Orange Bowl: For Mountaineers, recruiting pipeline built in South Florida
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- There are times when Shawne Alston isn't barreling over defenders and pushing back blitzes that the West Virginia running back thinks about what could have been for him, for the Hampton Roads and for Mountaineer football.
Alston played running back in high school at Virginia's Phoebus High. His quarterback was Tajh Boyd, who started for No. 14 Clemson in Wednesday night's Orange Bowl and opposed No. 23 WVU at Sun Life Stadium.
Their teammate was Dominik Davenport. Their friend was receiver Logan Heastie, a star at Chesapeake, Va.'s Great Bridge High.
The four were supposed to go to WVU and map a path for others in the area to follow - and seeing as if Phoebus has won four straight Virginia Division 5 state championships and seven in 11 years, the Phantoms would have been a key to the pipeline from the talent-rich region.
"I think about it all the time," said Alston, a junior who started the Orange Bowl after rushing for 10 touchdowns in the regular season for the Mountaineers. "I thought it was going to be huge for us. "We had a great chance to be successful on the field here and off the field, too. The sky would have been the limit."
That group never reached any of its potential.
Boyd de-committed. Davenport and Heastie left after redshirting their freshman seasons.
Even Alston's development has been staggered because of a neck injury he suffered in a car accident last winter and the WVU offseason coaching transition from Bill Stewart to Dana Holgorsen.
While Boyd and Alston have played, Heastie has not and Davenport has been to three schools before settling at NAIA Virginia University of Lynchburg this season.
The Mountaineers have signed no players from Hampton Roads since then, and the assistant coach who knew the area, Chris Beatty, was replaced in the offseason and is now at Vanderbilt. The only players from southern Virginia who have signed with WVU the past two years are offensive lineman Quinton Spain (Petersburg), running back Trey Johnson (Richmond), who is no longer with the team, and offensive lineman Marquis Wallace (Richmond), who never enrolled.
"I'll never know how much my decision not to come to West Virginia deterred Logan or my high school teammates or other guys from down there, but it's something I really wonder about all the time," Boyd said. "I think about how things would have worked out and how the scenario would have went. I know we would have been great."
The odd part about this is while Alston and Boyd and others do think about it, no one frets or has regrets.
Boyd is in a Clemson system that fits his talents and surrounds him with elite skill players. The Mountaineers replaced Boyd in the 2009 recruiting class with Geno Smith. He played for Miramar High, not far from where the team practiced here, but Smith was only pursued by WVU after Boyd changed his mind.
Former WVU assistant and recruiting chief and current Marshall Coach Doc Holliday visited Smith soon thereafter and not long after Smith visited Alabama a year before the Crimson Tide won the BCS national championship.
"I'm not one of those guys who gets caught up in the lights," Smith said.
"My trip to Alabama was tremendous and I developed a good relationship with (Coach) Nick Saban and they pretty much threw every trick at me.
"But I was looking to come in and play right away and for what school gave me the best chance to get to the next level. West Virginia was that school."
Smith said he never knew about Boyd and his decisions. He said it wouldn't have mattered, either.
When he was looking for schools, Smith said he wasn't worried about the depth chart.
He wanted to play early, no matter who else was on the roster.
"Coming from where I'm from in Florida, all we talk about is competition. It's something we all enjoy," Smith said. "Once I got (to WVU), I found out about Tajh pretty quickly, but it was never a point of emphasis."
Not only did the Mountaineers swap Bailey for Smith, but they also flipped one recruiting hotbed for another.
Smith and his Miramar High teammate, receiver Stedman Bailey, traveled to WVU together. The following year, receivers Ivan McCartney and Dante Chambers followed from Miramar to WVU - although Chambers is no longer with the team. Miramar receiver Devonte Mathis is committed to the 2012 recruiting class.
In 2010, safety Travis Bell (Belle Glade) signed and last year offensive linemen Russell Haughton James (Plantation) and Marquis Lucas (Miami) signed. Lucas was actually going somewhere else first.
"He went to Miami Central, but he said Geno and I were the reasons he came here," Bailey said. "He was committed to Rutgers and then he came here for a visit and said, 'OK, those two guys from back home can do it. So can I.' That's eventually why he changed his mind."
In addition to Mathis, defensive lineman Imarjaye Albury (Miami), safeties Sean Walters (Hallandale) and Kimlon Dillon (Apopka), running back Roshard Burney (Palm Beach Gardens) and receivers Devonte Robinson (Delray Beach) and Darreall Joyner (Miami) are committed to the 2012 class. Joyner and Lucas attended Miami Central.
"It is a pipeline now," Smith said. "Coming out of high school, Stedman and I were pretty popular guys down there and a lot of kids looked up to us and I know they still do. When we go back home, we work out with a lot of those guys. I never try to persuade them for my personal benefit, but I always tell them to do what's right for them.
"If they feel West Virginia is the best place for them, then they should be here. What we breed down there is something different than any other place in the country. It's special."
Smith and Bailey sell WVU on the facilities and the fan support, but also a campus that provides something the ambitious players from south Florida will appreciate.
"I tell them it's a different atmosphere," Bailey said. "It helps you focus on what you need to get down as far as school and being the best football player you can be. Coming from Miami, it's such a fast-paced town with so much going on.
"Morgantown is a college town. There's a lot more things to do in Miami. Things are pretty much closed down on campus and there's nothing that causes you to get in trouble if you keep your head on straight and focus on getting things done."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.