MORGANTOWN, W. Va. (GBN) — First it was the knee. Then, it was the knee again. Then, it was the achilles tendon.

Taijh Alston has been one of West Virginia’s standouts on defense in 2021 according to his coaching staff. It’s easy to see why — in his third year with the program, the redshirt junior is tied for the team’s lead in sacks (4.0) as he helps bolster one of the Big 12’s best defenses.

Given the hurdles he’s had to jump through, it’s safe to say Alston is making the most of his opportunity on the gridiron.

The Mountaineer actually began his career as an East Carolina Pirate in 2017, but before he even played a snap, he suffered his first knee injury. Alston missed the entirety of that season, then took a chance at junior college at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi during the 2018 season.

In January 2019, Alston enrolled at West Virginia University — but his fight to get on the field was just beginning. In his first game that fall against JMU, he picked up a sack — but a week later, the cycle repeated itself when he re-injured his knee against Mizzou.

“I just heard a snap, so I didn’t think it was that bad because my adrenaline was still rushing,” Alston said. “But when I looked down, I knew it wasn’t right and I knew I had torn something in my knee.”

Thus, he began the rehab process once again. The long road of rehabilitation brought him right up through the offseason, and by the summer, he was running again.

Alston was back preparing for football season as he was going through some non-contact drills. One day, he was back pedaling, and again, something didn’t feel right.

“I planted on my achilles and it felt like somebody had kicked me in the back of it, so I had torn my achilles and that was another setback,” Alston said. “So I just had to just grind every single day and, like, not give up and have that fighting mentality.”

That grind to return culminated at the end of the 2020 season, when he finally made his third appearance in the Old Gold and Blue at Iowa State. After that, he got a full offseason and fall camp — his first time doing so at West Virginia.

Five weeks into 2021, he has already more than doubled his Division I game experience. Alston’s sample size has already yielded impressive results in 2021, topping some of the Mountaineers’ most important defensive statistical categories — but he and his coaching staff think he has yet to scratch the surface.

“If you watch him play, there are still a lot of things that he fundamentally playing a five-technique at this level, he still has to work on,” said WVU defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley. “But what he makes up for is how hard he plays, and to a point of wreckless sometimes, which is fine at that position, but that’s a guy that you’ll see as the season goes on…and the speed of that starts to slow down as he starts to stack games, he’ll be a lot better. He’ll be a guy that continues to takes steps as the season goes on.”

That effort level comes from an understandable place. Three times has Alston’s career been unexpectedly halted by serious injuries — just at West Virginia, that has amounted to 19 total missed games.

Even before West Virginia, though, he struggled with his time away from the field. Alston has been forced multiple times to weigh the possibility of giving the game of football up, which put him in a dark place. He says he turned to God to help him through it, and turned that into motivation to get back on the field.

Ultimately, his love of the game of football outweighed everything, and it got him back in a three-point stance.

“I know that I can play at this level and I wasn’t going to let an injury determine my career, and I wasn’t going to let it hold me back…and I just kept that mindset every single day, and I just worked as hard as I could and controlled what I can control,” he said.

Needless to say, his long road to the 2021 campaign has given Alston some unexpected lessons — but he’s taking them to heart as he knows the risks of playing football.

“This season is very important to me and it makes me very appreciative of every rep I get, because I know it can all be gone tomorrow,” Alston said.