Countdown to College Football Kickoff: Top NFL prospects at West Virginia

Sep 21, 2019; Lawrence, KS, USA; Kansas Jayhawks running back Pooka Williams Jr. (1) runs against West Virginia Mountaineers defensive lineman Darius Stills (56) during the first half at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Rob Rang

College football is scheduled to return Saturday, August 29. Each day until then, will be evaluating the rosters of the best teams in college football, including all 64 within the Power Five conferences.

West Virginia Mountaineers

Head Coach: Neal Brown (second season)

2019 Record: 5-7

2020 NFL Draft Picks: Kenny Robinson, DB, Carolina Panthers – 5th Round, No. 152 overall (played in XFL in 2019)

Colton McKivitz, OL, San Francisco 49ers – 5th Round, No. 153 overall


Given that the only coach the team has known since it joined the Big XII conference nine years ago left in the offseason, it was obvious there would be big changes this year at West Virginia.

Few realized at the time just how many changes.

New head coach Neal Brown and his staff committed to the transition, prioritizing youth and fit into their scheme rather than past experience in Dana Holgorsen’s, who left West Virginia to take over as head coach at Houston. In reality, Brown had little choice but to take this strategy at quarterback and receiver where the Mountaineers needed to replace all-conference players Will Grier, David Sills and Gary Jennings, all drafted into the NFL.

The turnover at quarterback and receiver limited West Virginia’s passing attack last year and that allowed opponents to load up to stop the run.

There is no kind way to put it – the Mountaineers were abysmal in rushing the football last season, averaging a paltry 2.6 yards per carry and finishing with 879 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground all year long. Among the 130 FBS teams, West Virginia ranked 127 in overall Rushing Offense, putting up just 73.3 yards per game. And remember, that was with a stud at left tackle in Colton McKivitz, the conference’s co-offensive lineman of the year and a fifth round draft pick by the reigning NFC champion San Francisco 49ers. McKivitz shared the award with Oklahoma's Creed Humphrey,'s top-rated center. 

Fortunately for Brown and the Mountaineers, there is plenty of talent on the roster. Former transfers Austin Kendall (Oklahoma) and Jarret Doege (Bowling Green) each flashed a year ago and return, setting up one of the more interesting positional battles in the Big XII. Holgorsen’s Air Raid attack appealed to prep receivers and the former wideout recruited the position well. Redshirt sophomore Sam Jones looks like a future NFL draft pick and returns after catching nearly double the passes of any other Mountaineer in 2019 (69 receptions for 677 yards) but only two scores.

It could be harder starting the running game given the loss of McKivitz (among others) along the line, as well as running backs Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway. Leader rusher Leddie Brown returns but West Virginia needs its top back to produce much more than the 367 yards and one score he generated last year.

Fortunately, for all of the issues on West Virginia’s offense, its defense jelled after struggling to stop conference heavyweights Texas and Oklahoma. The Mountaineers earned their two conference wins last year in the last month of the season, surprising both Kansas State and TCU on the road with the defense allowing 20 points or less in four of their final five games.

A set of disruptive siblings along the defensive line had a lot to do with it, giving Brown and his staff plenty of hope for improvement in Year Two – assuming, that is, that college football returns.

West Virginia announced over the weekend that 28 of its players have tested positive for Covid-19.

Featured 2021 NFL Draft Prospect: Darius Stills, DT, 6-1, 290, 4.90, SR

Just like a year ago, the Big XII could have a sibling rivalry prove a fun backdrop to its season with Darius and his younger brother Dante Stills hoping to join former Nebraska standout defensive tackles Khalil and Carlos Davis as NFL draft picks.

The Stills’ boys followed in the footsteps of their father, Gary, who starred for West Virginia at linebacker before spending nearly a decade in the NFL. Playing their prep ball in Fairmont, it was essentially a foregone conclusion that the Stills would stay in state to play for the Mountaineers, which is among the reasons why Darius did not generate a great deal of buzz as a recruit despite being a highly productive high school career (191 tackles, including 44 for loss).

Stills played sparingly in his first season on campus, registering just one tackle. His numbers didn’t jump significantly in Year Two either, as he collected a dozen stops on the season. He did flash disruptive ability, however, recording 2.5 tackles for loss in a matchup against the SEC’s Tennessee Volunteers.

