Roster Review: defensive line

Gold and Blue Nation

WVU defensive lineman Dante Stills jogs at a spring practice at Milan Puskar Stadium on April 10, 2021.

West Virginia finished 2020 ranked No. 1 in total defense among Power 5 schools and No. 1 nationally in passing yards allowed. However, it has lost a number of those key makers that made those rankings possible, including two of its starting defensive linemen — Darius Stills, the 2020 Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year, and Jeffery Pooler. The good news is Dante Stills and Akheem Mesidor, the team leaders in tackles for loss and sacks, will be back this season along with a number of talented veterans. WVU also picked up some heavy hitters in the 2021 class.

“We wanted to say after the spring game that we had made strides pass-rushing out of our base three and four-man fronts without having to blitz. We wanted to get better in one-on-one pass situations,” head coach Neal Brown said in early April. “We still have a way to go, but we are making good progress.”

Let’s take a closer look at the guys that will battle in the trenches this fall as we begin our roster reviews on the defensive side.

Dante Stills — senior

For the past three years, it’s been the Stills brothers wreaking havoc up front. Now, it’s up to No, 55 to carry on the family legacy. Stills is the top returner on the defensive line and the only consistent starter from a year ago. He started all 10 games and finished with 35 total tackles, 15 solo. He also tallied a team-high 10.5 TFLs, which also ranked No. 10 in the Big 12, two sacks, a blocked kick and two pass breakups. His best game last season came at Texas Tech — season-high seven tackles, his first sack of the season and a fumble recovery.

In 2019, Stills played in all 12 games and started three. In that sophomore campaign, he tied for the team lead and ranked No. 4 in the conference with seven sacks, and was second on the team with 11.5 TFLs. This past spring, Stills said that disparity in stats was the main reason he decided to return in 2021. He admitted that entering 2020, he had every intention of leaving after his junior season, but he knew in order to be NFL ready, he needed to return and tighten up his skills.

“My goal is to be an overall better football player but some things I have been focusing on is my pass rush, leadership, basic technique, footwork, hand placement, fighting off blocks,” Stills said in April during an exclusive interview for Mountaineer GameDay. “My focus is just improving my overall game. I feel if I focus on just one thing, it isn’t going to even out, so I’m focused on everything.”

Coach Brown added of Stills’ decision, “he had a great offseason. He is in the right mindset. I look for him to have a big senior year and put him in an even better position than where he would be in this draft class.”

The senior was named to Athlon’s preseason All-Big 12 second team and Pro Football Focus listed him as one of the top five returning interior defenders in college football. As the overall emphasis for the d-line is improvements with pass-rushing, Coach Brown said that’s the main area Stills needs to grow this season, especially fundamentally.

In 2018, Stills earned freshman All-America honors after totaling 13 solo stops, 6.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks.

Akheem Mesidor — sophomore

Mesidor shined in his first season with the program. He tallied a team-high five sacks and finished at No. 9 in the conference in that category. He registered 32 total tackles, 20 solo, to go along with 6.5 TFLs. His best performance came against Kansas, finishing with a season-high six tackles, all but one were solo stops, and 2.5 TFLs, and a pair of sacks. He tied his season-high with six tackles against Iowa State a few weeks later.

The defensive tackle joined WVU offensive lineman Zach Frazier on the True Freshman All-America Team. He was also named to Athlon’s preseason All-Big 12 second team. He made one start last season.

“We need to get him to where he can play inside and outside,” Coach Brown said of Mesidor.

Taijh Alston — redshirt senior

After a rocky start to his collegiate football journey, Alston is more than ready to show what he can do in a Mountaineer uniform. Following stops at East Carolina and Copiah Lincoln Community College, Alston enrolled at WVU in January of 2019. He played two games before suffering the second season-ending knee injury of his career. In the opener against JMU, he recorded a sack and a TFL. He sustained his injury the following game at Mizzou. As he prepared to make his return in 2020, he suffered an Achilles injury, keeping him off the field yet again. Coach Brown said Alston was ahead of the curve with recovery, leading to him making one appearance in Gold and Blue last season. He made one tackle in that return against Iowa State.

