West Virginia’s football program isn’t particularly known for producing a ton of NFL prospects.
The Mountaineers had three players selected in this year’s NFL draft, including first-round pick Bruce Irvin. However, since 2006, the school has had just 15 players drafted by an NFL team.
By comparison, during that same time frame, USC had 56 players drafted, LSU had 42 players drafted, Ohio State had 41 players drafted, Oklahoma had 36 players drafted and Texas had 35 players drafted.
Obviously, West Virginia has never been in the same class as some of college football’s top pro-producing powerhouses. However, this year’s team does feature a few players who definitely have a future playing on Sundays.
QB Geno Smith, who has the potential to be a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft, is clearly the team’s top pro prospect, but he’s not the only Mountaineer that scouts will be paying close attention to this fall.
Here’s a look at West Virginia’s 10 best NFL prospects.
QB Geno Smith is West Virginia's top pro prospect, but he's not the only Mountaineer with an NFL future
West Virginia’s football program isn’t particularly known for producing a ton of NFL prospects.
Geno Smith is the kind of smart, strong-armed quarterback who has the natural talent to succeed in any type of offensive system. He just so happens to be a perfect fit for Dana Holgorsen's Air Raid-style attack.
Smith didn't have any trouble adapting to the pass-heavy scheme in 2011. He completed nearly 66 percent of his passes for over 4,300 yards and threw 31 touchdowns compared to just seven interceptions.
It now appears that the 6'3'', 214-pound senior is ready to rise to an elite level in 2012.
The Heisman contender has the potential to put together an All-American caliber performance this season, and it wouldn't be shocking if he ultimately develops into a top-20 draft pick by the time next April rolls around.
Smith has the arm strength, accuracy, pocket awareness, mobility, decision-making skills and overall intangibles that NFL teams are looking for in a franchise signal-caller.
If he leads West Virginia to a Big 12 title and continues to light up defenses and put up big numbers along the way, Smith's stock should only continue to climb as the season progresses.
Tavon Austin was one of the most highly touted high school recruits to ever sign with West Virginia.
He certainly had a ton of hype to live up to when he arrived in Morgantown as a heralded 4-star prospect out of Baltimore's Dunbar High School back in 2009.
Austin has exceeded early expectations during his time as a Mountaineer, though. He has developed into one of the most explosive and versatile weapons in college football.
Last year, the 5'9'', 174-pound senior proved that he was a true triple threat who could do major damage as a receiver, runner or returner. He led the nation with 2,574 all-purpose yards and scored 11 touchdowns in 2011.
While his lack of size may be a bit concerning to some scouts, there's simply no questioning Austin's game-changing speed and play-making ability.
Ultimately, Austin should develop into a valuable slot receiver for an NFL offense. If he has the season he's capable of this year, he may end up being a Day 2 pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
I got my first real look at WR Stedman Bailey when I attended West Virginia's 2010 spring game. I remember leaving the game that night very impressed by Bailey, who displayed outstanding explosiveness and big-play ability for just a redshirt freshman.
After a solid debut season, Bailey took his game to another level in 2011, catching 72 passes for 1,279 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The speedy 5'10'', 188-pound junior proved that he was lethal after the catch, and he quickly gained a reputation as a dangerous home-run threat.
Bailey has been overshadowed by fellow wide receiver Tavon Austin for the first two years of his career, but it seems like he's finally ready to gain the attention that he truly deserves in 2012.
If the speedy pass-catcher puts together another highly productive campaign this season, he may have to consider the thought of possibly leaving school a year early.
In the end, though, it might make more sense to return for 2013 and be the team's featured offensive weapon.
Terence Garvin made the transition from safety to the hybrid "Star" linebacker position in West Virginia's new 3-4 defense for the 2012 season.
It's still not known whether he'll end up playing outside linebacker or strong safety at the next level.
At 6'3'', 229 pounds, Garvin certainly has the size to line up as either a rush linebacker in a 3-4 scheme or as a weak side 'backer in a 4-3 front.
He's also shown great range and instincts during his time spent at safety. However, the question is, does he have the true speed and athleticism to handle covering NFL-caliber receivers?
The bottom line is that Garvin has been a reliable leader for the West Virginia defense since he entered the starting lineup back in 2010.
