Football Notebook: Speed Merchants
Watching Tavon Austin running at yesterday’s NFL Combine got me thinking about the fastest guys in Mountaineer football history. So, just who are the fastest guys?
The old-school coaches always used to tell me that Kerry Marbury was the fastest player they had ever seen in pads, and after watching the old film of him blowing past all those Penn State guys during his 100-yard kickoff return in that '72 game in Morgantown, that’s tough to argue.
Before coach Bobby Bowden brought in speed guys like Marbury, Danny Buggs, Marshall Mills, Snake Blake and Marcus Mauney, West Virginia was always better known for fielding big and slow football teams. Don Nehlen, too, began adapting to a faster style of play in the late 1980s when his Florida recruiting really began to take hold.
Rich Rodriguez and Bill Stewart both recruited fast guys, as is Dana Holgorsen today. So, who are West Virginia’s burners?
Here is one guy’s list of the 10 fastest players to wear a Mountaineer football uniform:
10. Tommy Pridemore
Looks can sometimes be deceiving, but make no mistake about it - Tommy Pridemore could fly. Former defensive coordinator Chuck Klausing once told me a story about going down to the West Virginia high school track and field championships and watching Pridemore win the 110 hurdles without clearing a single hurdle – he just plowed right through all of them and still easily won his race. Another time, in a game at Cal, he ran down world class sprinter Wesley Walker from behind and stopped him from scoring a sure touchdown. Now that’s fast. Further proof are the three interception returns Pridemore had of 80 yards or longer during his Mountaineer career, including a 100-yard return up at Penn State when he broke nine tackles in one of the most memorable plays in school history.
9. Pat White
I have always been enamored with guys with long, graceful running strides and Pat White certainly fit that bill. Go back and watch his games and count the number of times he was caught from behind – rarely, if ever. Plus, he averaged 6.5 yards every time he ran the ball as a QB. Bill Parcells drafted him in the second round solely for his speed as a Wildcat quarterback, so that’s good enough for me.
8. Kerry Marbury
Just like Willie Drewery a decade after him, Kerry Marbury wasn’t the biggest guy on the football field but he had the afterburners needed to get into the end zone. He took the game’s opening kickoff against Penn State and returned it for a 100-yard touchdown; a year before that he had an 83-yard touchdown run against Temple. Clocked at 9.6 in the 100, Marbury was a two-time West Virginia sprint champion in 1968 and 1969.
7. Harry Blake
Bobby Bowden’s West Virginia teams of the early 1970s were built on speed and Harry “Snake” Blake was one of the fastest football players in the country during that time. In fact, Phil Elmassian once told me that West Virginia and Arizona State were the two fastest programs in the country during that era, thanks to guys like Snake Blake. More of a track guy than a football player, Blake was the first trackman in school history to own seven school records at the same time and he twice clocked 9.5 in the 100-yard dash. Blake also ran a leg of the sprint medley relay that won the prestigious Penn Relays.
6. Artie Owens
Another 9.5 sprinter, Artie Owens had that extra gear to get away from traffic and in to the end zone. Owens has two of the longest scoring plays in school history – an 85-yard touchdown run at Virginia Tech and a 95-yard kickoff return for a TD against Penn State. In track, Owens was a member of the school-record setting 440 and 880 relay teams.
5. Willie Drewery
One of Don Nehlen’s fastest players, Willie D electrified Mountaineer fans with his coast-to-coast returns in the early 1980s. Perhaps his most memorable was a weaving, 74-yard punt return up at Pitt when everyone else on the field seemed to be standing still. Drewery was able to parlay his sub-4.4 speed into a long and productive NFL career with the Houston Oilers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
4. Danny Buggs
Danny Buggs was so fast that state sportswriters took to calling him “Lightning” (a nickname he hated) when he played for the Mountaineers in the early 1970s. Like Pat White, Buggs had a long, graceful running stride that chewed up yardage in bunches. Buggs could high-step faster than everyone else; if you don't believe me just go dig up the '73 Maryland highlight film. During his sophomore year, in 1972, he averaged almost 21 yards every time he touched the football, scoring TDs three different ways. In 1973, Buggs recorded the fastest time in the East in the 440 and once held the national intramural record in the 100-yard dash with a 9.5 clocking. Buggs still has the longest touchdown reception in school history: 96 yards at Penn State in 1973.
Before Steve Slaton “bulked up” prior to his junior year in 2007 to impress the pro scouts, there was nobody in the country who could catch him from behind on the football field. Just ask Georgia safety Greg Blue, who spent an entire night watching the back of Slaton’s jersey in the 2006 Sugar Bowl, or Pitt’s Tommie Campbell, a high school sprint champion who was supposed to “shadow” Slaton during West Virginia’s game against the Panthers in Pittsburgh in 2006. Campbell did such a good job of shadowing Slaton that he held him to just 335 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns. Speed kills and Slaton definitely had it, especially when he was healthy early in his Mountaineer career.
2. Tavon Austin
Tavon ran an unofficial time of 4.25 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine on Sunday, showing the rest of the country what all of us here in West Virginia already knew – he is one really fast dude. Austin had 33 plays of 40 yards or longer during his Mountaineer career, including 21 from the line of scrimmage. Austin was so fast that Dana Holgorsen ran out of ways to get him the football at wide receiver, so he put him at running back against Oklahoma and Austin ended up running for a school-record 344 yards against the 13th-ranked Sooners.
1. James Jett
I can’t remember the game (it might have been against Pitt) but there was an instance when Jett had the football in his hands on a kickoff return and was stumbling faster than the rest of the players were chasing him. That’s when you know a guy is really fast. Jett was a track guy who was also a good football player, accumulating 3,076 career all-purpose yards at WVU before parlaying that into a 10-year career in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders. Jett is one of the few humans on planet earth to run a sub-20 in the 200-meter dash, and he ran a leg of the 4x100-meter relay at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona to earn a Gold medal. He was also the NCAA runner-up in the 100 and 200-meter dashes at the 1992 NCAA outdoor championships. Tavon Austin is clearly one of the fastest players that I’ve ever seen, but I’m not even sure he could hang with Mr. Jett’s jets. Plus, can a guy with the last name Jett really be slow?
Some other burners: Grantis Bell, Antonio Brown, Mark Burke, Noel Devine, Carl Hayes, Chris Henry, Leon Jenkins, Undra Johnson, Pacman Jones, John Mallory, Rasheed Marshall, Marcus Mauney, Marshall Mills, Bobby Moss, Adrian Murrell, Reggie Rembert, Nate Terry, Shawn Terry, Fulton Walker, Robert White, Terry White, Amos Zereoue.
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