sam Cookman from Romney; 5'11 280lb redshirt freshman Josh Ritchie from Morgantown; and true freshman Rhett Heston from Fairmont. Cookman was the lone warrior who got any playing time last year, and was actually our Defensive Scout Team Champion during the Tennessee week. As in-state kids I'll always be paying close attention to their progress, but I doubt that there’s a path to any non-special teams playing time for any of these guys this year.

The lone out-of-stater is a walk-on from Virginia named Roemeo Bowen. I was concerned to find that he's just 6'3 and 203lbs, but after watching his available video I was pleasantly surprised by some decent length and athleticism. If the plan is indeed to keep him on the d-line then I have to think we're developing him as a Bandit.