By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
West Virginia’s football program has built its program to the point where the impossible now seems possible, meaning that no matter how much it has accomplished since first building a team in 1891 for a 72-0 loss to Washington & Jefferson it has failed to grab the two most prestigious brass rings in college football.
First of all, it has never won a national championship, twice standing at the doorway only to lose to Notre Dame in the 1989 Fiesta Bowl when Major Harris quarterbacked and then being knocked out of a potential championship game with an unimaginable loss to Pitt in a 2008 regular-season game that could have led to the title game.
It appears if WVU is to accomplish that goal, it probably is going to need to reach the other, that being having either quarterback Geno Smith or wide receiver Tavon Austin win West Virginia’s first Heisman Trophy.
Players such as Major Harris, Amos Zereoue, Patrick White, Jeff Hostetler and Steve Slaton have reached the Top 10 in the voting, Harris coming closest with a third-place finish in 1989 with Slaton notching fourth in 2006.
Harris also finished fifth in 1988, White sixth and seventh in 2007 and 2008, Hostetler seventh in 1983 and Zereoue 10th in 1997.
This year, though, the experts seem to believe that Smith is the most likely Mountaineer to challenge for the award with Austin a longer-shot but still a viable candidate.
Smith, however, says such an honors doesn't interest him in the least.
“I could care less,” he said. “I don’t know where the Orange Bowl trophy is. My parents keep all my trophies. I don’t look at them. I don’t care about them. I’m all about winning games.”
In fact, he went so far as to say he would rather push for Austin’s candidacy than his own.
“I will endorse Tavon Austin. I think he’s one of the best players in the country. I think he is the most electrifying player in the country with the ball in his hands,” Smith said.
Considering Smith is the preseason choice as All-Big 12 quarterback, a conference that churned out last year’s Heisman winner in Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, beating out a rather high profile quarterback in top NFL draft pick Andrew Luck, it is safe to assume he is a legitimate candidate.
In fact, those he is up against for the all-conference team believe he was the proper choice for the selection.
“He deserves it,” Texas Tech quarterback Seth Doege said of Smith at Big East media day.
“I would have picked him, too,” added Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones, who many believe is the league’s best quarterback but who suffered through a sub-par season and returned rather than go to the NFL to make amends.
Smith’s reaction to that is predictable.
“I’m not trying to be Robert Griffin,” he said.
Smith came out of Miramar, Fla., High along with a busload of his teammates that included receiver Stedman Bailey, both recruited by the Bill Stewart coaching staff. He came in with a lot of talent but under an offensive coordinator who didn’t quite have the feel for a high-octane offense.
Once Dana Holgorsen came in and turned him loose, he broke all of WVU’s passing records, set by long time NFL quarterback Marc Bulger, and turned the Orange Bowl into his own personal playpen, putting up 70 points on the board.
He finished last season with 4,385 yards while completing 65.8 percent of his passes, hitting for 31 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. In his career he has thrown for 7,407 yards, completing 65.4 percent while tossing 56 touchdowns to just 14 interceptions.
At 6-3 and now 225 pounds, he has quarterback’s body, tremendous vision, an ability to spread the ball around on the field while a capable runner, if not Patrick White.
Austin’s case for Heisman Trophy winner can be helped most by his versatility. He comes into the season after becoming the Mountaineers first receiver to net 100 or more receptions at 101, gaining 1,186 yards and eight touchdowns.
He also is as dangerous a return man as there is in college football, averaging 24 yards and bringing back 3 kickoffs in his career while also averaging 14.1 yards on punts.
And did we mention he also runs the ball on reverses and averages double figures there, too, at 10.1 yards a carry?
The nation got a look at him in the Orange Bowl when he caught 12 passes for 123 yards and four touchdowns.
Things could even get better for him this year as Holgorsen has been experimenting with him at the Y position rather than the H spot he was in last year, an effort to get the ball into his hands more often.
“We got him closer to the ball now,” Holgorsen said. “The guys that are closest to the ball touch the ball the most.”
Austin is all for the change.
“Just from being in the offense a whole year, I see where the ball goes and last year those guys got the ball a lot on some good routes,” Austin said.
“The ‘Y’ had Tyler and Devon lined up against one person at different times and they’d have just that one person, but couldn’t make him miss. I feel like, putting me in that position, I can catch the ball and make that one person miss.”
The one problem created by this dual candidacy is that the two could take votes away from each other, but at the same time they have something working for them that no other WVU player ever had in trying to win the award and that is a geographical reach.
This year they will be known throughout the Southwest and probably the Midwest in addition to having their reputations already known in the East, which could make them really viable candidates should they lead WVU to the Big 12 championship and a major bowl or a national championship game.