MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – With the game tied 7-7 in the second quarter at Penn State last weekend, Mike Lockhart made a play on defense that probably went unnoticed to most.
Penn State running back Kaytron Allen caught a pass from quarterback Drew Allar and scampered 15 yards for a first down before 309-pound Lockhart chased him down for a tackle at the PSU 38-yard line.
Behind three layers of the WVU defense, it was Lockhart – a nose tackle – preventing a potential field-flipping play. It’s not every Saturday that you see a player with a jersey number in the 90s making a play in the secondary.
“[It was] the extra sprints from coach Mike [Joseph] after practice,” he said on Monday.
At this point in his career, those are the plays Lockhart needs on film, and he knows it too.
His talent has never been a question. In 2018, he garnered a three-star rating by recruiting services after just one season of high school football as a senior. Before then, all of his focus was on the basketball court.
“I wish somebody would’ve come in and told me I should’ve been a football player,” he said with a smile.
Still, it didn’t take long for the Division-I offers to start flowing.
He played at Georgia Tech for three seasons and started a handful of games. During that time he jumped from 260 pounds to 290 pounds while learning the nuances of a complicated game on some of the brightest stages of football in the ACC. He earned significant playing time, but he never broke stride in a defense that tended to feel “robotic” at times.
Following the 2021 season, a change of scenery was needed, and he entered the transfer portal.
Soon came a call from WVU defensive line coach Andrew Jackson. Lockhart and Jackson were familiar from when Jackson – then an assistant at Mississippi State – unsuccessfully recruited the Alabama native out of high school back in 2018. Jackson dawned new colors and a fancy new position coach title, but he still wanted Lockhart on his team.
A visit to Morgantown ensued. The trip itself and a conversation with former WVU defensive end Dante Stills were enough to sway Lockhart to join the Old Gold and Blue.
Now in his second season as a Mountaineer, there is a significant role cut out for him in Jordan Lesley’s defense.
“It’s been a great experience for me,” Lockhart said. “[It’s] definitely helped me be a better football player, but also hold me more accountable than I was in my last program. I feel like I really have to work hard and actually grind for everything I earn here.”
Over a year after joining the program, he’s earned one of the top spots on the WVU defensive line. He started at nose tackle and played about 45 defensive snaps on Saturday in what head coach Neal Brown called his “best game as a Mountaineer.”
While he will get more relief in coming games from redshirt sophomore Hammond Russell IV and redshirt junior Fotormah Mulbah, the coaches have expressed faith in Lockhart as the starter.
“[He] showed good ability last year, but now he’s played himself where he can play [more],” Brown said. “We played him at 40-something snaps. He probably needs to be around 35, but he made some really god one-on-one plays, and he made two high-effort plays.”
Lockhart saw his expanded role coming back during spring ball. That’s why the aforementioned post-practice sprints with strength coach Mike Joseph became common.
In just his sixth year of playing football, he has a lot of the core concepts down. Now it’s about keeping his body in a position to sustain success.
“I feel like this offseason, I really took accountability [during] spring ball with my conditioning, and this summer [too],” he said. “[I’m] trying to be able to play four, five, six plays in a row, being able to run to the ball, tackle the player, get back up [and] do it again.”
He finished the game with two tackles (one solo) that show up on the stat sheet, but the hustle plays, such as that second-quarter downfield tackle, are the ones the coaches pull up in film sessions and prospect reviews.
“I think a lot of coaches like it when d-linemen can have a motor,” he said.
The WVU defense allowed almost 500 yards yards and five touchdowns last weekend, so the coaches are cautious to applaud the defensive effort as a whole. Still, there was scattered praise from Brown and Lesley on the defensive line, particularly Lockhart and defensive end Sean Martin.
Lockhart is experienced enough to know there is plenty of room for improvement, but the motor will keep running hot.
“[There is] definitely technique stuff I can fix,” he said. “I wish I could have [made] a couple more plays out there, but the [best] thing you can do is execute and give effort.”