Mountaineers’ 2020 Defensive Line Preview

Mountaineers' 2020 Defensive Line Preview
MORGANTOWN, WV - OCTOBER 25: West Virginia Mountaineers Defensive Lineman Darius Stills (56) fights off a block during the second half of the game between the Baylor Bears and the West Virginia Mountaineers on October 25, 2018, at the Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, WV. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

We began our West Virginia 2020 pre-season coverage by previewing the offensive position groups. Now, we continue that coverage with our Mountaineers’ 2020 defensive line preview.

Mountaineers’ 2020 Defensive Line Preview

Looking Back to Look Forward: 2019

As with many spots on the roster, Head Coach Neal Brown and staff replaced a majority of the 2018 defensive line production last season. Indeed, through turnover and attrition, the Mountaineers returned just under half of their 2018 defensive line snaps and 40% of the production. Three of the top four from 2018 graduated. That included big 2018 contributions from Jabril Robinson, Kenny Bigelow, and Ezekiel Rose.

Overall, the defensive line produced as well as, if not better than, any other West Virginia position group in 2020. The group tallied 156 tackles, 42 tackles for loss, and 23.5 sacks. As a result, the Mountaineers’ pass rush improved dramatically. And its rushing defense improved slightly. Led by senior Reese Donahue, the unit offered a steady hand. Most importantly, however, with the staff dialing up pressure routinely, the unit had plenty of fun.

Five different players registered over 400 snaps. Six different defensive linemen tallied a sack. And eight different linemen produced a tackle for loss. Simply, the staff spread production and snaps well. The unit, however, took an early hit when pass-rushing specialist Taijh Alston suffered a season-ending injury.

2020 Defensive Line Preview

Returning Snaps and Production

This year, the Mountaineers return far more snaps and production than 2019. West Virginia returns five of the nine linemen registering snaps last season. More importantly, the group returns over 70% of its production, including 80% of its tackles for loss. Impressively, it returns that much production despite returning only 60% of its snap count.

That returning production is led, of course, by Big 12 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Darius Stills. The older Stills briefly flirted with the NFL draft last spring, but he ultimately decided to return. That decision helps the unit tremendously, as Stills can eat up a majority of the tackle snaps, while promising sophomore Jordan Jefferson can spell him as needed.

Darius will be surrounded by fellow returnees Dante Stills and Jeffery Pooler. Pooler, now a senior, made a big impact last season. He tallied five tackles for loss, two-and-a-half sacks, and 23 tackles in just under 500 snaps. Dante Stills, on the other hand, remains a well-known quantity. He and brother Darius coined the phrase “meet me there, beat me there” to signify their friendly sibling rivalry.

The competition should yield more benefits this season. Darius made his biggest jump in production last year. Even though Dante menaced opposing defenses last season (tallying fourteen tackles for loss and eight sacks), the staff frequently said that Dante still had plenty of room to grow. If he is anything like his brother, the younger Stills should make the next jump this season.

The core group will be joined by a recovered Alston, a player the staff hailed as perhaps their best pass rusher. Should Alston prove that billing, this group could prove to be a top unit in the Big 12.

Building Depth

The Mountaineers will again lose at least two starting defensive linemen (Darius and Pooler) after this season. If Dante has a big year, they could even lose three. As a result, the staff will look to build depth this season as well. In addition to Alston and Jefferson, the Mountaineers have plenty of bodies with whom to work.

In fact, the Mountaineers targeted the defensive line heavily for its 2020 recruiting class, adding five new scholarship bodies at the group. One of those is most game ready. West Virginia added JuCo transfer Quay Mays, who has three years to play two, at defensive tackle.

The Mountaineers also feature redshirt sophomore Tavis Lee at defensive end and redshirt freshman Jalen Thornton at defensive tackle. We expect both to see snaps this season.

Finally, the Mountaineers added a trio of talented high school defensive ends. Of the group, Akheem Mesidor earned the highest rating as a 4-star recruit per ESPN. Sean Martin, the West Virginia product, and Taurus Simmons could also see some game action this season.

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