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2021 West Virginia Defensive Review: Part 4 - The Returning Players

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2022 is going to feature a lot of experience on a defense that was good. Will that mean a super senior defense is super terrific?

West Virginia v Texas Tech Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images

In the first three parts of this series, we’ve looked at the stats behind the defense, examining where they placed in both the standard rate stats on the year as well as more aggregate stats. Blame ESPN for taking away Bill Connelly because we could have really enjoyed the the deep dive with SP+, but we had to use what we had to use. Then we explored exactly how much the defense affected teams by altering their averages.

Now, as we come towards the end of the defensive review, we need to worry about the players. What players played and what players are leaving. Before this was a simple exercise, looking at who was a senior, who declared for the draft and who transferred. This year we have the added benefit of COVID which means certain players who were expected to leave have returned. Where that leaves this defense will be seen next year.

Defensive End

The big return, announced, just days after the bowl game is the return of Super Senior Dante Stills. Stills, who was a four-star defensive lineman from Fairmont, watched his brother Darius go undrafted after an All-American senior season and then watched the college landscape change with the influx of NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) contracts and money take ahold this year. Speculating before the bowl game and announcing after it, Stills said on Twitter he would be back. Also returning is Taijh Alston. Between the two players, West Virginia returns 12 sacks, which is nearly everyone else on the roster. Getting their big two back on the defensive end side is huge for West Virginia in 2022.

Also returning on the end side is Ahkeem Mesidor, Sean Martin and Taurus Simmons. Mesidor is a known quantity for the Mountaineers, contributing 4.5 sacks on the season. Martin, a 2020 Big 12 All Freshman, struggled during his 2021 campaign, only registering 15 tackles and no sacks. Simmons, a COVID Freshman this year, redshirted in 2020, saw minimal action this year despite appearing in all 12 games.

Defensive Tackle

On the tackle side, the Mountaineers get to see Jalen Thorton, Jordan Jefferson, and Edward Vesterinen all return. The down side is none of the three contributed much in 2020. Thorton redshirted in 2019, and technically got another redshirt in 2020. He was a COVID freshman this year despite two years on the team. He will be a redshirt sophomore next year, technically. Jefferson, a near 300-pound nose tackle, has played since his freshman year in 2019. Nose tackles don’t get enough love and never have sexy stats but do a lot of dirty work for a lot of other players. Jefferson will be a COVID junior next year. Vesternin comes from Helsinki, Finland and redshirted this year.

Linebackers

Dante Stills coming back was huge, but you could argue that Josh Chandler-Semedo’s return is even more impactful. Semedo walked on Senior Day and prior to the bowl game had given all indications he was done and had completed his time at West Virginia. His announcement took the linebacking corp from a potential weakness to a potential strength.

Also returning are starters Lance Dixon and Jared Bartlett. Dixon and Bartlett combined for 60 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Bartlett’s three-sack performance is in part the reason West Virginia currently holds the Black Diamond Trophy. Exree Loe is also back with the group.

Behind those three are a plethora of young but hungry ‘backers Lanell Carr, Jairo Faverus, and Ja’Corey Hammet.

Cornerbacks / Safety

Nicktroy Fortune and Charles Woods are slated to return and both give West Virginia significant starting experience. Nicktroy was the starter before an injury sidelined him for the remainder of 2021 and Charles Woods stepped in as his replacement. All Woods did in 2021 was finish second on the team in passed defended and tied for first with two interceptions. Joining both of the starters will be Daryl Porter Jr. It will be an interesting spring to see who takes the starting positions and if someone gets rotated over to SPUR or Free Safety.

Safety is a position where the Mountaineers may be thin. Scottie Young walked at Senior Day leaving Saint McLeod as the experienced person of the group. He’ll have Malachi Ruffin, Aubrey Burks, Hershey McLaurin, Davis Mallinger and Caleb Coleman vying for positions.