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Harris: WVU's Smith's loyalty runs deep

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Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011

When Geno Smith passed for a school-record 463 yards Saturday, it still wasn't enough for West Virginia to upset a powerhouse LSU team that achieved its first No. 1 ranking of the season a day later in the polls courtesy of a 47-21 win.

It was, however, more than enough to solidify Smith's status among college football's elite quarterbacks and justify his high school coach's recommendation that Smith attend his alma mater.

"The sky's the limit. Last Saturday night was just the start of him continuing to get better and better," said former West Virginia standout linebacker Damon Cogdell, who coached Smith at Miramar High School in suburban Miami. "To me, he's the Tom Brady of college football. The only difference is he can run. He's a student of the game."

Cogdell played for Don Nehlen at West Virginia in 1997-98 after spending two years in junior college and starring at the same high school Smith attended. Several of his players are on the Mountaineers' roster, including sophomore receivers Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney, who combined to catch 14 of Smith's passes for 174 yards and a touchdown against LSU.

Cogdell, though, admits to having a special bond with Smith. Even though Cogdell played defense, he knows how rare it is — and how fortunate he was — to coach and develop a quarterback with the talent to play for any major-college program in the country.

"There's no surprise for me or my staff here. We knew what kind of player he was going to be," said Cogdell, who still refers to Smith as Eugene and not Geno, his more popular moniker. "We speak every Saturday before games. He told me was going to go after them (LSU). He went out there and threw for 463 (yards). That was awesome."

Smith's college choice was his, and his alone, to make. But after speaking a few minutes with Cogdell, who still bleeds blue and gold, it's easy to reach the conclusion that if Cogdell's experience at West Virginia hadn't been a good one, Smith wouldn't be breaking records in Morgantown, and teammates such as Bailey and McCartney — who are tied for second on the team with 23 receptions apiece — wouldn't have joined him there a year later.

Smith was a special player in high school, a prize catch for any college fortunate enough to sign him. A cousin of former University of Miami star running back Melvin Bratton, Smith was a Parade All-American who threw for 3,089 yards and 30 touchdowns and led his team to the Class 6A semifinals as a senior while finishing as the No. 3 passer in Broward Country history.

"Once a Mountaineer, always a Mountaineer," Cogdell boomed over the phone. "Eugene could have gone anywhere. Alabama. Florida State. Florida. All the schools in the Big East wanted him. It was a tough decision to even choose West Virginia, but it was a great decision. Jarrett (Brown) had one year left. Pat White was leaving. Since Jarrett only had one more year, it was like a no-brainer, and his buddy Stedman went there with him.''

Cogdell's deep-rooted loyalty to West Virginia football carried over to him intently monitoring the school's rapid-fire coaching changes — from Rich Rodriguez, who recruited Smith along with Bill Stewart, who took over when Rodriguez left for Michigan, to Dana Holgorsen, who suddenly replaced Stewart prior to the start of Smith's junior season — and how those changes could affect his former players.

"I just wanted to make sure the kids were happy," Cogdell said. "One thing about the kids that leave my school is we have a bond that's like a father-son relationship. We wanted to see how spring (football) went. Coach (Stewart) and I still speak on a regular basis. Dana's doing a good job so far with those guys."

Holgorsen, who is picking up where he left off at Oklahoma State in terms of showcasing one of the nation's premier passing attacks, said Smith catches on fast.

Smith, a junior, ranks third nationally in passing yards per game (367.8). He's third in total passing yards (1,471) and fourth in total offense (368.3 yards). Under Smith's direction, West Virginia ranks fourth nationally in passing offense (382.75 yards).

"He's what makes us go offensively," Holgorsen said of Smith. "He's played a lot of football and he knows how to play the game. He has a never-give-up attitude. He gave us a huge spark and had an unbelievable third quarter against LSU (completing 9 of 14 passes for 203 yards and driving the Mountaineers to a pair of touchdowns) and got us within six points (27-21).

"And then immediately, they returned the (kickoff) for a touchdown. But he kept playing even after that. They killed our momentum, but he kept playing. The fact that he ain't ever going to give up is something that I've been saying about him from the beginning.''

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