By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
No matter who winds up tonight as the top pick in the NFL draft, the most intriguing aspect of the draft centers around West Virginia University and its quarterback Geno Smith, who is being forecast as the first quarterback chosen, but no one seems to have any idea where.
In fact, almost as intriguing as who gets Smith and where is whether teammate Tavon Austin’s climb up the draft ladder since the end of the season has taken the elusive slot receiver/returner to such heights that he will be selected before Smith.
The draft is held in New York with the first round beginning today at 8 p.m., rounds 2-4 being held on Friday at 6:30 p.m. and the final three rounds being held Saturday starting at noon.
It’s expected that WVU wide receiver Stedman Bailey, who left school after his junior year having shattered the school Mountaineer record for touchdown catches with 41, will go on the second day, while center Joey Madsen could be picked on the third day.
Also hoping to find a spot in the draft or to be signed right after it as a free agent are guard Jeff Braun, wide receivers J.D. Woods and Ryan Nehlen, and running back Shawne Alston.
But it’s Smith who has drawn almost all the pre-draft attention, as is the case with quarterbacks in the NFL.
A year ago, of course, the draft was rich in quarterbacks with Stanford’s Andrew Luck, son of former WVU QB and now athletic director Oliver Luck, being the first choice and Baylor Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III being the second choice.
Both moved right into the NFL and started and performed well, as did former Wisconsin and N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson, also taken in that draft.
Smith’s ability to do that has come into question even though he threw for 11,662 career yards with 91 touchdowns and had one game in which he passed for 696 yards with 45 completions, eight of them for touchdowns.
The questions about his work ethic and intelligence, dubbed a “black tax” that former Heisman winners Cam Newton and Griffin also faced, by Jarrett Bell of USA Today, led Smith to issuing a Tweet on Tuesday for all those who hinted he would be a failure.
“Just want to thank all those so called ‘experts’ who say I can’t be an NFL QB,” Smith tweeted. “Thursday will be a special day, but the work has only begun.”
Smith spoke to the reason behind the Tweet while in New York on Wednesday.
“We all have chips on our shoulders; we all have doubters; we all have people who say you can’t do this or you’re not fit for this,” Smith said to West Virginia Illustrated. “It’s just based on the work that you’re going to put in and how much are you going to dedicate yourself to getting better daily.”
The speculation as to where he will go continues to swirl, some saying the New York Jets might find a way to draft not only Smith but Austin. There is talk that since they traded away Darrelle Revis they could possibly use the ninth pick on Austin and, if Smith has dropped, use the 13th pick on the quarterback.
Others speculate that the Philadelphia Eagles will use the fourth selection to take Smith, while Austin would still be a mid-first-round pick, again with the Jets either taking him or one of the available quarterbacks at No. 9.
Then there is much talk that Cleveland could use the No. 6 pick for Smith, but no one is certain.
“If he doesn’t go to Cleveland at No. 6, I think he could slide all the way down in the first round,” NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said on air last Thursday. “I’m having a hard time finding a place for him (in his mock draft).”
Not that it matters, as since then Mayock has said he has “absolutely no confidence” in his mock draft this year.
However, there are a number of people in Smith’s corner, including Jon Gruden, the former Tampa Bay coach turned TV star.
“West Virginia runs a lot of plays in every game, 85, 95, 105 plays, up-tempo, no-huddle, a lot of pressure on the quarterback,” Gruden said. “They get every play communicated at warp speed, and he has a number of options, even on basic running plays. I just think he’s exhausted at the end of every Saturday afternoon.
“They put a lot on the quarterback’s plate, and I think it’s very underestimated what this kid can do from a football standpoint. He does a lot above the neck as well as making plays with his arm and with his mobility.”
Gruden sees Smith as the best player at the position.
“He can run 4.55. I’ve seen him drive the ball accurately down the field. I’ve seen him throw the ball with touch and accuracy, make quick decisions, and I’ve seen him be dominant at times,” he said.
“They didn’t play very well on defense. They got in a situation where they had to score basically every time they had the ball. That’s a hard way to play quarterback. ... So I credit Geno Smith with not only being productive, but I think his skill set is very versatile. I think he’s going to adapt nicely to any system that you want to run.”
And draft expert Mel Kiper Jr., who has been a big booster of Austin, came out strongly for Smith two weeks ago in a conference call.
“He’s got the live arm. He can make any throw you want,” Kiper said. “He’s a kid who seems like he’s going to work hard at his craft. The concerns would be the pocket collapsed a lot for him. The offensive line didn’t do its job, and when he was harassed, the accuracy diminished and he made some bad decisions and he had some fumbles in the pocket. ... He is the kind of guy if handled properly can be a very, very good starting quarterback.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.