MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Even by USC’s lofty recruiting standards, Kenny Bigelow joined the Trojans in 2013 facing stratospheric expectations.
Rivals ranked him the nation’s top defensive tackle and No. 6 prospect overall. 247Sports gave him higher grades than Derrick Henry, Jalen Ramsey, Joey Bosa and Jonathan Allen.
The 6-foot-3, 300-pounder from Eastern Christian Academy — a classmate of West Virginia signees Wendell Smallwood and Daikiel Shorts — projected to deliver an immediate impact in the middle of Southern Cal’s defense.
“I remember Ed Orgeron saying he was like the best defensive lineman ever,” said Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News.
Five years, two ACL injuries and only 11 tackles later, Bigelow is returning to the East Coast, a transfer granted a sixth season of eligibility, hoping to make good on that five-star potential. West Virginia doesn’t expect him to be five-star good — just good enough to stabilize the nose tackle position and give the 3-3-5 defense a chance after it ranked 99th nationally last year by allowing 4.92 yards per carry.
Transferring in just as sophomore Lamonte McDougle transfers out, Bigelow will join sophomore Darius Stills and fifth-year senior Brenon Thrift in the middle. Stills assisted on one tackle in nine games as a freshman and Thrift — through stops at Temple and Penn State — has never appeared in a Division I contest. (The Mountaineers also have been in talks with Clemson grad transfer Jabril Robinson, who would upgrade the talent at defensive end.)
Bigelow is being reunited with Eastern Christian teammate David Sills at West Virginia, neither of their careers having followed the presumed trajectory.
“Yes, I was looking for the best fit, but having David down there weighed into the decision,” Bigelow told MetroNews Saturday. “Anytime you have anyone in a position who can help you with advice like that, you obviously talk to them about it.”
Bigelow said he feels healthy despite tempoorarily quitting football midway though last season.
After an encouraging Week 6 performance — in which he blocked a field goal and made a quarterback hit against Oregon State — Bigelow said he was content to be on the field for “five or 50 plays” and said his twice-repaired right knee felt strong.
“I think the knee is healthy right now,” he said. “I definitely feel confident and comfortable with it and I’ve gone away from wearing a brace.”
The ensuing week, however, Bigelow did not accompany the team team to Utah, dealing with what head coach Clay Helton called personal issues. Bigelow subsequently announced he was retiring from football and would spend the rest of the season as a player/coach. When USC visited Notre Dame on Oct. 21, Bigelow was on the sideline in a polo and khakis.
“After Oregon State, it looked like, OK, he’s getting a chance, but I think he got upset that Brandon Pili moved ahead of him in the depth chart,” Wolf said. “I don’t think he was happy because of his playing time, and for whatever reason, I don’t think the coaches thought he was good enough to play.
“They’ve got a lot of talented guys at USC, but yaybe it was because of those injuries.”
Bigelow redshirted in 2013 and then tore knee ligaments in the summer of 2014. He appeared in all 13 games in 2015 and made three sacks, putting him in line for a starting job in 2016. That didn’t materialize because his same knee buckled in a non-contact drill and Bigelow was carted off, facing another lost season and eight months of rehab.
He appeared in 58 snaps last season before temporarily giving up football. Within three weeks of that decision, he opted to transfer upon the NCAA grating him a sixth year of eligibility.
This time last spring, Helton sounded optimistic that Bigelow’s explosiveness would return “because he can be a dominant player when he wants to be.”
At West Virginia, where defensive coordinator Tony Gibson has a line in desperate need of fortifying, Bigelow will get that chance.
“I’ve been working out every day, just preparing to be explosive as I was,” Bigelow said. “I can’t wait to get out there and play for Coach Gibby. I know he’s going to push me, be tough on me, but he’s someone who really wants to make me better.”