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The rise of Taijh: Defensive end Alston has chance for early impact

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. –  Quarterback Austin Kendall is not the only newcomer with the potential to become a difference-maker for West Virginia this fall.

Defensive end Taijh Alston, who also enrolled at WVU this semester, is seeing plenty of practicing with the No. 1 defense.

“He has to be a guy that shows up for us,” said defensive line coach Jordan Lesley. “He has to be.”

Alston redshirted as a freshman at East Carolina before transferring to Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Junior College for a year. The good news is that gives him three years to blossom as a Mountaineer. But first he still has some rawness to work through.

“He’s never been accustomed to doing one thing and honing in on that one thing,” Lesley said. “He’s always been the best guy on the field. High school to where he was to junior college. He’s got to learn how to use what he’s got, which is his length.”

At 6-foot-4, Alston is West Virginia’s tallest defensive lineman. It’s not so much his height that makes him a weapon as much as it is his wingspan.

“We have to make sure he can get that length in a passing lane to affect the quarterback,” Lesley said. “Whether it’s a hit or a pressure, or say he draws a slide protection, he has 80-inch arms to try and change the throwing lane.”

Lesley said it is far too early in the process to know exactly how he’ll employ Alston.

“We’re not far enough in to know exactly what we want with this guy,” Lesley said. “We’re trying to hone in on the basic things he needs to improve to be a better defensive end.”

At the moment, junior Jeffrey Pooler is probably the most game-ready of what West Virginia is calling its “anchor” ends. The anchor will typically line up on the wide side of the field depending on the hash mark.

“Pooler does a really good job with his hands. Pooler really understands block recognition a little more. But Taijh is getting there,” Lesley said. “You can tell Pooler has probably played in this type of defense before. He’s a little ahead of the curve.”

The third player in the mix at the position figures to fit into a more specialized role. Senior Quandarius Qualls is making the move from outside linebacker and projects as a prototypical third-down pass-rush specialist.

Qualls is finally healthy after missing last year with a knee injury. If he makes the necessary adjustments to his new position, Lesley sees him as a player who offers a different set of strengths than Alston and Pooler.

“Quandarius Qualls has a really good ball get-off,” Lesley said. “I knew the kid in high school and junior college. He’s coming off a knee injury and has some fundamental things he hasn’t done in a long time. Q can be a really good speed rusher if he turns a corner on some of those fundamentals.”

Additional depth at the position will be provided by a pair of in-state players — freshman Tavis Lee (Martinsburg) and sophomore Sam Cookman (Romney).

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