Opponents to watch: Stills, Washington star on defense

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of West Virginia Athletics

Texas began Big 12 play undefeated with a win over a solid Oklahoma State team two weeks ago in Austin. After a bye week, the Longhorns will make their first trip out of state to match up against another Big 12 opponent in the West Virginia Mountaineers. With new head coach Neal Brown and the departure of Heisman-contending quarterback Will Grier to the NFL, the 2019 Mountaineers are a different team than last year’s squad. On a team that was known for its high-powered offense last season, West Virginia’s defense has proved to be the stronger unit in the team’s last four games.

Here are four West Virginia players to watch out for when Texas travels to Morgantown, West Virginia, this weekend:

No. 12 Austin Kendall — Quarterback

Over the last two seasons, Kendall saw little playing time sitting behind Heisman-winning quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray at Oklahoma. In January, graduate transfer Jalen Hurts entered the transfer portal from Alabama, and the dual-threat quarterback landed with the Sooners. Most likely anticipating that Hurts would start, Kendall entered the portal too, ending up at West Virginia. Now a Mountaineer, the redshirt junior has earned the starting job after a grueling quarterback battle with Miami transfer Jack Allison in the offseason. Helping lead West Virginia to a 3–1 record, Kendall has completed 65.3% of his passes and thrown for 871 yards and six touchdowns this season. But the North Carolina native also threw three interceptions and went scoreless against Kansas, the bottom dweller of the Big 12. Kendall, while a solid quarterback, is one the Longhorns can take advantage of by capitalizing off his relative inexperience as a starter.

No. 9 JoVanni Stewart — Safety

Texas was undefeated in the Big 12 last season until it was upset by Oklahoma State in a thriller in Stillwater, Oklahoma, last October. The next weekend in Austin, West Virginia handed the Longhorns their second conference loss of the season. Stewart may have had something to do with that. The safety from Katy, Texas, had seven stops — five of them solo — in the Mountaineers’ 42-41 victory over Texas. In 2018, Stewart finished with 38 solo tackles, four sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. Through four games this season, the senior has accumulated 10 solo tackles and two passes defended. Texas’ passing and running games have looked fairly strong in the last few weeks, but Stewart could put a dent in the Longhorns’ offensive plans on Saturday.

No. 55 Dante Stills — Defensive lineman

Stills had a monster season last year, earning All-American honors. As a freshman in 2018, the defensive lineman recorded 13 solo tackles, three sacks, six tackles for loss and two forced fumbles, which was a tie for the team lead. Stills’ dominance has continued in 2019 with four sacks and a forced fumble this season. Against Stills, the Texas offensive line must continue to protect junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger, and the Longhorns must hold on to the ball on each play to avoid turnovers.

No. 28 Keith Washington II — Cornerback 

A plethora of Texas wide receivers — freshman Jake Smith, senior Devin Duvernay and sophomore Brennan Eagles — have seen action in the endzone this season with four touchdowns each. Fifth-year senior corner Washington may hinder some of this offensive production. The 2018 All-Big 12 Honorable Mention recipient recorded two interceptions and nine pass breakups last season to complement 33 solo tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Washington has performed this year too, with three passes defended and two interceptions through four games. Texas’ receivers should work to gain separation from the talented corner on Saturday in order to make scoring plays down the field.