If picking the top 10 basketball players of the decade was hard – as I did last week – narrowing down to a similar number on the football field was exponentially tougher.
Comparing positions is difficult enough: how do you determine who had a better career between a wide receiver and a linebacker, whose stats, metrics and areas of evaluation are totally different? How does a pass rusher’s influence on the game, often not quantified by the numbers, compare to the yardage gained by a running back?
No matter, it has to be done – the following are the top 10 Mountaineer football players of the decade from 2010-19.
I’m aware I didn’t include some great players – a lot of them, in fact. Some are likely to become WVU Hall of Fame members. But in a tough competition such as this, even tougher choices had to be made.
The upshot is that a player had to be truly great – perhaps even generationally great – to make this list. The biggest indicator in the difficulty of this task probably lies in the fact that, if asked to do it again, the roster would probably be different.
The cuts were agonizing, and the difference between the top 10 and the next 10 lay just a razor’s edge apart.
A reminder: This list evaluated only the collegiate careers of the players. Professional performance was not in the mix, nor their potential coming out of high school. Any player who participated in one or more years from 2010-2019 was eligible for consideration.
10) David Long: A linebacker singularly charged with making things happen for the defense, Long had 167 solo tackles and 250 overall in his three-year playing career for the Mountaineers. The Cincinnati, Ohio, star attacked the line of scrimmage with regularity, and despite his lack of size typically found a way to get to the ball. Knifing his way through narrow gaps and breaking contact with much bigger players, Long had 40 tackles for losses and 13 sacks before departing a year early for the NFL. His assignment often consisted of nothing more than ‘go get the ball’ and he did that with a frequency that made him one of the standout defenders of the decade.
9) Noel Devine: If Tavon Austin had the most moves of the Mountaineers of the decade, Devine was right behind him. The Fort Myers, Florida, standout wiggled, juked, dashed and sped to 4,315 career rushing yards, good for third all-time at WVU. His 728 carries (also third) and 29 rushing touchdowns (fifth) make him one of the elites of West Virginia history. He had 19 100-yard games (fourth all-time), and also holds the record for WVU’s second longest run from scrimmage – a 92-yarder against Syracuse in 2010.
8) David Sills: His overall numbers weren’t as good as some others who didn’t make this list, but his status as a touchdown-maker elevated him to a position above the cutline. Starting in his freshman year of 2015, he found the end zone for the winning points in the Mountaineers’ Cactus Bowl win over Arizona State, and kept right on doing so when he returned after a one-year hiatus in junior college. Thirty-five of his 132 catches went for scores – a touchdown production rate of 26.5 percent. Consider that Tavon Austin, who we’ll see later on this list, had 40 total TDs in his career, but it took him 529 touches to do so.
7) Karl Joseph: The most fearsome hitter of the decade, Joseph patrolled the Mountaineer secondary, dishing out big contact while making opposing pass catchers dread his area of the field. He was just as effective against the run, flying down alleys to close the door, usually with emphasis, against opposing ballcarriers seeking running lanes. Joseph had 194 tackles in his four seasons, the last of which was cut short after just four games due to injury. (He would have been a beneficiary of the current rule that allows a redshirt at that game limit, so likely would have had another season with which to add to his credentials.) Despite playing in the back end of the defense, he also had 16.5 tackles for loss, and picked off nine passes. Five of those came in his aborted four-game senior year, including three in the season opener. His jarring hits produced eight fumbles, and he also broke up 14 passes in his well-rounded career.
6) Bruce Irvin: A two-year player whose numbers don’t nearly reflect his impact on the game, Irvin was a terror off the edge of the West Virginia defense. Playing in 26 games as a Mountaineer, the long-limbed pass rusher recorded 23 sacks for 155 yards in losses, but that was just part of his on-field influence. Thirty of his career 61 tackles came behind the line of scrimmage, and he also forced five career fumbles. He forced offenses to adjust to his mere presence, and if they did not the cries of “Bruuuuuuce” were sure to echo from the stands as he blew up another play. His 23 sacks stand fourth all-time at WVU, and his 30 TFLs are tied for ninth, while his career sack yardage total stands atop the Mountaineer record book.
