West Virginia Football: Which Mountaineers Have Best Shot at NFL Success?

Jack Owens@@jackjowensCorrespondent IAugust 20, 2012

West Virginia Football: Which Mountaineers Have Best Shot at NFL Success?

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    With the No. 11 ranking in the college football polls, the West Virginia Mountaineers have plenty of talent as they head into the 2012-2013 season.

    Head coach Dana Holgorsen's team is in its first year in the Big 12, a conference with six teams in the Top 25 and a significant amount of future NFL players.

    The Mountaineers should have no problem keeping up, as only the Oklahoma Sooners, No. 4 in the AP and USA Today polls, have a higher ranking going into the season among Big 12 teams.

    Though the Mountaineers long have had tremendous skill on both sides of the ball, they have struggled to churn out elite NFL players.

    Bruce Irvin was a first-round selection in the 2012 NFL draft by the Seattle Seahawks, and although many thought this was a reach, Irvin has the skills to prove that he was worth the early pick.

    Irvin was the first West Virginia first-round pick since Adam "Pacman" Jones went sixth overall to the Titans in 2005.

    Pacman's career was marked by misbehavior and legal troubles, as the defensive back proved to be more of a rapper than a model NFL player. Jones struggled to stay on one team, bouncing around from the Titans to the Dallas Cowboys before settling in Cincinnatti, where he remains part of the cornerback rotation.

    But Jones has not lived up to his hype, as has been the case with another Mountaineer, Miami Dolphins running back Steve Slaton.

    Slaton gained over 1,000 yards in an impressive rookie season for the Texans but since then has not found his groove. He experienced fumbling issues which sent him to the bench, and the former third-round pick has struggled to regain his form.

    Slaton's star teammate, Pat White, has not seen the field since a head-on collision versus Pittsburgh in 2010 put his playing days in doubt.

    The university also received tragic news when Chris Henry, then a Bengals receiver with high hopes for his NFL career, died suddenly after a truck incident involving a domestic dispute.

    Of these former players, Bruce Irvin is the most likely to succeed at the NFL level, with he and former fullback Owen Schmitt likely to see the field while the others struggle in backup roles.

    This 2012-2013 team has as much ability as any Mountaineer team in the school's history. It will be interesting to see if the trend of West Virginia players not performing at the pro level continues or is wiped away by this strong bunch of upperclassmen.

1. Geno Smith

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    Smith is a candidate for the Heisman Trophy, as well as the Davey O’Brien Award, given to the nation’s best quarterback. At 6’3’’, 215 pounds, Smith has the ideal size, arm strength, and athleticism for the pro game.

    2013 is a very strong quarterback class. USC’s Matt Barkley, Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson, Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas, Tennessee’s Tyler Bray, Oklahoma’s Landry Jones and Smith are all likely to go in the first round. Bray and Thomas are the only juniors, with Thomas being a redshirt junior and Bray a true junior.

    Regardless of whether Thomas and Bray declare for the draft, Smith will have plenty of competition to be the first quarterback picked in April.

    If Smith leads the Mountaineers to a Big 12 title or the national championship game, as the team is very capable of doing, his draft stock could soar.

    While he currently sits behind all of these quarterbacks on draft boards because of questions about his ability to control an offense and audible when necessary in the NFL, Smith could answer a lot of those questions with a strong senior campaign.

    Head coach Dana Holgorsen has put in place an aerial attack that should lead to good numbers for Smith, especially in the many shootouts West Virginia will find itself in while playing the strong offensive teams in the Big 12.

    If Smith can win in the Big 12, enough that the Mountaineers finish high in the rankings and contend for the national championship, Smith will get a lot of the credit, and his draft stock will benefit nicely.

    Look for Smith to go in the first 15 picks, hopefully to a team where he will not have to start right away. In the right situation, Smith will have a very successful career as a starting NFL quarterback.


    NFL comparison: Steve McNair

    Draft stock: Late first round

2. Tavon Austin

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    Though undersized, Tavon Austin has highlight-reel speed.

    Austin is a game breaker in the same way that LaMichael James, Darren Sproles and Steve Smith were in college and have been in the NFL. The 5’9”, 174-pound Baltimore native recorded the most all-purpose yards in the NCAA with more than 2,500 a year ago, as he is a threat as a returner, receiver and runner.

    His size will cause his NFL career to begin in the slot, but whatever team picks him will find ways to utilize his dangerous abilities with the ball in his hands.

    All-purpose yards in college are always a good indicator of a player’s ability to succeed when they touch the football in the NFL. With the ability to make people miss in the open field, Austin will be an asset to whichever team overlooks his size.

