New head coach Neal Brown's first recruiting class consists of 19 signees
New West Virginia football head coach Neal Brown didn’t have much time, but he and his new Mountaineers coaching staff did an admirable job holding together the recruiting class his predecessor, Dana Holgorsen, compiled — especially at the much-needed receiver position. Brown added a few late recruits as well, which helped West Virginia hold on to the No. 7 spot in the Big 12 recruiting rankings and No. 49 ranking overall, according to the 247Sports Composite.
The on-paper results are modest for a program that expects to contend for conference championships, but Brown’s Mountaineers finished higher than every other first-year head coach in the league. He also helped raise the profile of the program with some big-time recruits, most notably when the Mountaineers finished runner-up to Tennessee in the race to sign five-star, in-state offensive tackle Darnell Wright from Huntington, and landed important graduate transfer quarterback Austin Kendall from Oklahoma.
Of the 19 players that put pen to paper during either the December or February signing periods, several will have an opportunity to make an early impact. Take particular note of these five:
Taijh Alston, DE/LB
West Virginia ran a 3-3-5 base defense under former defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, and Troy under Neal Brown operated out of a similar scheme under new WVU coordinator Vic Koenning. With only three down-linemen in the system, both Gibson and Koenning prefer defensive ends to weigh roughly 275 pounds, if not more. As a result, it might seem odd to expect Alston — listed as a 233-pound defensive end — to be in the mix for early playing time. But there are two paths to on-field snaps for the junior college transfer: bulk up, or play linebacker.
Alston has already proven capable of packing on a few pounds (he was listed at 220 pounds when he signed with East Carolina out of high school), and as an early enrollee already in Morgantown, he’ll have plenty of time to hit the weight room and the dining hall before fall. However, Alston also proved himself an athletic and productive edge rusher in his only season at Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College, where he recorded 78 tackles and seven sacks. And, if he stays in the 240-pound range, Alston should be a good fit for the Bandit linebacker spot Hunter Reese excelled in at Troy. Reese tallied a combined 28 tackles for a loss and 14.0 sacks in back-to-back All-Sun Belt seasons from 2017-18 under Koenning’s direction.
Jordan Jefferson, DT
Speaking of big defensive linemen, Jefferson could be the steal of this recruiting cycle for the Mountaineers and a true diamond in the rough. Jefferson, a low three-star prospect ranked No. 112 among high school defensive tackle prospects and No. 233 in the state of Florida per 247Sports, is the lowest-rated signee in the class. Despite looking like a man among boys in his senior highlight tape, Jefferson didn’t receive much attention from Power 5 programs. In fact, in addition to West Virginia, Jefferson took his official recruiting visits to Akron, Louisiana and South Alabama. His relatively low profile and his close proximity — Jefferson's hometown of Navarre, Florida, is roughly two hours from the Troy campus — helped Brown build a relationship that allowed the Mountaineers to swoop in and secure Jefferson’s signature ahead of other late-charging programs Kansas State and Louisville, among others.
Listed at 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, Jefferson has added about 25 pounds over the last two seasons and might have even more room to grow to fill out his frame. Most importantly, Jefferson has an impressive combination of strength, quickness, and explosiveness more commonly seen in four- and five-star interior defensive line prospects.
Dreshun Miller, CB
Cornerback is one of the deepest position groups on the West Virginia roster and the Mountaineers will likely play four senior corners in 2019. Nevertheless, Miller is a highly regarded junior college prospect who is already on campus and will practice this spring. He should compete for immediate playing time.
A Georgia native and one-time LSU commit with scholarship offers from several other SEC schools, Miller bloomed into a top-10 overall JUCO prospect in the country following two years at Eastern Arizona College. Miller doesn’t have elite speed, but he has great length (6-2) for a corner that makes him an asset in man coverage. Miller also has the size (175 lbs.) to match up with tall Big 12 wideouts like CeeDee Lamb, Collin Johnson and T.J. Vasher.
Osita Smith, S
Smith signed with the Mountaineers in December as the top-rated player in the class and the only four-star high school signee in Brown’s first West Virginia class, according to the 247Sports Composite. Though most of the Mountaineers' secondary is expected to return from 2018, longtime starting safety Dravon Askew-Henry and key contributor Toyous Avery (the No. 4 and No. 6 tacklers from last year’s defense, respectively) are out of eligibility, which could open the door for Smith.
Smith has a combination of good size (6-2, 205), as well as the physicality needed to play close to the line of scrimmage. His athleticism and ball skills made him a highly-touted wide receiver prospect, so don't be surprised to see the Maryland native on the field early and often. Add in the coaching change, which often shakes up a team’s depth chart, and Smith might even have an opportunity to work his way into the starting lineup in 2019.
Winston Wright, ATH
West Virginia must replace a ton of receiving production in 2019. The Mountaineers return just 47 percent of their receptions from last year’s squad (tied for the lowest in the Big 12), as well as 42 percent of receiving yards (second fewest behind Texas Tech) and only 21 percent of last year’s touchdown receptions (by far the lowest percentage in the conference and the second lowest among all Power 5 programs). Former All-American and touchdown machine David Sills V and fellow standout wideout Gary Jennings Jr. (who ranked No. 8 and No. 11, respectively, in the Big 12 in receiving yards last season) are both preparing for the NFL.
Of course, that means plenty of opportunities for other receivers to move up in the pecking order. The newcomer with the best chance to make the biggest immediate impact is Wright, a three-star athlete from Georgia. Listed at 5-foot-11 and 154 pounds, Wright is built much differently than Sills or Jennings (fellow incoming freshmen Ali Jennings fits that mold better at 6-foot-2). Wright might not be a top red-zone target, but he should still find the end zone in a variety of ways thanks to his dynamic playmaking ability, great speed, and an ability to make defenders miss in space. Expect Wright to contribute in the return game right away, and for the coaching staff to find creative ways to get him the football on offense as a runner and receiver.
(Top photo courtesy of wvusports.com)