Key losses: Reese Donahue, Quondarius Qualls, Reuben Jones
Key additions: Sean Martin, Akheem Mesidor, Quay Mays
West Virginia's defense performed about as well as could be expected in 2019 considering it was their first year in a new scheme. The per game stats weren't particularly great due to some down-to-down inconsistency and the fact that we were often playing from behind last year (read: they were on the field a lot, often in less-than-idealn situations), but if you dig into the per play and situational stats you'll find that we actually had a pretty good group out there and were especially stingy against the run. The anchor of that unit was undoubtedly our defensive front, led by the Stills brothers and team captain Reese Donahue. The losses of Donahue and Reuben Jones mean we’ll be trusting a few more youngsters than usual, but we return enough productivity to expect to have another strong unit up front in 2020.
For reference as we dive in:
What Darius Stills did last year was not common. Interior defensive lineman are normally resigned to eating space and blocks so that others can make plays, and on the rare occasion that you have one that actually is statistically productive, it's generally somebody at the 3-technique. For the elder Stills bro to have generated 33 pressures (6 sacks, 10 hits, 17 hurries) and 15 TFL while battling double teams on basically every play is actually insane, and it's why he was named preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in addition to being named to multiple preseason All-American teams. He's comfortably the most disruptive interior lineman we've had this century, and if he's able to even replicate his 2019 season in 2020, let alone improve upon it, he'll be off the board very early in next spring's NFL draft.
Mays is the new face with the highest expectations this year after signing with the Mountaineers as a 3-star recruit out of Northwest Mississippi Community College. He has a big body (6’1, 300lbs) and generated 4 TFL and a sack last year in addition to making a general nuisance of himself against the run. We can’t expect him to be nearly as explosive as Stills, particularly against the pass, but he should be able to contribute and provide depth as a rotational player right away.
One of a handful of guys who got some real playing time on defense as true freshmen last year, Jordan Jefferson is by all accounts an absolute monster. The 6’2 312-pounder was a late addition to the class of 2019 but wasted little name making a name for himself due to the raw power he possesses. That physicality didn’t quite translate into a ton of production last year, but with a full season and offseason cycle under his belt he should be ready to start contributing on a more regular basis.
The younger Stills brother had a breakout sophomore campaign in 2019, generating 18 pressures (7 sacks, 3 hits, 8 hurries) and 11.5 TFL on the way to earning 2nd team All-Big 12 honors. It speaks to his talent then, that despite that productivity it still doesn’t feel like he’s really scratched the surface of what he’s capable of. At 6’4 280lbs, Dante has an NFL-ready frame and plays with surprising agility and quickness. If he can pair those natural resources up with some his older brother’s “bring-it-every-down” fire, then there’s no reason this can’t be the year that he transitions from occasional playmaker to every down game wrecker. And if that happens, the Stills brothers give us the best interior 1-2 punch in the conference, bar none.
Akheem Mesidor may have been overlooked a bit once in-state classmate Sean Martin decided to flip to the Mountaineers, but considering how big of a priority he was for us throughout the recruiting cycle we shouldn’t be surprised that he’s already cracked the two-deep as a true freshman. He has a 6’2 268-lb frame with long arms and a quickness to his movements that belies his size. It sounds like he’s a bit more raw than Martin at this point, but Neal Brown has mentioned him multiple times throughout camp as somebody who has a chance to be an early difference maker.
Martinsburg native Tavis Lee is a guy that we need to take a step forward. The redshirt sophomore has yet to see any game action, but he’s been in the program for two full years at this point, and at 6’2 255, seems to have his body in a place where he should be able to hold his own physically. I don't expect him to see a ton of playing time, but I’d like to see him start asserting himself with the time that he gets.
Jeff Pooler doesn’t jump off the field athletically, but he’s certainly been the most consistent of the 5-techniques on the roster. The 6’2 250lb redshirt senior has seen action in 28 games, starting 7 of our contests a year ago and producing 12 pressures and 5.5 TFL. He’s not as quite as disruptive as the Stills bros in terms of creating negative plays, but he absolutely puts in a shift and will be a guy we’ll trust if we really need a stop.
A third Mountaineer legacy up front is redshirt freshman Jalen Thornton. Thornton, whose father John played with Gary Stills (father of Darius and Dante) in the late 90’s, didn’t appear in many (if any) games a year ago, but the word out of camp is that he’s been making some splash plays so far this summer. He’ll need to improve his consistency to be trusted with substantial playing time, but he certainly has the athletic pedigree and size (6’2 265) to make an impact this year.
It’s weird to see one true freshman in line for significant playing time, let alone two, but in the case of Martin and Mesidor it seems to have as much to do with their readiness as it does with necessity. Martin is an in-state kid from Bluefield who was originally committed to North Carolina, but decided to flip and Trust the Climb midway through the 2019 season. At 6’4 281 he looks every bit the part of a major D1 defensive lineman, and he’s drawn rave reviews from Neal Brown throughout camp for his intelligence and work ethic.
Alabama transfer VanDarius Cowan has yet to deliver on his enormous potential, but as I wrote ahead of last year, guys like him simply do not grow on trees. At 6’4 240 and with athleticism to burn, Cowan has the ability to play and excel in multiple roles on our defense. However, he seems to be tailor-made for the Bandit position, which functions as a sort of hybrid DE/LB on the edge of the defense. Cowan registered 4 tackles and a sack in his lone game before being injured last year, so if he can stay healthy he figures to make a big impact for us this year.
Jared Bartlett is a guy that I really liked last year before I even really knew who he was. I was obviously vaguely aware of him, but by the time he did start getting some tick towards the end of the season several of his classmates had already burst onto the scene to the point that he was overshadowed a bit. However, once he got on the field it just felt like #50 was constantly around the ball. Bartlett has the frame (6’2 232 with super long arms) and skill set to help us in a number of spots, so expect to see him on the field frequently, whether that’s here at Bandit or at the Mike linebacker.
At just 6’0 and 252lbs, Maryland transfer Bryce Brand is built a bit differently than most of the guys you’ll see at the Bandit. However, we’ve seen guys like James Harrison with similarly squat builds have success in similar roles because they’re able to play with great leverage. There’s an old football saying - “low man wins” - and it’s tough for a 6’6 offensive tackle to get lower than a 6’0 edge rusher. I’m obviously not saying that Bryce Brand is James Harrison, but he’s a guy whose name has popped up multiple times over the past month and I’m expecting him to be an effective rotation player for us, especially against the run.
Other Names to Know
Taijh Alston (5-Technique DE)
Alston arrived in Morgantown with the reputation of being a bit more explosive than most of our other 5-techniques, but unfortunately we didn’t really get to see what he was capable of last year before his season was cut short by a knee injury against Missouri. Word out of camp last month is that he’s still recovering and is likely to miss up to half of the 2020 season, so we’ll have to wait just a little bit longer before we really see him set loose off the edge.
Lanell Carr (Bandit)
The final guy on this list is true freshman and inaugural Bandit recruit Lanell Carr. The 6’2 240lb Carr is a 3-star out of Missouri and was the first commit who was recruited specifically to play Vic Koenning’s featured position. Carr showed a knack for getting after quarterbacks in his high school days and has been featured in all post-scrimmage articles for making similar plays throughout fall camp. It’s hard to see him getting a ton of playing time this year without injuries ahead of him, but with the “free year of eligibility” rule the NCAA passed this fall, where incoming freshmen are essentially being gifted a redshirt year regardless of how much they play, I expect Lanell to get plenty of chances to stake his claim to a spot in the rotation.