MORGANTOWN — Over the last 25 years, West Virginia has enjoyed a wild athletic ride, taking it to the brink of a national championship game in both basketball and football to the depths of dismal seasons that seemed as if they would never end.
There were coaching changes that worked out smoothly and others which were botched and became difficult to untangle.
And there were players, star players like Pat White and Da’Sean Butler, who pushed them to the top.
MORGANTOWN — Over the last 25 years, West Virginia has enjoyed a wild athletic ride, taking …
But it never should be forgotten that a star player needs a supporting cast and some of them do not get their due recognition, especially on successful, star-laden teams who soak up the oxygen that the media creates or that fans generate.
These next two days we will look at the underrated players of the last 25 years in WVU basketball and football ... good players who may have even gotten recognition but whose contributions never could have been completely appreciated in the glare of the spotlight cast upon others.
They may have been starters, could have come off the bench, but make no doubt that to the coaches and the other players, they were part of the engine that drove the team.
Consider this not an attempt to name all the underrated players of the past quarter of a century, but an ode to them.
Today, football’s underrated players over the last 25 years.
---Being underrated or unappreciated doesn’t reflect on the player. To be underrated, first of all, you have to be a good player.
It’s often a matter of circumstance, being in a difficult spot to find adoration either because you are caught up in a bad time or with a cast of star players around you.
Two players come to mind here in football: Rasheed Marshall and Jock Sanders.
Marshall was a far better quarterback than he was credited with, perhaps because he came while the memory of Marc Bulger was still fresh in the minds of Mountaineer fans and because he was creating something new with coach Rich Rodriguez, setting the stage for Pat White.
When Marshall arrived, WVU had gone 11-12 in Don Nehlen’s final two seasons and would go 3-8 in Rodriguez’s first year which had Brad Lewis as the starting quarterback and Marshall feeling his way through his freshman year.
But Rasheed Marshall changed the look of WVU football as Rodriguez established himself. He went from 3-8 to 9-4 as Marshall laid the groundwork for a running quarterback at WVU.
In that groundbreaking 2002 season he had to be underappreciated for the team was built around the running of the all-time rushing leader for WVU in Avon Cobourne and Quincy Wilson. Marshall was the third leading rusher with 666 yards but that was hardly an evil omen for he ran for 13 touchdowns and threw for nine more.
He ran less his second year as a starter but by his senior year he was in control of the team as a dual threat QB, rushing for 861 yards and throwing for 1,886 yards. While his numbers pale alongside what White followed with, they changed WVU football and established Rodriguez’s offense as the wave of the future.
Sanders, on the other hand, is a name you don’t hear spoken of much these days but he was an amazing player, even at 5-6 and barely 175 pounds. He played running back and wide receiver and was fun to watch due to his quick feet and elusiveness.
Trouble was he had to overcome the stigma of a couple of arrests early in his career and was caught up being the third receiver on a team that was introducing Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey on the outside.
In 2010, Sanders was a senior and wound up with 69 catches for 728 yards, four for touchdowns, while Austin had 58 for 787 yards and 8 TDs and Bailey 24 for 317 yards and 4 scores.
So Sanders went from playing his freshman year on a team with White, Steve Slaton and Noel Devine as offensive weapons to his senior year with Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Devine.
How good was he? All you have to do is look up his highlights on YouTube.com and hear what some of the play-by-play announcers were saying:
“You miss one tackle on Jock Sanders and he takes it to the house,” said one.
“You got to know where he is every minute he’s on the field,” adds another as he slips tackles and makes it to the end zone.
Another receiver found himself in a similar situation, the talented Khory Ivy, who wound up the third receiver with Shawn Foreman and David Saunders while they were rewriting the WVU wide receiver record book.
In 1998, Marc Bulger threw for a record 3,607 yards and 31 touchdowns. Foreman caught 77 passes for 848 yards and Saunders caught 63 for 883, both with eight touchdowns. At the same time, Amos Zereoué was rushing for 1,462 yards and 13 touchdowns.
That left no headlines for Ivy, who had 41 catches for 658 yards and six scores. His 16.0 average per catch was higher than both Foreman and Saunders.
Ivy today stands eighth all-time in receptions at WVU, haunted by being behind Austin, Bailey, Sanders, Sanders, Daikiel Shorts, Foreman and Gary Jennings.
At quarterback there is another player whose importance is often missed and that would be Jarrett Brown, who spent most of his career as a backup to Pat White.
In 2008, Brown had to fill in for White against Syracuse. It was just the second start of his career and he and the offense struggled, winning just 17-6 but not without the unfaithful faithful heaped boos upon Brown and the offensive unit.
What people didn’t know was that Brown also was injured but gutted it out despite a shoulder problem that led to conservative game calling.
“He had a hard, hard time in practice,” Coach Bill Stewart said the Monday after. “He did the best he could. He did what he could and led his team to victory. It was an admirable, courageous performance. He was dinged up pretty good .... might have been 60, 65 percent. I’m proud of the kid.”
He would be proud of Brown the next year when he quarterbacked the Mountaineers to a second straight 9-4 season under Stewart, rushing for 466 yards and passing for 2,144 ... avoiding what could have been a tough year before Geno Smith could take over at quarterback the next season.
Sometimes a player finds himself in a position where you can’t earn good statistics yet does the unseen things that make him an important player. Don Nehlen had two such players at one position in Leroy White and Anthony Green who split time at fullback while Zereoué was running for big yards behind their blocks.
The same goes for offensive linemen, some of whom like center Dan Mozes win individual awards like the Rimington Award presented to the best center in college football that Mozes took home, but the only way you know they are football players on the street is by their size, not facial recognition.
And so to players like Bryan Pukenas, John Conte, Randy Dunnigan and Rick Gilliam from the Nehlen era to those represented by the likes of Jeremy Sheffey or Josh Jenkins or Kelby Wickline of future eras we say someone somewhere was recognizing you and certainly your teammates did.
Toss in players like Dylan Tonkery, who would play anywhere on the defense, always doing a solid job but never emerging from the shadows cast by David Long or Tony Fields III and you understand that success, not fame, is really what it’s all about.
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