Alston appeared with the first group out during spring practices and the spring game.

Jordan Jefferson — junior

Along with Stills and Mesidor, Jefferson was getting reps at nose tackle this spring. He started one game at the position in 2019 and played in 11 games that season. He finished with five tackles, TFL and a pass breakup in that freshman campaign. In 2020, he appeared in five games and finished with one tackle.

Sean Martin — sophomore

Add Martin to that list of players that could also see some time at NT this season in place of Darius Stills. As a freshman, Martin played in five games but did not record any stats. Out of high school, ESPN listed him as the No. 1 prospect in the state.

Defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley tasked Martin with building more strength in the weight room and learning how to control his body this spring. Lesley added he’s excited to see what Martin can do this fall and he thinks he will be a great player for the Mountaineers over his career.

Lanell Carr — sophomore

Coach Brown described Carr as a natural pass rusher this spring, which is exactly what they are for upfront. He played in seven games as a freshman and finished with one tackle. He earned WVU’s award for the Most Improved First-Year Player this spring.

Jalen Thornton — redshirt sophomore

Thornton is following in his father’s footsteps in Morgantown. The legacy player redshirted in 2019 and played in all 10 games in 2020. He finished with five total tackles, two came in the season opener.

Tarus Simmons — redshirt freshman

Simmons appeared in three games in his first year with the program. In the season-opener and his Mountaineer debut, he tallied two solo stops, a tackle for loss and a sack. He made the move from bandit linebacker to defensive end this spring.

Tavis Lee — redshirt junior

He redshirted in 2018 and did not see game action in 2019. The Martinsburg native played in one game in 2020 and finished with a tackle.

Rhett Heston — redshirt sophomore

The Fairmont native redshirted in 2019 and played in one game last season, finishing with a tackle.

Edward Vesterinen — freshman

The lineman from Finland was the first international commit in the 2021 class. Coach Brown originally thought he would be able to join the Mountaineers last fall, but due to COVID, they could not get the paperwork submitted.

“I love hope he plays. He is full throttle all the time. He understands football at a high rate. He is a little bit older, I think that helps, but he has been one of the surprises of our spring. I think he might even have a chance to help us this year,” Brown said on signing day.

Vesterinen can play on the edge or interior. He was the 2019 Finland Men’s National League Lineman of the Year. Also that year at the U19 European Championship, he was tabbed the tournament statistic leader — 17.5 tackles, including 4 sacks and 10.5 TFLs.

Hammon Russel IV — freshman

As a senior at Dublin Coffman High, he tallied 52 total tackles, nine TFLs, one sack and two interceptions. He was named to the All-Ohio Prep Schools Writers’ Association Division I All-State First Team. He was tabbed the No. 23 prospect in Ohio by ESPN.

Brayden Dudley — freshman

He was limited in 2020 due to an injury, but did finish with 16 tackles, including 11 solos, one sack, one TFL and a quarterback hurry.

Departures: Darius Stills and Jeffery Pooler

Darius Stills, an undrafted free agent with the Raiders, played in 43 games over four seasons in Gold and Blue. During his career, the Stills amassed 85 tackles, 25.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, and one interception. Most of that production came over his final two seasons with the program — 25 total tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in 2020.

Fellow starter Jeffery Pooler announced after the bowl game that intended to use his extra year of eligibility with the program. He was limited for the Mountaineers this spring due to an injury and announced after the spring game he was entering the transfer portal. He has since committed to Northwestern.Pooler spent four seasons with the Mountaineers and played in 38 games. He made 43 total tackles, including 24 solo, including 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He joined WVU in 2016 and redshirted, making his debut in 2017.

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