2022 WVU Defensive Line Preview
We continue our West Virginia Mountaineers Spring coverage by switching the focus of our position preview series to the defense. We already covered quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and the offensive line. Now, we move on with our 2022 WVU defensive line preview.
Previewing the Bright Spot
Heading into Spring camp, the defensive line stands as the most apparent bright spot on the team. The unit returns all of its starters and returns plenty of depth to keep legs fresh across the board.
Among the returnees include a multi-year All-Conference player, two Freshman All American players, and a few more with All-Conference honorable mention nods. In total, WVU returns four players here with more than 400 snaps each and three more with over 100.
Indeed, in pre-season write-ups, we anticipate most publications to throw WVU’s hat in the ring for the best defensive line in the Big 12, and for good reason. They return the most talent in the conference, and that talent has already proven productive. With an extra year of experience and preparation, they should also gain even more consistency.
The Starting … Four?
Based on early looks into Spring practices, it looks like West Virginia is preparing to rotate plenty of four-down linemen looks this coming season. Over the past decade, that look is as rare in Morgantown as consistent tight end usage, but we have good reason to believe the package is coming. In this year’s edition of our WVU defensive line preview, we make this clear: they certainly have the personnel to do it.
The Blue Chips
Dante Stills surprised fans by returning for his fifth year offered by the free COVID year. According to the staff, Stills worked this Winter on consistent explosiveness. That will be a welcome improvement to his skill set and take him to the next level as the room’s leader. Stills brings back over 1700 snaps, 111 tackles, 30.5 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, an interception, four forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery.
Akheem Mesidor joins Stills as one of two blue-chip recruits in the room. After the departure of Darius Stills, Mesidor saw a bit of regression during his sophomore season after a truly stellar freshman campaign. That regression was not due to a lack of talent. Instead, Mesidor commanded much of the attention that Darius used to swallow. Still, Mesidor has room to grow. He returns 796 snaps, 70 tackles, seven-and-a-half tackles for loss, and six sacks to the unit.
But Don’t Overlook the Others
Taijh Alston specializes as an edge rusher, but his first two seasons in Morgantown were cut short by injuries. Last season, however, Alston stayed healthy and contributed over 500 snaps to the unit piling up 37 tackles and forcing a fumble in the process. According to the staff, Alston has added more explosiveness to his first step.
Finally, Jordan Jefferson returns 484 snaps to the unit. Jefferson spent all Winter changing his body for the better to better absorb contact at the nose tackle spot he mans so well. Jefferson may not pad a stat sheet as well as Stills or Mesidor, but he will certainly make his presence felt and allow the rest of the Mountaineers’ front to work their way into opposing backfields.
Depth is Critical
At a position that absorbs so much contact, depth remains critical on the defensive line. For the first time in years, the Mountaineers can say they have it. Sean Martin really came on last season and produced well in nearly 200 snaps. Jalen Thornton and Edward Vesterinen also contributed plenty last season. Thornton’s 122 returning snaps are evenly distributed among two seasons. The other two produced nearly all of their experience last season. This group, as a result, represents a young and fresh second unit for the Mountaineers to rely on.
Of the group, Sean Martin contributed the most on the stat sheet, but the second unit has been playing together for essentially two years now. Not only do they represent the core of the future at the position, but they offer depth at the most critical position on the defense.
West Virginia also returns three redshirt freshmen with at least a handful of snaps last season. Taurus Simmons, Hammond Russell, and Brayden Dudley all fit this bill.
WVU also brings in three newcomers to the room. Head Coach Neal Brown brought the in-state product, Zeiqui Lawton, back home from Cincinnati through the transfer portal. Look for Lawton to work his way into the rotation at some point this season. Additionally, the staff brought in two high school recruits in Aric Burton and Asani Redwood. Both players offered their respective high schools plenty of talent this past season. Of the two, Redwood remains a bit raw but certainly offers leadership traits and edge-rushing specialty to the unit for the future.
In total, West Virginia counts 13 scholarship bodies across the defensive line. If they find an edge rusher in the transfer portal that fits what they are looking for, the staff will look to add at least one more. If not, they certainly have the returning talent and young, developing talent to succeed at this critical position group.