Last year, we started our coverage of the Mountaineers’ 2019 season by predicting five players in each position group who would favorably surprise fans. You can view those predictions here. Absent an injury to Charlie Benton in the season opener, we predicted correctly on all of those players. This season, the list has been harder to build. See, the Mountaineers are transitioning to a new defensive set under Vic Koenning. The 4-2-5 replaces Tony Gibson’s 3-3 stack. And Koenning strongly favors splitting snaps between multiple players at each position. Nonetheless, we predict the 2019 Mountaineers’ five defensive surprises.
2019 Mountaineers’ Five Defensive Surprises
To many, Osita Smith represented the “gem” of the Mountaineers’ 2019 recruiting class. Unfortunately, he seems to be taking the junior college route, and he did not enroll with his classmates. That said, the “other” Smith, Tykee, flashed just as much, if not more, potential in his senior season. Smith finished his season strong and earned a 4-star rating from Rivals. Fortunately for Smith, who was recruited to play safety, the position emerged as one of immediate need after off-season attrition in the group. Enter Tykee Smith. In recent press conferences, Head Coach Neal Brown told media that Smith is a “player.” Expect Smith to make early contributions at either the free or cat safety positions.
After assessing the roster upon the conclusion of Spring practices, the coaching staff saw defensive line depth as an area of need. They addressed this immediately by adding Reuben Jones, a graduate transfer from Michigan. Since then, the staff has raved about Jones. In one of his press conferences, Koenning compared adding Jones to “getting an IV when you’re dehydrated.” Koenning offered big words for someone who projects to be a big player this season. Expect to see Jones offer depth and stability to the defensive line early this season.
Since Darius Stills’ arrival on campus, fans have given more attention to his younger brother, Dante. In recent interviews with both of the Stills brothers, they admit as much. Dante Stills even added that Darius has been overlooked much of his life. The younger Stills brother confessed that he has no idea why Darius has been doubted so often. That said, it doesn’t appear that the current staff is overlooking Darius.
Defensive line coach Jordan Lesley said, “I don’t think [Darius has] tapped half of what the player he can be, but he’s getting there. He’s getting there quick.” Getting there quick is an idea that fans ought to recall throughout the season, because the older Stills offers explosiveness at nose guard. If the pass rushing specialists have even half of the success they should, Darius’ strength in handling the center of the line will be a larger part of the reason why. Expect the older Stills brother to handle his share this season.
The relatively restrained Koenning told media in a recent press conference that one player in particular is “going to be a guy [opposing teams] probably need to find.” He added, “I would say by the middle of the year they’re going to try to find out where he’s at.” That’s how highly Koenning and his staff revere the play of linebacker Josh Chandler. Fans should expect him to provide dynamic and disruptive contributions from the will linebacker spot.
Last, but certainly not least, we offer fans a name they will hear a bunch during the 2019 season: Quondarius Qualls. Qualls has been limited since coming to Morgantown by injuries, and he has been previously buried on the depth chart as a result. But Koenning and his staff fought over which position group would get the most use out of Qualls in the off-season. After assessing his skill set, they decided Qualls worked best at bandit.
Bandit represents an unfamiliar position to Mountaineer fans. But It’s an extremely important spot in the 4-2-5, however. Bandit requires versatility and speed, as the defense often asks the bandit to pressure the quarterback or contain the run on his side of the field. Qualls impressed the staff so much, that he supplanted Vandarius Cowan as the presumptive starter at the position. Based on his skill set and anticipated usage, fans should expect Qualls to lead the team in sacks this season. That makes him the biggest name on our list of the Mountaineers’ five defensive surprises.
Cowan’s name is hard to include as a “surprise” defensive player, as media and fans ask about him routinely. After Spring, when Koenning challenged Cowan by name, fans worried that Cowan would somehow be a “bust” at the position. But Cowan has responded well, and, as much as Qualls has impressed, the staff assures us that they intend to distribute snaps at bandit pretty evenly. The two are essentially neck-and-neck for what many consider to be the most important position in the 4-2-5. Thus, even though Qualls is now the presumptive starter at bandit, this designation means very little, as both will rotate often, keeping both players explosive.
The staff also offers the name of Taijh Alston when asked about potential big-time defensive contributors this season. Also falls just outside out of our five defensive surprises. And we mean just outside. If Qualls does not lead the team in sacks this season, Alston likely will.
2019 Mountaineers’ Five Defense Surprises
Reviewing our list of the 2019 Mountaineers’ five defensive surprises, we can’t help but notice that two of those players (and one of our honorable mentions) play on the offensive line. And that list does not include Reese Donahue or Dante Stills. There’s no doubt that West Virginia has had trouble finding consistently explosive play from its defensive line in recent years. But fans should consider this unit one of the team’s biggest strengths going into 2019. That fact will surprise many as the season begins. But as it wears on, the depth of that group will shine.