The Times West Virginian

Bob Herzel

February 23, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: WVU stars look to shine at combine

MORGANTOWN — There is something terribly deceiving about the way we view our athletes, which in part is the fault of those of us who make our livings portraying them to our readers and viewers.

Their existence is seen to be one of excitement and glamor, performing before packed houses and on national television with lucrative contracts either theirs or the goal of those performances, with luxury automobiles and beautiful women filling their spare time.

While there is a basis in fact for this, what is missed is what goes into getting to this point, the grunts and the groans, the long, hard hours of sweat and pain, and the endless competition to reach a spot at the top.

This weekend we all get to take a peek inside the latter as the NFL holds its annual pre-draft scouting combine, with four West Virginia University players trying to carve out their place in the NFL draft.

This weekend can be a life-changing journey for center Joey Madsen, quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, each in position to attain a dream but each knowing that he cannot afford to slip up.

It began Friday for Madsen, who is probably the one who has the most to gain out of the combine. A solid center who certainly had to have done enough to catch scouts’ eyes with his performance to gain an invitation, he carries questions raised about his position, his physical assets because his arms are shorter than the professionals would like and there had to be discipline questions raised by his failure to stay eligible for the Pinstripe Bowl, which should have been his college farewell game.

Madsen’s arms did come in at just 30 inches, which is short, but he stood 6-3 and weighed 310 pounds.

“I just want the opportunity,” Madsen said in Indianapolis before working out. “It doesn’t matter where the opportunity comes, as long as it gets here. I want to prove myself.”

The NFL scouts don’t leave a lot of room for error, the way they test the prospects in all aspects of life from intelligence to personality to performance, and you can go from a first-round selection to a lower-round pick by messing up in any area.

The player with the most to gain would seem to be Smith, who comes along in a year when quarterbacks are not the premium they were last season when the NFL grabbed off Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.

Smith could well be the first quarterback chosen, probably in the first round, and much to his credit he has decided to prove himself to those who may be questioning him by throwing at the combine, something a great many players in the past have elected not to do.

In a recent radio interview in Kansas City with KCSP, Smith explained his decision.

“Honestly just a matter of me going out and competing, being able to show scouts and coaches what I can do. Obviously it’s in shorts and just a little bit of who I am as a player, but still good to allow them to see me throw in live action against other quarterbacks, and they will be able to kind of compare me based on them and vice versa. It’s good to be out there and compete and showcase my talents.”

And the fact that other quarterbacks have said thanks but no thanks to throwing?

“Obviously I’ve been aware of that and it’s just one of those decisions, one situation, where I wanted to go and pretty much solidify that and shut everyone up, but my agent, coaches and people close to me held me back on that. They can’t really hold me back from going out and throwing; that’s one of my strong suits and I believe that you do well when the lights are on and the combine is a perfect opportunity for me to go out there and showcase my talents.

“I’m aware that other quarterbacks may not have thrown but those are their decisions. It’s not to say that they are not competitors themselves, but it’s just something that they came to the conclusion of — with their team of agents and people close to them. In my case, I made this decision and I told everyone that I’m tired of this speculation and I’m ready to go out there and try to end all of that.”

That competitive attitude alone ought to score points for Smith.

The other Mountaineer who has much to prove is Bailey, who left after his junior year and whose pass-catching skills and route running cannot be questioned but whose size and speed have the NFL scouts just wondering where he belongs in the draft.

That he belongs is not in question, but should he go as high as the second round or does he fit into a lower slot because there are some questions about those assets?

As for Austin, the more people see of him, the more amazed they are at his skills, and it would not surprise if this man who can receive, run, return kicks and punts doesn’t find his way into the first round after they get an eyeful of him at the combine.

“He is a very explosive player,” said Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, who compared him to his own Percy Harvin. “It’s amazing what he does for his size. He’s a pretty unique football player.”

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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