MORGANTOWN — Defensive end Taijh Alston took the long route to West Virginia University.
Now that he’s in Morganotwn, however, he’s hoping to make some noise and, if he has his way, put some quarterbacks on the ground.
Alston, a native of Lumberton, North Carolina, was recruited out of high school by the Mountaineers but decided to stay closer to home to play football for East Carolina. He did not last long with the Pirates.
Not long before what would likely have been his collegiate debut for ECU in 2017, Alston went down with a knee injury that required surgery.
“I went through camp and everything was good, but like the week before [the season-opener] I had tackled the running back, rolled and my knee popped,” Alston said. “It was rough for me because I had torn my right meniscus and I had to sit out the whole year. I really didn’t get a feel. I was supposed to play as a true freshman, but I tore my knee so I didn’t get the college feel as a normal true freshman should.”
The 6-foot-4, 252-pound edge rusher opted to leave the East Carolina program and enroll at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi. After missing all of 2017 with the knee injury, Alston was back on the field in the junior college circuit in 2018, where he made 78 total tackles along with seven sacks, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.
When it came time to start looking at Division I college offers last year, he was pleased to get a second chance to play for the Mountaineers.
“I was about to come to West Virginia out of high school,” Alston said. “It was between East Carolina and West Virginia, I just stayed close to home. I figured that wasn’t the best place for me, and I went juco. When [WVU] offered me again, I knew that was the right fit for me.”
West Virginia was in the middle of the pack as far as sacks were concerned last season in the Big 12. The Mountaineers accounted for 29 sacks as a team in 2018, tying with Oklahoma for fifth in the conference. Adding players like Alston, a redshirt sophomore, and Michigan graduate transfer Reuben Jones to a defensive line group that includes veteran tackle Reese Donahue, brothers Dante and Darius Stills and others such as Jeffery Pooler and Quondarius Qualls could help that number improve in 2019. The same goes for a shift in defensive philosophy that asks perhaps a little more from the linemen in the pass rush than West Virginia’s previous defense did.
Alston has already made an impact on the practice field for West Virginia. During WVU’s first scrimmage of the preseason camp sessions last week, first-year head coach Neal Brown said Alston had four sacks against the first-team offense on a day when the first-team defense was “soundly” better than the offense.
“Taijh had [sacks], but we’ve had a bunch of guys have them,” defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. “One of the things that our D-line will do a little bit different than what they’ve seen is our D-line has got to be a force. We do a lot of things to give them edges and angles, so our D-line, our five men have got to stop the run a bunch of times or we’re not going to be successful. Our D-line has got to stop the run and they’ve got to be great in pass, so a lot of those guys have had some sacks [in camp].
“It’s got to be a ‘we’ deal. If we have D-linemen playing more than 40 snaps a game then we’re probably not doing what we need to do. We’re trying to develop the depth to where we don’t have to do that.”
Koenning is getting his first opportunity to see middle linebacker junior Dylan Tonkery at full strength, and so far he likes what he sees.
Tonkery missed a large portion of the 2018 season with a torn groin muscle and was still in the process of rehabilitating that injury during West Virginia’s spring practices. Now, with the 2019 regular-season opener a little more than two weeks away, the first-year Mountaineer defensive coordinator feels good about the progress made by the former Bridgeport High standout.
“I told him, ‘I finally saw Dylan Tonkery around a little bit today,’” Koenning said Wednesday. “I just think he’s getting better and better every day. There are a lot of wise men who say that if you just stack quarters on top or stack pennies on top and just kind of get better every day over a period of time, you will improve a lot or be a rich man — however that goes. I think that is what we’re trying to do and I think that’s what he’s doing.”
Tonkery has been penciled in as the starter at middle linebacker since the preseason depth chart was released in the media guide in July. Filling in the other 10 positions on the Mountaineers defense has not been quite that easy for Koenning, but he thinks they are close to getting a starting lineup set for the Aug. 31 game against JMU.
“I think we’re getting closer to that,” Koenning said. “We have got to because before we can turn our head the game [against James Madison] will be on us.”