Geno's Place at the Table

  • By John Antonik
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  • September 17, 2012 07:00 PM
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Geno Smith has now thrown for more yardage than any other quarterback in West Virginia University history, and he will likely possess just about every single passing record the school has, too, as long as he can get through the remainder of the season in one piece.

So the question becomes: Where is Geno Smith’s place at the table among the best quarterbacks in WVU history?

The younger generation fans will point to Pat White as the QB to measure up to, and with good reason considering White’s incredible abilities as a playmaker and winner. White is the only quarterback in NCAA history to lead a team to four bowl victories (two were BCS bowls, by the way), and considering WVU’s track record in bowl games before the school’s current run, well, that alone carries a lot of weight around here.

The one Pat White moment that always sticks out in my mind happened during the 2007 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., when he was able to pick himself off the turf after being blindsided by a big Georgia Tech defensive end, stagger over to the sideline with tears streaming down his face, and somehow managed to collect himself and lead West Virginia to a great comeback victory over the Yellow Jackets.

If you recall, White carried the ball every single time on West Virginia’s game-clinching drive late in the fourth quarter of that 38-35 victory, wincing in pain whenever a Georgia Tech player unloaded on him. It was the greatest example of sheer willpower and courage that I have witnessed in 20-plus years of covering Mountaineer football.

For those from my generation, Major Harris was certainly the Gold Standard for Mountaineer quarterbacks. Major had the talent and the charisma to go along with the guts of a cat burglar, and all of those traits were usually on display whenever he played.

Everyone always cites Major’s touchdown run against Penn State when he went the wrong way and faked out the entire Nittany Lion defense as his signature moment, but for me, the play that truly displayed his innate football talent was a twisting, turning throw he made to Greg Dykes for a touchdown against Louisville in 1989.

Not only was it an impossible pass, Harris falling to his back as he blindly flung the ball down the field toward a goal line littered with Louisville players, but it was also a throw no other quarterback in his right mind would have even considered making. But that was Major, always taking risks and almost always ending up with all four paws on the ground whenever he landed. He was Mountaineer football’s version of Ferris Bueller, and that’s why fans around here have always admired him so much.

Our geriatric supporters always bring up the name Fred Wyant, and yes, Wyant was a terrific player during an era when quarterbacks were frequently referred to as “signal callers.”

Don’t look at the stat sheet when considering Wyant’s quarterbacking skills because his true greatness was not the way he filled up a box score, but rather his great ability to lead and cajole. Wyant wasn’t the biggest guy on the field, nor the most accurate passer, nor the fastest runner, but there wasn’t a player ever at WVU who could walk into a huddle and command the immediate attention and respect of his teammates the way Wyant could. Keep in mind, too, that standing in the huddle with him was probably the greatest array of football talent ever assembled here at one time - guys with names like Huff, Bosely, Howley and Marconi.

Back then, the entire game plan was on Wyant’s shoulders and he almost always executed it to perfection. The one story that best characterizes Fred Wyant was the time he sliced and diced a very good South Carolina team in a big season-opening win down in Columbia in 1954. Late in the game, with West Virginia comfortably ahead, Fred jogged over to the sideline to ask Coach Art Lewis if there were any particular plays that he wanted him to run.

“Nope,” Lewis said. “You just keep calling ‘em. You’re doing fine on your own.”

That says it all when a football coach has that much trust in his quarterback.

There have been other great ones around here, too. There was nobody more accurate as a passer than Marc Bulger; for sheer arm strength and the ability to throw a long, majestic pass, Bernie Gallifa is the first WVU quarterback that immediately comes to mind.

Mike Sherwood and Oliver Luck were both athletic, tough, intelligent quarterbacks who possessed the necessary intangibles needed to keep drives alive and make plays late in games. And then there was Jeff Hostetler, a Mountaineer quarterback who came straight out of NFL Central Casting. Hoss had it all - the size, the arm, the feet, the toughness and the brains that all great quarterbacks must possess.

And it is Jeff Hostetler who I think of whenever I watch Smith out on the field operating Dana Holgorsen’s offense these days.

Geno has all of Hostetler’s traits, plus the total command of the offense just like Hostetler did when he was running the show for the Mountaineers in the early 1980s. Hostetler’s old coach and father-in-law, Don Nehlen, is certainly a big fan of Smith.

“He throws that football right smack on the nose,” said Nehlen. “I like him a lot. He’s as accurate as Marc Bulger, but is bigger and stronger than Marc. And before Marc got killed in the pros, he was the most accurate passer in the NFL.”

Plus, Smith has added another dimension to his game this year – his feet. Smith ran twice for 18 yards against James Madison and he had a 28-yard touchdown run against Marshall. Before this year, having Smith run the football was about as desirable as having your quarterback take a knee late in a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But so far this year, Smith is actually the team’s third leading rusher and is averaging a lofty 8.3 yards per carry.

Of course, Hoss also won games with his feet – the 1983 Pitt victory here in Morgantown one for the books - but Jeff took a lot of punishment during his two seasons at WVU, he didn’t quite have the supporting cast that Smith enjoys today, nor did he play in a system that was conducive to putting up big numbers the way Holgorsen’s offense does.

“(In) these offenses today, Jeff would be sensational,” said Nehlen.

Yes he would, perhaps even on par with Geno Smith, who is on pace to finish with more than 10,000 yards passing when the helmets are finally put away later this winter.

“We’ve had some great quarterbacks here, but I’m not real sure we’ve had anybody better than this guy,” Nehlen said of Smith.

Considering the source, that’s a good enough endorsement for me.

Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.


Geno Smith, Great Quarterbacks, West Virginia University Mountaineers, WVU