While he may not be a top-level athlete, the linebacker-safety tweener is a big, physical and intelligent defender. He could definitely make a living on an NFL team as a role player and special teams ace.
Joe Madsen has been a key starter for West Virginia's offensive line since his redshirt freshman season back in 2009, and he has managed to improve every year.
Madsen has all the traits that NFL teams are looking for in a center prospect—intelligence, toughness and the versatility to handle himself as both a pass-blocker and a run-blocker.
The 6'4'', 305-pound senior is an experienced veteran lineman who has great leadership ability.
Madsen isn't in the same class as the top senior center prospects for the 2013 draft—Alabama's Barrett Jones, USC's Khaled Holmes, Illinois' Graham Pocic and South Carolina's T.J. Johnson.
Still, he's definitely the type of proven prospect that an NFL team could take a flyer on in the later rounds. Madsen is a hard-working and humble player that would be a great fit in any locker room.
Darwin Cook's 99-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Clemson in the Orange Bowl was one of the most important plays of West Virginia's 2011 season.
That one play turned out to be the ultimate turning point in what eventually became a 70-33 blowout. This example just goes to show what type of defensive difference-maker Cook really is.
Last year, the 5'11'', 204-pound junior finished second on the team with 84 tackles, and he also picked off two passes and broke up another four throws.
Cook has a solid combination of size, instincts, toughness, ball skills and range, and he should only continue to get better during his final two seasons in Morgantown.
When center Joe Madsen graduates after this year, offensive tackle Pat Eger will assume Madsen's role as the leader and linchpin of the offensive line for the 2013 season.
Eger is now in his second year as the starting right tackle for the Mountaineers after an encouraging debut campaign in 2011.
Last year, the 6'6'', 304-pound junior made a seamless transition into the starting lineup and proved to be one of the team's strongest and most consistent blockers.
Even though he may not possess elite athleticism or quickness, Eger has the strength and tenacity to dominate in the run game. He displayed that strength last year by totaling 24 knockdown blocks.
If Eger can continue to improve as a pass-blocker and show that he can handle some of the standout defensive ends that he's going to face in the Big 12, he should enter his senior year as one of the top run-blockers available in the 2014 draft class.
Will Clarke has had to wait his turn behind Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller over the past few years, but he will finally get his chance to shine as a full-time starter in 2012.
Clarke looked impressive as a reserve last season, totaling 34 tackles and two sacks in a limited role.
The 6'6'', 269-pound junior has the prototypical size that NFL teams are looking for in a defensive end, and he has displayed an intriguing combination of quickness and power.
While he may still be a bit raw at this point in his development, Clarke has this season and next year to continue to develop and refine his overall technique and fundamentals.
The big, athletic end definitely has the physical tools to develop into an intriguing pass-rushing prospect for the 2014 draft class.
It only takes one quick look at Shawne Alston to realize what kind of running back he is.
At 5'11'', 235 pounds, Alston is the type of powerfully built short-yardage back who has the size, strength and determination to pound the ball inside the tackles on a regular basis.
Alston only carried the ball 97 times in 2011, but he made the most of his limited touches, rushing for 416 yards and 12 touchdowns.
It looks like he will play a much bigger role in the offense as a senior this season.
Although Alston may not necessarily have the long speed or the initial burst that NFL teams are looking for, he could definitely find a role as a short-yardage specialist at the next level.
If the big back has a strong showing in 2012, he could end up moving into the Day 3 conversation, but it's more likely that he'll ultimately get a look as a priority free agent.
Back in 2009, Tyler Bitancurt looked like he was destined to develop into one of the best kickers in the country.
As just a freshman, Bitancurt nailed 13 of his 15 field-goal attempts, including five of six kicks from over 40 yards. Plus, he knocked through 41 of his 42 extra-point tries.
Bitancurt regressed as a sophomore in 2010, though, only hitting 10 of 17 field-goal attempts. However, he did bounce back to a degree last season by making 16 of his 22 kicks.
West Virginia's offense looks like it's going to stick the ball in the end zone quite often in 2012, so Bitancurt may not get a ton of chances to show off his skills as a senior.
Still, if he can replicate his freshman form, and make the most of the opportunities to show off his leg strength and accuracy when asked to convert a field goal, Bitancurt could end up possibly being a late-round Day 3 pick.
At the very least, he'll certainly get an invitation to an NFL training camp, where he'll have a shot to prove himself.