By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Let us understand something before we move forward into West Virginia University’s next football season.
The Mountaineers can win without Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin.
Certainly, they have done so in the past, and, as an exclamation on the true value of world-class receivers, they had both last year and finished at 7-6, which is hardly a record of which to be proud.
So, while receivers like that are nice weapons to have in one’s arsenal, they are only part of it, and, to be quite honest, are not the most important parts.
One person who is aware of this is Connor Arlia.
He learned it up close and personal, for he was here last year and is, in fact, the most experienced of all the returning receivers as a junior, and returns with seven catches, including three in one game against Oklahoma State, a good day’s work for a walk-on playing on a team with Bailey and Austin.
“Obviously, we lost some great guys. Everyone knows that,” he said. “We can’t worry about that. We can only control what we do every day in the classroom, what we do every day in the weight room, what we do every day on the field and in the meeting rooms.”
That is his approach, and it’s one he followed since he decided to try his skills at WVU out of Weirton, catching the attention of offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson last year.
‘’He works extremely hard, and it matters a lot,’’ Dawson said then. “’The bottom line is he’s going to find a way to be successful. Maybe he isn’t the fastest, and maybe he isn’t this and maybe he isn’t that. ... He’s always asking, ‘Coach, what can I do to get better?’ He works hard. He’s just a great team player.’’
It’s that team player thing that allows you to suspect that he can fit in even if he isn’t Bailey or Austin.
He is driven and he has shown it the way he came back last year from a devastating accident while at the Orange Bowl getting ready to play Clemson.
During a team beach party outside the Fountainbleau Hotel in Miami Beach, he suffered a broken leg and bruised lung in jet skiing accident.
“It is what it is. It’s an accident. Any time you involve motorized vehicles in any capacity, things can happen, and it just happened to a kid that has been riding jet skis his whole life,” coach Holgorsen said at the time, admitting that Arlia had put himself in position to be used if needed by improving so much during the year.
He didn’t let the accident sidetrack him last season as he came back and earned playing time and put himself in position to play this year.
It’s a new role, a more important role.
“To be honest, it feels a little different,” he admitted. “I do know more, and I do have that experience. I have more confidence, and I feel personally I know what I’m doing. I need to just keep trying and work harder.
“Today, for example, I missed a block on a screen, and it was the second time I missed it this spring. That was the second time I missed it this spring. I need to work on that.”
Arlia represents the entire receiving corps, which has only Jordan Thompson, a true freshman last year, with more catches than Arlia a year ago returning.
“As a whole, we’re going hard on every play. Inexperience-wise, we’re making little mistakes, maybe running the routes wrong, but we’re doing it full go and that’s the good side of it. If you go as hard as you can, that can make up for a mistake you make,” he said.
Certainly, they come into the year with a clean slate, fans not knowing much about them as a group.
“I like that,” Arlia said. “I personally — and I think this team – have embraced the underdog role. I have been a huge fan of that.
“That’s probably what we are this year. People don’t know a lot about us. We are going to put in the work and effort in what we need to do every day to improve. Hopefully, God willing, we’ll show some people what we have this year.”
In a way, Arlia feels blessed not having Austin and Bailey around.
“Collectively, having those guys last year you felt you could take plays off because Tavon or Stedman was going to make an 80-yard play for a touchdown,” he said. “We can’t do that this year. We need every guy, all 11 guys, to do their job and do it as hard as they can on every play.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.