WVU 2021: Five Defensive Surprises
Pre-season camp is well underway, and we are just weeks shy of the season opener against Maryland. We previously named our five offensive surprises. Now, as part of our 2021 West Virginia football coverage, we present our predictions for five defensive surprises for WVU’s 2021 season.
Fans know by now that WVU saw attrition in the secondary for the last three seasons. The outbound transfers left Head Coach Neal Brown in a tough spot, particularly with depth at cornerback. Indeed, the Mountaineers enter the season with only five scholarship cornerbacks.
Brown added Charles Woods last April through the transfer portal. Woods comes to Morgantown from the FCS, having played two of the past three seasons for Illinois State. He elected to sit out last season due to COVID. In his sophomore season, Woods tallied four interceptions, 13 pass breakups, and 48 tackles.
While the team identified Jackie Matthews as the starter opposite Nicktroy Fortune in its first official depth chart, we expect the team to rotate their players more regularly, and we would expect Woods to show his penchant for creating turnovers early.
When Taijh Alston first arrived in Morgantown, Brown talked him up as the best natural pass rusher on the team. Considering Darius Stills, Dante Stills, Reuben Jones, and Reese Donahue combined for 20 sacks that season, this says a lot. Unfortunately, Alston dealt with injuries the past two seasons and has seen only 43 snaps combined.
Alston is now healthy, and the staff will rely on his edge rushing prowess heavily throughout the year. We dub him a surprise performer because we remember well Brown’s comments about Alston two years ago. We also note that, while Brown was happy with his team’s defensive performance in 2020, he also said that the team’s pass rush needs to get better. Seeing him on the field and in a position to perform accordingly will help this defensive line take that next step forward.
Lance Dixon came to Morgantown last March after transferring out of Penn State. As a recruit, he earned a composite four-star rating. Those composite ratings ranked him as the 179th best player in the Class of 2019, and the 9th-best outside linebacker. Most overlooked this tidbit when he joined, but 247Sports’ internal rankings rated him as a five-star player and ranked him as the best outside linebacker in the country (and 13th overall). Players don’t earn that level of praise by accident, but they still have to fulfill the expectations. So far, he has been quiet in his career, and that is why we add him to our list of five defensive surprises.
The change of scenery seems to have helped refocus Dixon. Currently, the team lists him as the backup to Exree Loe at the Will linebacker spot. Loe has been a hard-working veteran and contributor for this team, so we do not expect Dixon to supplant him. Loe finished 6th on the team in tackles last season.
That said, we fully expect the staff to find ways to get their “best eleven” on the field, and, at some point, that top group will include Dixon. As a result, he will earn his fair share of snaps and start to mature into the top-tier talent many scouts expected him to be. Dixon earns praise from the staff as athletically-gifted. He looks the part. While the Mountaineers have certainly seen top-tier production from a series of linebackers, we eagerly await the results of plugging into such a gifted athlete into their system.
Akheem Mesidor earned a spot in our list of five defensive surprises last season. We thought Mesidor was drastically underrated by the scouting services, as only ESPN identified him in its Top-300 players. Indeed, as we said in our recent interview with Mark Rogers, Mesidor had the best season of a true freshman at defensive line in Morgantown in at least a few decades. How good was it? In just 215 snaps in a shortened 10-game season, Mesidor racked up 32 tackles, six sacks, and seven-and-a-half tackles for loss. Over the course of a full season, that projects to 42 tackles, eight sacks, and ten tackles for loss.
Former Mountaineer Lamont McDougle earned Freshman All-American honors with just 23 tackles, two sacks, and four tackles for loss. Mesidor eviscerated each of those numbers. As a result, it might seem hard to justify a second appearance on the “surprise” list. That said, Mesidor still doesn’t receive much buzz. National talk about the Mountaineers focuses on the loss of (Darius) Stills and questions whether the defense can perform well despite that loss.
Mesidor is also rotating from defensive end to nose guard. This might mean a step back in terms of progression, but we would also expect opposing offensive lines to have to choose between focusing on (Dante) Stills and Mesidor. Early effort will likely focus on Stills. Mesidor should make the most of the opportunities that provides. That might well earn him All-Conference honors.
Much of the off-season talk focused on the surprise losses of All-American candidate Tykee Smith and Dreshun Miller out of the secondary. Smith earned his reputation and honors, and he will be missed. But Scottie Young will help the Mountaineers move on relatively seamlessly. In his three seasons at Arizona, Young piled up five interceptions and 157 tackles. In short, he’s “a guy,” as Brown likes to say.
The staff will certainly need to find ways to build depth behind Young, as he enters his final season of eligibility. That said, we expect Young to cling tightly to the Spear safety spot and produce every bit as effectively as Smith did last season. In short, the expected drop-off in production will be minimal, if there is any at all. And Young will be the reason.