Spring Preview: Will West Virginia’s Defensive Line Hold Strong?
As we rapidly approach the West Virginia Mountaineers’ Spring Game on April 24, we continue our Spring preview series. We started with a general overview. Then, we previewed the quarterbacks, running backs, offensive line, and pass catchers. Now, we move to the defense. As fans know, the Mountaineers’ defense outpaced all expectations. The defensive line anchored that performance. This Spring, the question remains: will West Virginia’s defensive line hold strong?
Previewing West Virginia’s Defensive Line
Despite the stellar performance in 2020, we ask our opening question for one main reason. The team–and fans–will miss Darius Stills tremendously, as he finished his career going from overlooked to All-American. As a result, we wonder aloud whether the unit can repeated its 2020 performance without him. So far, all indications point to a resounding yes.
Returning the Majority
Why? Well, West Virginia’s defensive line returns most of its bodies and the vast majority of its production. Stills proved to be a huge cog to the defense, of course. His drawing double teams allowed others on the unit to shine. That said, the defensive line adds three new faces for 2021 after losing only two (Stills and Quay Mays). Unlike Stills, however, Mays’ contributions were minimal, as he accounted for just over 100 snaps in his time at West Virginia and piled up only four tackles last season.
In total, the line returns over 75% of its statistical production and nearly 70% of its snaps from 2020 going into Spring. And for Head Coach Neal Brown, the production from 2020, though good, was not enough. First and foremost, Brown told the media in March that the “pass rush needs to be better.” With the majority of his production and bodies returning, Brown could get his wish.
Finding The Best Eleven
Brown’s focus this Spring remains simple: he wants to put the best eleven players on the field as often as he can. As a result, West Virginia has been experimenting with position groups to develop versatility, which Brown says will be key going into 2021. As a result, we will explore this common theme through our defensive position group preview. For the defensive line, this means that the staff will rotate players in multiple ways.
First, some players who most naturally fit at an end position will rotate to the inside. While Jordan Jefferson returns the most experience and production among the three listed defensive tackles, Brown told the media that other players, like Akheem Mesidor, Dante Stills, and Sean Martin, can slide into a tackle position. Indeed, in the glimpses the Mountaineers have offered to the media, we see just that.
Second, some players recruited to play the bandit position will see time on the line. Recall, of course, that West Virginia runs a 4-2-5 base defense. The defense itself allows for versatility. The first grouping in that defense typically consists of three down linemen and a “hybrid” (in Brown’s parlance, the bandit) who sometimes plays as an extra linemen and sometimes plays as a third (or fourth) linebacker. West Virginia sometimes plays with four traditional down linemen, too, in these cases either sticking with four defensive backs or two linebackers. So far, Taurus Simmons and Lanell Carr represent strong examples of players who could easily fit the bandit roles but have seen the most burn as down linemen.
Undoubtedly, versatility like this will improve West Virginia’s front. A single traditional pass-rushing end sliding inside can cause enough fits for opposing offenses. By developing three to four versatile players (most with high motors and NFL futures), the Mountaineers could significantly increase its pass rush simply by keeping offensive lines guessing.
Balance On West Virginia’s Defensive Line
The Mountaineers also benefit from a balanced position group in terms of experience. West Virginia’s defensive line features plenty of veteran leadership. Indeed, three of the twelve scholarship linemen currently enrolled (not including incoming freshman Hammond Russell, who will enroll over the Summer) enter 2021 as seniors. Two of those players–Stills and Jeffery Pooler-accumulated over 1,000 snaps over the last several seasons. Two others–Jefferson and Tavis Lee–return as juniors. Another four, including Mesidor and Jalen Thornton, return as sophomores. Finally, three join the unit as freshmen (including redshirt freshmen).
We anticipate that we will see plenty of rotation during Spring through the Spring game at all spots on the line. Jefferson slots into the center as the presumptive starter. Thornton will be his primary backup, and he will add to the 70 snaps he saw last season. Meanwhile, freshman Edward Vesterinen could surprise here. Brown certainly speaks well of him, admitting his own surprise at how well he moves.
Stills and Alston will likely receive the majority of the first-team work, as Pooler has been limited for most of the Spring. Mesidor, however, will continue to fight for more than the 215 snaps he saw as a true freshman. West Virginia native Martin will also compete heavily for time. And while we won’t see any new faces (other than Vesterinen and fellow freshman Brandon Dudley) this Spring, we would not be surprised to see the staff add a body to the room via the transfer portal during the Summer.