MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Quondarius Qualls’ college football career has been molded by multiple disappointments. But as he sees things, they’ve set him up for a chance to go out on a high note.
The setbacks began early.
Soon after finishing high school, Qualls learned he did not qualify for the scholarship he had signed to play outside linebacker at Kansas State. In order to continue his career, he needed to take a detour to Northwest Mississippi Community College.
“Juco humbled myself that everything isn’t easy,” Qualls said. “You have to go through certain things in your life. I was sad at first, but I was like ‘Everything happens for a reason.’”
At times, it was hard for Qualls to buy in to the idea that things were happening for a reason – particularly when he was in the cafeteria.
“The campus was nice, but the food was terrible, I’m not going to lie,” Qualls said. “Have you ever had chicken strips and peaches? Like, on top of each other? But this was what we had to eat, so I had to eat it.”
If nothing else, chicken strips and peaches served as a terrific motivator. Qualls quickly found out he wasn’t ready for the immediate jump from Union Parish High School in tiny Farmerville, La. to the Power Five level of football.
“I learned the level I had to play [at juco],” Qualls said. “In high school, I was just running past guys. I had to learn more moves.”
He also had to put on some weight. Qualls left high school at 185 pounds. He worked his way up to 215 at Northwest Mississippi, then got all the way up to 240 after a year in Mike Joseph’s strength program at West Virginia.
His ever-increasing physique still wasn’t enough to get him on the field often in his first year at West Virginia, and for good reason.
“When I first got here I was playing behind David Long,” Qualls said. “So you know how that went.”
After showing potential on special teams, Qualls was expected to move into a possible starting role as an outside linebacker last season. But his season ended before it began with a torn ACL in spring practice.
“I was sad,” Qualls said. “I was to the point of ‘Man, do I still want to do this?’”
Qualls might have walked away if not for the support of fellow linebacker Brendan Ferns, who tore his ACL in the same week.
“Luckily Brendan Ferns had torn his knee too and was right there beside me,” Qualls said. “He kept my head up the whole way.”
Ironically, Ferns is the one who ended up leaving the program this spring due to frustration with recurring injuries. Qualls could understand why.
“Going through knee rehab was harder [than juco],” Qualls said.
Throughout the course of last season, coach Dana Holgorsen and defensive coordinator Tony Gibson continued to indicate Qualls was close to getting back on the field. It never happened until the regular-season finale against Oklahoma.
“I was frustrated because I was trying to get back as fast as I could,” Qualls said. “But I was trying to be patient because I didn’t want to rush that.”
It may turn out for the better that things worked out that way. By redshirting last season, Qualls has been reunited with the assistant coach who recruited him to Kansas State, Blake Seiler.
“He was 185 pounds when I recruited him,” Seiler said. “I didn’t recognize him.”
More importantly, there is a position in defensive coordinator Vic Koenning’s scheme that is a perfect fit for Qualls’ skill set. Qualls is playing at the bandit, a defensive end/linebacker hybrid.
“I’m a better pass-rusher than I am than just playing in the box,” Qualls said. “[This defense] is a better fit for me.”
When it comes to pure pass rushing, Neal Brown believes Qualls is West Virginia’s quickest player.
“Qualls is the best ball get-off guy,” Brown said.
The speed shouldn’t come as a surprise. Qualls was a sprinter in high school, running in the 100-meter dash and 4×100 relay. Defensive end Jeffrey Pooler said it is technique that makes Qualls so special, though.
“He’s fast off the line and he knows how to use his leverage. He recognizes the tackle’s shoulder and can read whether he needs to go around or come back inside,” Pooler said. “Speed doesn’t matter if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Though he’s won the praise of his teammates and coaches, Qualls brushes it aside. He thinks there will be plenty of Mountaineers putting pressure on quarterbacks this year.
“I wouldn’t say I’m the best,” Qualls said. “We’ve got Taijh [Alston], Pooler, VanDarius [Cowan], Zach Sandwisch, Tonk [Dylan Tonkery]. I ain’t the best. Just one of.”