MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The West Virginia football team took its lumps this season, but the administration and coaching staff, from the get go, warned that the 2019 campaign was likely going to be a necessary evil in coach Neal Brown’s tenure as head coach.
After going 5-7 and missing a bowl game, there are still a lot of positives to take away — many young players who will be in the program for years to come got a chance to have meaningful snaps. The focus is now squarely on the future, and this season laid the foundation for 2020 and beyond.
That’s why Darius Stills’ decision to return to WVU for his senior year and wait for an NFL opportunity could pay major dividends toward the immediate future of the program.
The Fairmont native helped spring life into the Mountaineers’ defense near the end of the season — with the exception of the first half against Texas Tech, West Virginia’s strength was the defense.
Stills was named a first team all-Big 12 defensive lineman after finishing with 47 tackles, 14 1/2 tackles for loss and seven sacks. His maturation on the field was apparent — the former lightly recruiting and undersized defensive tackle was arguably the best player for the Mountaineers all season on either side of the ball.
With that skillset returning, and being paired with his little brother Dante, West Virginia’s defensive front could be gearing up for a phenomenal 2020 season, which is exactly the type of jolt Brown needed.
Stills will eventually follow in his father, former WVU linebacker Gary Stills’, footsteps with an NFL career, but with one more season at the college level, he can improve his draft stock while wreaking havoc on opposing offensive lines. The projected starters on the defensive front next season are the Stills brothers and Jeffery Pooler, who came along strong at the end of the year. Add in Taijh Alston, who should be back from a season-ending knee injury, and the defensive front will likely be the deepest unit on the team.
Those four combined for 99 tackles, 32 1/2 tackles for loss and 17 1/2 sacks this season.
If Stills decided to go pro, Jordan Jefferson was the likely successor at nose tackle. Jefferson, a true freshman, played admirably in relief of Stills, but was raw and wore down as the season went on. With Stills back, it gives Jefferson another season to learn the position, rather than be thrown into the fire.
Another quick fix that Brown no longer has to worry about is hit the recruiting trail to either find a suitable junior college transfer or a grad transfer to serve as a band-aid. With signing day quickly approaching on Dec. 18, Stills may be Brown’s biggest coup on the recruiting trail.
Stills filed paperwork to see where he stands in the eyes of NFL draft scouts, and when they returned, he and Brown said down to discuss the options. Even if those results weren’t want Stills hoped for, it is further proof that players are buying into what Brown is selling.
It sets a precedent with current and future players that a star player will look past dollar signs to have one more chance to play under Brown at West Virginia.