5) Tyler Orlosky: A second-team All-America selection by six outlets, as well as status as a Rimington Trophy semifinalist, lands the leader of West Virginia’s lines of the mid-decade a spot on the list. The Cleveland, Ohio, native played in 50 games in his Mountaineer career and directed the blocking that allowed four different Mountaineer rushers to produce 100-yard games in 2016. The offense averaged 507 yards during that season, and it all revolved around the men up front, with Orlosky at the center position. An outspoken leader and a coach on the field, Orlosky is now a graduate assistant with the Mountaineers.
4) Will Grier: Had Grier played three full seasons as a starter as Geno Smith did, he likely would have threatened many of his records. As it was, the Charlotte, North Carolina, native completed 516 of his 785 pass attempts (65.7 percent) for 7,354 yards and 71 touchdowns in his two seasons, with his major stats standing anywhere from second to fifth in West Virginia’s career rankings. He’s also WVU’s all-time leader in 300-yard passing games, recording that feat an amazing 19 times in 22 outings. A senior CLASS Award winner and a fourth-place finisher in the Heisman Trophy voting, Grier was a finalist for almost every major national quarterbacking award during his senior season.
3) Stedman Bailey: A three-year starter who combined a technician’s approach to route running with an outstanding set of hands, Bailey caught 210 passes for 3,218 yards and 41 touchdowns. The first two of those numbers stand second all-time, while his touchdown figure is WVU’s all-time mark for scores on pass receptions. He also stands first on the Mountaineer list with 14 games in which he totaled at least 100 receiving yards. Overlooked in the numbers was Bailey’s third-down ability – with his innate sense for finding a gap in the defense, he routinely snared drive-extending catches that kept the Mountaineer offense humming. A runner-up for the Biletnikoff Award in his final West Virginia season, Bailey, like Grier, would likely have held every record available in his player category had he played all four years of his eligibility.
2) Tavon Austin: The most dynamic, electric Mountaineer player of the decade, Austin had the potential to bring fans out of their seats every time he touched the ball. Employed as a receiver, sometime running back and return specialist, Austin racked up 7,286 all-purpose yards for WVU – a school record that stands more than 1,500 yards clear of the next closest competitor. He’s also first in receptions with 288 – with some of those coming on the signature jet sweep – and receiving yards (3,413). He scored on 29 receptions and had 13 100-yard receiving games, and backed that up with a WVU-record 2,407 kickoff return yards and five kick returns for scores (four kickoff, one punt). He’ll be forever remembered for his school record 344 rushing yards against Oklahoma in 2012, in which he averaged 16.4 yards per carry.
1) Geno Smith: West Virginia’s all-time leader in passing yards (11,662) by nearly two miles, Smith is also the Mountaineers’ career leader in touchdowns (98), attempts (1,465), completions (988), completion percentage (67.4 percent) total yardage (12,003) and plays (1,711). Despite the high volume of attempts, he suffered just 21 interceptions over his four years at West Virginia, compiling another career record for pickoff avoidance (.014). He was very accurate on not just short throws but the intermediate and deep routes that were the staple of the Mountaineer attack, and at the completion of his career held or was tied for 21 WVU single-game, season or career records.
When construction and research of this article began, I wasn’t planning on including an honorable mention list, but there were so many who have a case for inclusion that it’s only fair to name some of them. In no particular order:
Kyle Bosch, Yodny Cajuste, Rasul Douglas, Shelton Gibson, Skyler Howard, Gary Jennings, Nick Kwiatkoski, Joe Madsen, Colton McKivitz, Julian Miller, Chris Neild, Noble Nwachukwu, Nick O’Toole, Robert Sands, Daikiel Shorts, Josh Sills, Charles Sims, Quinton Spain, Keith Tandy, Clint Trickett, Kevin White and Daryl Worley, apologies. Next time I’ll ask for the space to go for a more complete roster, and rest assured you’ll be on it.