By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The National Football League draft is upon us again. and while there are no West Virginia University players expected to be taken in the first or second rounds – not an unusual situation coming off a 4-8 season – that does not mean the league cannot find usable players in the lower rounds among the Mountaineers available.
They usually do.
Last season, of course, was an unusual season with wide receiver Tavon Austin selected in the first round and quarterback Geno Smith picked in the second round. Add Steadman Bailey to last year’s draft, and you have a Mountaineer gold mine for the NFL.
West Virginia’s teams from the mid-1950s were probably the pinnacle of WVU’s ability to turn out NFL talent.
From 1954 through 1956 there were 18 players selected with eight WVU players picked in 1954.
But 1954 was only a warm-up season with no one drafted in the first three rounds, running back Tommy Allman the first to go in the fourth round, the fullback coming off a season in which he gained 501 yards on just 88 carries, a 4.4 average.
In 1955, WVU had four more picked, led by Gene “Beef” Lamone, an offensive guard in the fifth round.
But the best was yet to come.
The 1956 draft saw WVU have six players drafted with NFL Hall of Famer Sam Huff, one of the nastiest middle linebackers in the game and a man whose eyeball-to-eyeball battles with Jim Brown would capture the nation’s imagination, being the third Mountaineer selected.
In fact, like last year, a Mountaineer would go in each of the first three rounds, with two going in the third round. All are members of WVU’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
Joe Marconi was the sixth player taken in the draft after leading WVU to a 31-7 record during his career. He split his career between the Rams and the Chicago Bears as a Pro Bowl player.
Also taken before Huff, in the second round, was Bruce Bosley, who made four Pro Bowls at guard.
Huff, of course, played his way all the way to the NFL Hall of Fame with the New York Giants and Washington Redskins and was a longtime Redskins broadcaster, but drafted just six behind him in the third round was quarterback Fred Wyant, who wound up being one of the finest officials in the NFL and who just recently celebrated his 80th birthday.
There were four more draft picks in 1957, but none higher than the 11th round in an era where they would hold as many as 30 rounds, and five picked in 1958, topped by first-round pick Chuck Howley, who made it with the Dallas Cowboys after an injury with the Bears.
Howley wound up being the MVP of Super Bowl V and to this day is the only defender to be Super Bowl MVP and nearly repeated as MVP the next season.
The 1975 and 1976 teams produced five draftees each, headed in 1975 by wide receiver Danny Buggs in the third round and with a real bonus pick in the 11th round in defensive tackle Jeff Merrow, who went to Atlanta and gave them six years as a starter and is considered among the best defensive tackles ever to go to the NFL from WVU (see chart).
Among the other overachievers to come out of WVU was safety Tom Pridemore, who was a ninth-round pick of Atlanta. Pridemore had run an interception back 102 yards for a touchdown against Penn State while at WVU for a record and then set the NFL mark bringing an interception back 101 yards against Joe Montana and San Francisco in the NFL.
The unbeaten 1988 team of coach Don Nehlen was a gold mine for the NFL with seven players drafted in 1989, none higher than the sixth round, which may show how Nehlen could put together a football team.
The 1990 draft added seven more players, however, headed by defensive end Renaldo Turnbull in the first round but, amazingly, quarterback Major Harris was a man ahead of his time, being selected in the 12th round and never playing a down in the NFL.
The 2000 draft was among the most productive ever, led by tight end Anthony Becht, who was a first-round pick with the Jets and played a dozen years in the league, followed by wide receiver Jerry Porter going in the second round to Oakland, where he caught 295 passes for 4,120 yards and 31 TDs.
Also in the second round, Barrett Green went to Detroit and put together a solid eight-year NFL career, while quarterback Marc Bulger became a Pro Bowl quarterback in St. Louis after being selected in the sixth round and cut by New Orleans. (See chart.)
In the 2000s since Becht, WVU has had only three first-round picks, cornerback Adam “Pac-Man” Jones by Tennessee in 2005, and he has had a solid if controversial career; defensive end Bruce Irvin by Seattle in 2012. ending up in last year’s Super Bowl playing for the championship team; and Tavon Austin last season by St. Louis, where he had a promising rookie season.
This year it’s expected that long, pass-rushing defensive end Will Clarke and running back Charles Sims will lead the way, perhaps as high as the third round.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.