By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
In the first game of the new season, West Virginia University’s first pass was completed to Daikiel Shorts, not to Tavon Austin or Stedman Bailey, and that should have said something about how the Mountaineers are starting over this year.
In the first game of the season, a freshman named Wendell Smallwood scored the winning touchdown on a running play, not Austin or Bailey on a pass, and that, too, should have said something about how the Mountaineers are starting over this year.
But Shorts and Smallwood’s opening-day successes – and Shorts added to his by being the team’s leading receiver with 7 receptions – represent a far more interesting story than just that they are budding stars on the college football scene.
The real story was brought to light on Tuesday night during player interviews when Smallwood entered the team room wearing an Eastern Christian Academy T-shirt, a shirt worn proudly to represent the school that sent him and his teammate Shorts to West Virginia.
Now you may not recognize the name Eastern Christian Academy any more than you recognize the names Daikiel Shorts and Wendell Smallwood, but perhaps you should for the school was featured in Sports Illustrated.
To be perfectly honest, a year ago the school best would be referred to as a “virtual” school, one built on a football foundation and a dream.
It all started in Bear, Del., at Red Lion Christian Academy. That where Shorts and Smallwood played until their senior year.
“After football season my junior year, my football team and coaches departed from Red Lion Christian Academy and went to Eastern Christian,” Shorts would say.
In Eastern Christian’s first season he estimated it had 55 or so players.
The school, he estimated, had “maybe 60 students,” but it was only an estimate because it didn’t even have a building in its first year.
“I know they have a lot more this year because they have a building and everything,” Shorts said.
According to the Sports Illustrated article, the staff at Eastern Christian consisted of four teachers, a nurse, a minister and seven football coaches, one of whom was director of operations, sort of the principal.
The football facilities were primitive, described like this in the Sports Illustrated article:
“Eastern Christian has no football facility, either, so the team lifts weights at the Elkton YMCA and practices on an adjacent, pebble-pocked field without yard lines between the goal posts. The field, bordered by a barn and a grain silo, appears to be an abandoned farm.”
That didn’t matter much, because it had football players and proved that to have a successful team you don’t have to coddle players the way our colleges do … give them million-dollar weight rooms and indoor practice facilities and a training table.
Just give ’em a place to practice and teach them to maximize their skills and they will shine, as they did at Eastern Christian, becoming one of the nation’s best teams while 14 players had received major college scholarship offers before their senior seasons, including a quarterback in sophomore David Sills V, who had committed to Southern Cal when he was 13.
This was where Shorts and Smallwood had come from and now they were looking at playing before 85,000 in Norman, Okla., for a Saturday night game on national television, which is a long way from a pebble-pocked practice field without yard stripes bordered by a barn and grain silo.
“I’m sure it’s going to be insane. Their fans will be crazy and riled up. It’s the first Big 12 game, so it will be pretty exciting,” Shorts said.
Shorts said it doesn’t bother him any more than has going from a school with maybe 60 students to one with about 28,000.
“That wasn’t too much of a shock,” he said.
In many ways, nothing seems to be shocking Shorts much because he has his eye on the prize.
West Virginia drew his attention because he know the Mountaineers would throw the ball a lot and both Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey were leaving, giving him an opportunity to play early.
“I saw the way those guys played and how much they got the ball. I saw it was an opportunity, so that helped out a lot,” he explained. “I wanted to be a part of this offense.”
He came in early at WVU, enrolling in January to get a head start on the opposition.
“That was very important. It helped out a lot, just to build a bond with the guys here. By spring ball I knew the plays, so that really helped out,” he said.
Shorts was as impressive as they expected during the spring playing on the outside, but when the inside receivers were really having problems satisfying coach Dana Holgorsen, the decision was made to move Shorts inside.
That’s a big change and it could discourage a kid who thought he was impressing the coaches as an outside receiver, but Shorts took the right way.
“Thumbs up,” he said. “The coaches say I have a chance to play, I’m with them.”
While there were some major changes, he adapted because he already knew the playbook.
“There’s a lot more going on inside … linebackers, safeties, different coverages. You just have to play fast and think a lot,” he said. “Very challenging to block there.”
But he didn’t come here to block. He came to catch passes, and no one caught more of them in the opening game, to say nothing of turning in what may have been the most important play of the game.
It was the fourth quarter, the game tied at 17-17, WVU driving into position to take the lead, first down at the William & Mary 31 when Paul Millard completed a pass to K.J. Myers for a first down at the 5, only to have the ball slip out of Myers’ grasp as he was being tackled.
“I was just looking downfield trying to get someone to block while K.J. was running. I just saw the football and jumped on it,” Shorts said.
That recovery set the stage of Smallwood’s TD.
“I was very proud when he scored his touchdown. I had the biggest smile on my face. He’s like a brother to me,” Shorts said.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.