MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – When WVU allowed 67 rushing yards on the first drive of Saturday’s game against Pitt, it would’ve been a healthy thought to wonder if the highly-praised defensive line overperformed in the season’s first two weeks.
Instead, the WVU defense clamped down and surrendered just 63 rushing yards the rest of the game. It also did not allow a touchdown for the first time this season.
“They’re fun to coach [and] exciting to watch,” defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley said.
There were questions in the offseason as to who would anchor the defensive line following the departures of Dante Stills and Jordan Jefferson, both of whom led the WVU defense in tackles for loss last season.
While that question remains relatively unanswered, the quality depth of the defensive line is keeping players at all levels of the depth chart fresh, and the results are positive. Six different defensive linemen have combined for 10 tackles for loss across the entire position group.
According to Brown, those stats make sense. The depth across the entire defensive line showed more flashes this offseason than it did last summer.
“A year ago, it was really one-sided,” he said. “Our O-line won almost every day. In this fall camp, it wasn’t like that. Not that the O-line didn’t still win some, or even win a majority of the time, but it wasn’t one-sided at all. That was my first inclination.”
Among established veterans like defensive end Sean Martin, nose tackle Mike Lockhart and defensive tackle Eddie Vesterinen, Kentucky transfer and redshirt freshman defensive end Tomiwa Durojaiye is impressing more-and-more with each game. Durojaiye currently leads the WVU defense with 2.5 sacks, and he is second on the team in tackles for loss (2.5).
At this rate, he will continue to earn more snaps on a weekly basis, but production like Durojaiye’s isn’t considered to be an outlier among the position group. It’s supposed to be the standard.
“With our D-line, we just all challenge each other,” Durojaiye said. “[If] I have a couple sacks, some guys will celebrate me, [but] some guys would be like, ‘We need some more.’ I don’t think we give each other the opportunity to be complacent.”
Penn State transfer nose tackle Fatorma Mulbah was the latest defensive line reserve to produce a starting-caliber performance. Against Pitt, he recorded one tackle for loss and five total tackles. Lockhart – who transferred from Georgia Tech prior to the 2022 season – tallied 1.5 tackles for loss for the second straight game.
Defensive tackles Davoan Hawkins and Jalen Thornton also both have a tackle for loss to their names this season, and they received extensive praise from Brown Monday. As did nose tackle Hammond Russell IV, who Brown says will play more going forward after seeing his snap count decrease against Pitt.
Where some players along the defensive line are impressing on the stat sheet, sometimes the best performances can’t be deciphered through postgame statistics. Sometimes, taking on extra blocks to free up a teammate or two is the primary role of a defensive lineman.
“Nobody talks about Eddie Vesterinen,” Brown said. “But he’s the most consistent player on our team.”
Last week’s Backyard Brawl win over Pitt was the first game this season in which the defensive line was at full strength following the return of redshirt freshman defensive end Asani Redwood, who Brown says returned from his rehab in record time following his injury in February.
With the addition of Redwood to the rotation, eight different defensive linemen played meaningful snaps and recorded at least one tackle against Pitt.
“I’ve been very complimentary of [the defensive line] because we’ve done a really nice job of evaluating exactly what we need and making the scheme fit those guys,” Lesley said. “How they play, [I’m] way more proud of that than I am the statistics.”
In 2022, WVU allowed the fifth-fewest rushing yards per game (149.6) in the Big 12. Through three games this season – two of which were against notably inferior opponents than the typical Big 12 team – the Mountaineers are allowing 93 rushing yards per game.
It’s still early, and that number will likely rise, but Lesley credits his defensive line’s ability to grow on last year’s performance to the luxury of plugging-and-playing transfer players (Hawkins, Mulbah, Lockhart, and Durojaiye all included) based on positional need.
Mix that with some developed talent that is homegrown, and the coaching staff believes they have two platoons of starting-caliber play along the line of scrimmage.