West Virginia Mountaineers climbing with a big push from Miramar

When Geno Smith convinced Stedman Bailey to transfer to Miramar High School, the two friends prayed together. The name of the church where they met was called New Direction.

Now, seven years later, Smith and Bailey — stars of the eighth-ranked West Virginia football team — begin a new direction for their university. And that direction is west. The Mountaineers, with goals of playing in Miami in the BCS Championship Game, begin competition in the Big 12 Conference this Saturday with a home game against Baylor University. West Virginia features 15 players from South Florida, including six from powerhouse Miramar High School.

The realignment of college football, an unruly, volatile and greedy beast, has changed the sport and it’s still too early to determine if that change is for the better. This much is certain, though: There are some universities that appear to be better situated than others after the initial shuffle. West Virginia appears to be one of them.

At the heart of the Mountaineers’ success story amid this transitional period of college football are Smith, Bailey and Miramar. For that, West Virginia fans can thank two men. One is now a mortal enemy, Marshall coach Doc Holliday. The other is a former West Virginia player, Damon Cogdell.

A linebacker at Miramar in the mid 1990s, Cogdell was recruited to West Virginia by Holliday, a longtime Mountaineers assistant and ace recruiter in South Florida. More than a decade later, with Cogdell completing the full circle and coaching at Miramar, Holliday recruited Smith to West Virginia before leaving for the school’s instate rival.

Ultimately, that series of events — recruiting players to one day play against you — hasn’t really worked out for Holliday. In the Mountaineers’ season opener, Smith threw four touchdown passes against Holliday’s Thundering Herd and West Virginia defeated Marshall 69-34. It was the highest scoring total for West Virginia in a season opener in school history. Smith will finish his career 4-0 against Marshall as WVU’s starting quarterback.

Cogdell is great friends with Holliday but said this week he “enjoyed” watching that one.

Smith signed with West Virginia in 2009. Since then, Cogdell has helped a handful of Miramar players find their way to Morgantown, W. Va. Smith and Bailey, the initial pair who started the recruiting pipeline, are on the cover of the media guide this season and are early candidates for individual national awards.

A front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, Smith has thrown 12 touchdown passes this season without an interception. Entering conference play, Smith is averaging 385 passing yards per game. Against Maryland on Saturday, he was 30-of-43 passing for 338 yards and three touchdowns.

Smith had nine touchdowns compared with just nine incompletions before the 31-21 victory against the Terrapins. He has been on a remarkable run since last season’s Orange Bowl, when West Virginia dismantled Clemson 70-33. Smith had a plus arm and lightning-fast release out of high school, but he says adding between 30 and 40 pounds of muscle while in college has allowed him to play “with a lot more confidence.”

In other words, Smith is not scared to take a hit. His strength was evidenced in the first half against Maryland when he a shrugged off a defender, lost his helmet and still managed to fire off a pass before going to the ground.

“I worked my butt off in the weight room and it has made me better on the field,” said Smith, who is projected as a first-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

Said Cogdell, an unapologetic fan of his alma mater: “It’s overwhelming. It’s a dream come true. In a few months, he’s going to be making quite a good bit of money.”

College football is rife with backdoor dealings and underhanded agreements, so it’s easy to be at least a little suspicious of West Virginia’s pipeline from Miramar. Cogdell said he doesn’t favor West Virginia when it comes to recruiting. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a former player being proud of his university, is there? When his players ask about West Virginia, Cogdell answers.

“We were always going in his office and seeing pictures of when he played here,” said Bailey, who has 22 receptions this season for 332 yards and five touchdowns. “We would always ask him questions about what life was like up here and he kept it real about everything — things we would expect.”

In truth, Smith and Bailey probably have more to do with West Virginia’s foothold in south-central Broward County than Cogdell, who is quick to point out that Miramar has been funneling players to West Virginia long before he was a high school coach.

If Cogdell is one of the reasons for Miramar players taking official visits to West Virginia, then it’s Smith and Bailey who have been helping to seal the deals when the recruits arrive on campus.

Bailey’s recruiting pitch: “It’s all about just adjusting to a new environment. Miami is basically this fast city where everything is always going on and up here it’s just a small college town where all the people are about West Virginia sports. I’ve grown to like it. It’s very different from Miami. It’s beautiful.”

Smith’s recruiting pitch to Bailey back in high school was more practical than metaphysical. Miramar’s Smith was the best young quarterback in South Florida, and Bailey, who began his career at Miami Carol City, appeared to have the potential to be one of the best receivers. Why not play together?

Friends at a young age through their association with New Direction Christian Church in Miami Lakes, Smith and Bailey hatched a plan to join forces the summer before their junior years. Parents met, and it was decided.

“I didn’t even know who Stedman was when he showed up for the first day of school,” Cogdell said. “It was great to have him, though.”

Smith and Bailey helped Cogdell build Miramar into a powerhouse. The Patriots won a state championship in 2009, Smith’s freshman year at West Virginia.

“We’ve developed a bond both on and off the field that I can’t even really explain,” Smith said.

Smith, who said he never received a phone call from the University of Miami during his high school career, was highly recruited despite the Canes’ apparent lack of interest. But Bailey wasn’t getting the type of attention his high school coach thought he deserved. Cogdell said he sold Holliday and then-West Virginia coach Bill Stewart on Bailey’s ability and his exceptional character.

Taking a flyer on Bailey has paid off big for West Virginia.

Bailey set West Virginia’s record for receiving yards in a season (1,279) in 2011. He had eight games with more than 100 yards receiving (another school record) and was the only player to have more than 100 yards receiving against LSU the entire season.

Ivan McCartney, another West Virginia receiver from Miramar, was one of the best recruits in Broward County in 2009. So far, he has underperformed at West Virginia but Cogdell, who keeps tabs on all of his former players, said he expects that to change.

“He was in the doghouse but he’s turning it around,” Cogdell said.

West Virginia’s new crop of Miramar grads includes Terrance Gourdine, a redshirt freshman receiver who transferred from Eastern Michigan, freshman running back D’Vontis Arnold and freshman wide receiver Devonte Mathis.

“All the young guys we’ve got coming in here are really talented,” Smith said. “They’re all legit players.”

Smith said the move to the Big 12 has helped with recruiting. Beyond that, he said the current atmosphere in Morgantown, W. Va., is like nothing he has experienced in his four years there.

“The move has really livened things up because the fans are eager to get Big 12 play going and they want to see where we’re at versus the Big 12,” Smith said. “We fear no one around here and we’ve got some of the best players in the country. We can beat anyone.”