It wasn’t until last year that Stills’ game really started to take shape. Playing in all 12 games and starting 11 at nose guard, Stills jumped to 43 tackles, including a team-leading 14.5 for loss and tying his slightly bigger, younger brother Darius with seven sacks to pace the Mountaineers. The elder Stills also registered two forced fumbles, two passes broken up and a blocked kick.

A relative unknown entering the season, Stills earned First Team All-Big XII honors from the league’s coaches and media at the conclusion of his first year as a starter. Given his burst and blossoming game, it should just be the start for Stills and the Mountaineers. Rival coaches and Big XII media certainly expect his breakout play to continue as Stills was named the conference’s preseason Defensive Player of the Year.

Strengths: Terrific initial quickness off the snap to immediately disrupt the center and timing of the play. Often too quick for down blocks from tackles, attacking upfield when his blocker vacates and blowing up plays before they have a chance to succeed. Surprisingly slippery, showing good lateral agility and flexibility to “get skinny” and penetrate gaps, splitting double-teams.

Is hardly “just” a quick guy, showing impressive leg drive on the bull rush as well as the girth to anchor when he needs to. Has the frame to win in the trenches with much of his weight in his lower half, creating quite the ballast. Locates the football and does a nice job of keeping his feet while pursuing laterally to string plays out wide. Pursues with passion, leaving his feet to make diving tackle attempts. Brings his hips on his hits, delivering emphatic knockdowns. Quality tackler with good grip strength and arm length to pull down ballcarriers while fighting through blocks. Seems to love playing the game, celebrating with teammates and showing personality after big plays.

Good bloodlines. Father, Gary, was an All-Big East linebacker at West Virginia before spending nine seasons in the NFL (Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens, St. Louis Rams)… Younger brother, Dante, is a potential 2021 NFL draft candidate as a defensive lineman, as well.

Weaknesses: May have big dog flashes, but is still just a pup, entering his third year at West Virginia with just 11 career starts in 33 games… Part of a big rotation along the WVU defensive line, creating advantageous matchups… Short, stubby frame which may limit the positions and schemes with which Stills can be effective in the NFL, despite his playing multiple roles at WVU. Needs to do a better job of working his hands, relying too much at this point on his initial quickness and lateral agility to slip by blocks, rather than disengaging once opponents have latched on. Good awareness of passing lanes, getting his arms up to distract quarterbacks but has been minimally effective in this regard, knocking down just two passes in three seasons, though they did both come in 2019 and Stills has a blocked kick to his credit, as well (James Madison, 2019).

NFL Player Comparison: Jurrell Casey, Denver Broncos – The 6-1, 305 pound Casey was a nuisance to NFL blockers for nearly a decade in Tennessee, registering 493 tackles, including 84 tackles for loss and 51 sacks. At their best, Casey and Stills are the classic “bowling balls of butcher knives” whose stubby frames, underrated power and surprising quickness and agility make them difficult for bigger, slower blockers to handle. While seemingly built best for the inside, both Casey and Stills have played a lot of defensive end in three-man fronts, as well.

Current NFL Draft Projection: Second-Third Round

The Top 10 NFL Prospects at West Virginia:

1. Darius Stills, DT, 6-1, 290, 4.90, SR

2. Dante Stills, DT, 6-2, 292, 4.90, JR

3. Sam James, WR, 5-11, 180, 4.50, rSoph

4. Sean Mahone, S/CB, 5-11, 202, 4.55, rSR

5. Scottie Young, Jr., S, 5-11, 201, 4.50, rSR – Graduate transfer from Arizona 

6. Josh Chandler, ILB, 5-10, 234, 4.75, JR

7. Chase Behrndt, OG, 6-4, 315, 5.20, rSR

8. Dylan Tonkery, OLB, 6-0, 228, 4.70, rSR

9. Leddie Brown, RB, 5-11, 215, 4.60, JR

10. T.J. Simmons, WR, 6-1, 201, 4.50, rSR

*All 40-yard dash times are estimates

Comments (1)
No. 1-1
Christopher Hall
Christopher Hall

When healthy, TJ Simmons was unguardable last season, I expect him to work his way up to a fourth or fifth-round pick.