By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It came like a linebacker blitzing from the blind side, unseen yet dangerous.
It was Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall, first round of the NFL draft, and Geno Smith was sitting there in the Green Room, decked out in the suit he’d picked out to wear for what would be the happiest moment in his life.
Buffalo was about to announce its pick and everyone in the building — no, in New York City itself — seemed to know that if the Bills were going to take a quarterback, it would be Geno Smith of West Virginia University.
The words came out almost in slow motion ... “Thheee BBufffallloo BBiiiillls ...”
Geno Smith probably looked to see if there were any wrinkles in that suit of his, maybe sat up just a little bit straighter for the TV cameras as the pick came out.
“... ssselllecccttt EJ Manuel of Florida State.”
No one had him anywhere near the first quarterback being drafted. No one.
Manuel headed for the stage. Later he would remember the moment, about how someone came up and intercepted him with congratulations.
“Geno was one of the first guys who came over to me and gave me a hug. That definitely says a lot about Geno’s character,” Manuel said later that night when being interviewed. “Whatever team gets him, I’m looking forward to it.”
He would have to wait until the next night to see who got him.
That was not the first time EJ Manuel had done in Geno Smith.
No one was thinking of it at the moment, so scrambled was everyone’s brain from the shock of the choice by Buffalo, but Manuel had ruined Geno Smith’s first moment on college football’s big stage.
Again, it was unexpected.
It was the Gator Bowl after the 2009 season, Florida State against West Virginia.
Fate found a way to pit one quarterback against the other.
The central theme of the team, of course, was Bobby Bowden’s final game coaching a college football team. He had won 388 games entering this final game, battled Joe Paterno of Penn State to go out the winningest coach in college football.
Now, this former WVU coach was being pushed out the door so another West Virginia guy, Jimbo Fisher, a state native, could take over at Florida State. Bowden had lost his magic, was just 6-6 as he went into this final game of his career, needing to win it to put together his 33rd consecutive winning season.
His quarterback was supposed to be a fellow named Christian Ponder, who had amassed more than 4,400 career passing yards before injuring his shoulder, forcing Bowden to go to a freshman quarterback starting with the Wake Forest game.
That freshman was EJ Manuel, and in that first game he completed 15 of 20 passes for 200 yards against the Demon Deacons.
Geno Smith was on the West Virginia roster, the backup quarterback to Jarrett Brown, the heir apparent.
He had made his college debut in a difficult situation, against Auburn on Sept. 19, 2009, and completed 5 of 8 passes for 50 yards but threw an interception, and his first snap had been a fumble that resulted in a 2-yard loss.
His best moment of the year had come on Oct. 17 in a 24-7 victory over Marshall, running six times for 17 yards and throwing 21 times, completing 15 of them for 147 yards and his first collegiate touchdown, that of 33 yards to Alric Arnett after starter Jarrett Brown had been knocked out of the game with an injury.
In this game Smith showed his ability to make big plays in the clutch for the first time. Coach Bill Stewart, trailing 7-3, decided to pass up a 44-yard field goal attempt and go for it on fourth-and-10, Smith being flushed out of the pocket, stumbling and somehow managing to complete a 13-yard pass to Jock Sanders in the middle of the field.
Shortly after that Noel Devine broke loose for a 14-yard TD and WVU led.
But that was Marshall, and Smith had thrown only one pass in between that October game and the Gator Bowl, thinking he would not even see action.
Then came a horrifying moment near the end of the first half, Jarrett Brown under pressure by Florida State and being sacked, coming up with a shoulder injury.
“I heard something pop,” Brown said.
Brown looked at the injury in the locker room, iced it, but soon realized that he would have to turn the ball and the game over to Smith, setting up the situation where you had a coach with 388 victories against a quarterback who at that time a year earlier was playing in a high school all-star game.
It was no contest.
Smith was used cautiously against a savage defense, completing 8 of 15 for 92 yards. He carried the ball 10 times but wound up with -8 rushing yards, sacked three times.
He was the game’s MVP, completing 17 of 24 passes for 189 yards and rushing for 70 more and a touchdown on 14 rushes.
In truth, both Manuel and Smith were part of two of the great quarterback recruiting classes of the modern recruiting era, neither at the top.
Athlon Magazine ranked the best classes of the past 10 years and put the 2006 class at the top with Manuel’s 2008 class second and Smith’s 2009 class third.
The 2006 class produced two Heisman Trophy winners and six first-round draft picks, three national championships and seven BCS bowl wins.
It included Tim Tebow — how’s that for irony? — Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford — who will be throwing this year to Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey — Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Jack Locker and Case Keenum at the top, to say nothing of the aforementioned Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman, Greg McElroy, Todd Reesing, Nate Davis, Juice Williams, TJ Yates, Ricky Stanzi, Thaddeus Lewis, John Skelton, Scott Tolzien and Nathan Enderle.
Before it’s all over, the 2008 class might prove to be better, its superstars being Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Collin Klein, Landry Jones and Blaine Gabbert, along with Manuel, Terrelle Pryor, Dane Christ, Darron Thomas, Mike Glennon, Seth Doege, Tyler Wilson, Colby Cameron, Sean Renfree, Ryan Nassib, Matt Scott, Nick Florence, Zac Dysert, Alex Carder and Jacory Harris.
And Smith’s class wasn’t exactly a slouch, either, with him, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Matt Barkley, Tajh Boyd, Taylor Martinez, Denard Robinson and Jordan Lynch included.
In fact, strange as it may seem, Boyd almost was WVU’s quarterback and not Geno Smith.
Boyd, out of Virginia Beach, committed to West Virginia during the spring of his junior year in high school, only to eventually change his mind and commit to Clemson.
It wasn’t until Boyd dropped his commitment that WVU went hard after Smith, who was being recruited by Alabama. Doc Holiday, then on Bill Stewart’s staff, went down and put the sell on Smith, who was playing for former Mountaineer linebacker Damon Cogdell.
“I have no idea about Tajh’s situation,” Smith a couple of years ago. “It was a situation where Doc came down, and he really started talking to me right after my Alabama visit and I just felt like West Virginia was the place for me. I had no idea what Tajh did or anything, nor was I trying to shy away from any competition.
“Tajh is a really good quarterback,” said Smith. “I’ve watched him play a couple of games and he’s done a great job. I want to be better than all of those guys, so I look at their game to try and elevate my game.”
It would appear that it worked out well for everyone, but best for Manuel and Smith, who have jump-started what could become big-time NFL careers.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.