    Though there are many receivers that will go higher than him in the draft, such as Tennessee’s Justin Hunter and USC’s Robert Woods, Austin presents tremendous return ability to go with his receiving skills.

    He will need to add some weight in order to compete and avoid injury at the next level. If he is able to do that without sacrificing speed, Austin will be as safe a pick as anyone to have a successful NFL career.


    NFL comparison: Percy Harvin

    Draft stock: Third round

3. Terence Garvin

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    Another Baltimore native, the 6'3'', 221-pound senior is going into his first season at linebacker rather than the defensive back position he played his first three years.

    Playing the hybrid star linebacker position the West Virginia defense uses to combat its opponent’s speed, Garvin has a chance to do wonders for his draft stock.

    Already with good speed and coverage ability, modern-day NFL defenses need linebackers with Garvin’s abilities to defend the many pass-happy offenses that dominate the league.

    If Garvin shows he can hold up in the box and take on blockers, the former defensive back may fall close to the fourth or fifth rounds of draft boards as a coverage linebacker. Though he is raw and likely will not be drafted early on, Garvin is the most intriguing prospect on the team as he makes a difficult position switch.

    Last year he racked up 72 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions as a defensive back. Such balanced all-around numbers make Garvin an ideal candidate for the hybrid linebacker position, as he will still cover tight ends, receivers and running backs while also taking on offensive linemen in the run game.

    So much responsibility will prepare the senior for the NFL, where he could become counted on to shut down opposing tight ends.

    Whether he adds or subtracts weight will be critical in determining what position Garvin plays in the NFL. He has the talent and frame to play safety or linebacker.

    If Garvin stays at outside linebacker come the NFL combine, expect him to run one of the fastest 40-yard dash times in Indianapolis.


    NFL comparison: Thomas Davis

    Draft stock: Fifth round

4. Stedman Bailey

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    Though Tavon Austin is the player that fans and defensive coordinators worry about most in the Mountaineers receiving corps, it is actually Stedman Bailey who is the Mountaineers' most effective pass catcher. After totaling 1,279 yards and 12 touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore, Bailey proved he has a connection with quarterback Geno Smith.

    Bailey went to Miramar High School in Florida, the same high school as Geno Smith. The two are clearly compatible on the field as they have connected time and time again for the Mountaineers.

    Bailey and Austin are similar in that they both rely on suddenness and shiftiness to separate from defensive backs rather than power or pure speed.

    Both are some of the quickest players in the NCAA, though Austin more than Bailey. Bailey, nonetheless, makes up for this with strong hands and an ability to make quality plays in traffic.

    It would be wise for whichever team that selects Smith to pick up his longtime favorite target, one for the good story and two to help keep Smith comfortable in his transition to the NFL.


    NFL comparison: Laveranues Coles

    Draft stock: Fourth or fifth round

5. Darwin Cook

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    The man who stripped the ball from the Clemson offense on the goal line and took it back for a 99-yard score has a shot at a successful NFL career.

    A sure tackler, Darwin Cook is good example of a true strong safety. He led the Mountaineers in tackles several times in 2011-2012, while proving he is not a liability in coverage.

    He also has a knack for finding the ball, something NFL teams covet. If his play in the Orange Bowl is any indicator, Cook could become a playmaker for the Mountaineers this fall.

    Cook will be put to the test in the Big 12, where quarterbacks such as Landry Jones and Casey Pachall will test him over the top. Even more difficult will by bottling up Kansas State's Collin Klein as he remains one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the NCAA.

    If Cook can handle himself against elite college competition and help the Mountaineers to success, he and the rest of his team will reap the benefits come draft day.

    The best thing Cook can do for his draft stock, and his teammates' stocks as well, is win a lot of games against a challenging Big 12 schedule.


    NFL comparison: Antoine Bethea

    Draft stock: sixth round

6. Shawne Alston

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    While teams who face West Virginia will be worrying about Geno Smith and the passing game, they should not overlook running back Shawne Alston.

    Alston is huge for a running back, checking in at 5'11'' and 236 pounds. The senior is a monster who can run the ball inside the tackles on a consistent basis and will provide a solid complement to any smaller, shiftier running back on an NFL team.

    With large running backs becoming less of a trend in today’s NFL where receiving ability is so crucial, the market for a player with Alston’s talent and measurables is low. 

    Alston, nonetheless, excels in short yardage situations, which is always a position of need for NFL teams.

    He scored 12 touchdowns as a junior a year ago, and though he may split time at running back this season, his large frame makes him intriguing for NFL teams regardless of whether they believe he can carry a full load or not.

    If he improves on his 2011-2012 numbers, Shawne Alston could get drafted and find success in the NFL.


    NFL comparison: T.J. Duckett

    Draft stock: Late round/FA