MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Prior to Saturday’s game against James Madison, Darius Stills had never blocked a field goal.
Not in practice. Not in high school. Not in Pop Warner.
It would be fair to say there was no way to see such a play coming. Unless you are Stills, who saw it coming in his sleep.
Stills said he awoke Saturday morning from a vivid dream in which he blocked a field goal.
“I woke up around 5 in the morning after the dream,” Stills said. “I blocked it with the same hand and everything. I felt like it was going to happen because it felt so real.”
In the first quarter of the season opener, it happened. Stills blew through a wide-open gap in James Madison’s protection, then dove forward to bat JMU kicker Ethan Ratke’s attempt out of the sky.
One detail blurred out in the dream was a key piece of help from Jeffrey Pooler.
“Pooler was on the outside. He pushed a guy back,” Stills said. “I just saw that gap open wide, reached my hand out and blocked it.”
It was a crucial play. Only a 27-yarder, the kick was little more complicated than an extra point and would have given the Dukes an early 3-0 lead. Instead, it provided a momentum boost for a team and crowd that had just watched the Dukes march down the field with relative ease.
The field-goal block may have been Stills’ biggest play on Saturday, but it was far from the only one.
WVU defensive line coach Jordan Lesley has a goal of keeping his line fresh this season, ideally playing everyone fewer than 40 snaps. Stills was the only defensive lineman to exceed that limit, playing 41 snaps against the Dukes. He said it’s his goal to make it difficult to take him off the field.
“Coach Lesley loves to rotate us a lot,” Stills said. “When I’m in there 3-4 plays, I’m like ‘Oh, that isn’t enough.’ I just love playing football.”
Stills finished with six tackles against James Madison, including a sack. He is already halfway to his total tackle output from last season.
West Virginia’s new defensive scheme is far better suited to what Stills does well. In Tony Gibson’s defense, he lined up directly over the center, known as a zero-technique. An ideal nose guard in that formation is closer to 315 pounds than Stills’ 292.
In Koenning’s defense, Stills plays a one-techinque, which lines him up between the center and either guard. Here, he’s able to use his speed to squeeze between the linemen rather than having to wrestle in a one-on-one battle.
“It gives me the freedom to pick a play it allows me to use my athleticism,” Stills said. “I’m grateful for the ability to shade instead of eating up blocks as a zero.”
Stills is hoping the change in technique highlights his talent to the point that he can make another recurring football dream come true.
“I dream about football 3-4 times a week. But it’s usually the NFL, not college,” Stills said. “Every time I dream about the NFL, I get drafted to the Steelers and I’m No. 54 every time. I don’t know why.”
Stills knows it will take a lot of work for that dream to turn into reality, but at least he’s got a precedent.
“Hopefully it comes true,” he said. “But I’ve just got to focus on college right now.”