Coal Bowl: Unheralded Bailey shines
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Geno Smith is West Virginia's Heisman Trophy candidate. He's the quarterback who was invited over the summer to camps reserved for the elite players at his position.
He was named the Big 12 Conference's preseason offensive player of the year even though he's never played a snap in the league.
Tavon Austin also parlayed the Orange Bowl into headlines and spots on all the preseason watch lists available for a receiver.
He joined Smith on the preseason all-Big 12 team, popped up in conversations about sneaky Heisman candidates and earned a reputation strong enough to make all-conference and all-America teams as a punt returner, even though Austin will admit he wasn't too good at it in 2011.
Freshman Jordan Thompson locked down a starting spot as an inside receiver and at Austin's former position, which had people in some circles predicting Thompson to be one of the country's most productive freshmen on offense.
Even at WVU, senior J.D. Woods was perhaps the most compelling story of preseason camp because of his rise from academic question mark on the scout team to starting receiver.
Absent from all that and from seemingly every conversation about No. 11 WVU before Saturday's season opener against Marshall is the player who set a school record for receiving yards and delivered WVU to the Orange Bowl with his acrobatic fourth quarter, final drive catch against South Florida in the regular-season finale.
Has college football gone crazy and forgotten Stedman Bailey?
"I hope so," offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "I wouldn't mind that."
Certainly when the Mountaineers play host to Marshall at noon and on FX at Mountaineer Field, Bailey will line up on the outside and have the full attention of the Thundering Herd defense.
"He's not a secret weapon," Smith said. "I know defensive coordinators around the country, especially ones we'll be facing, know all about him. Put on the film and you see him making plays game after game. Put him in a one-on-one situation and it's pretty much a given he's going to do something."
So WVU won't be springing Bailey on anyone, not after 72 receptions, 1,279 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore last season.
Yet he's still unheralded, at least compared to his teammates. Despite the success last season, when Bailey finished No. 7 nationally in receiving touchdowns, No. 13 in receiving yards per game and No. 14 in yards per catch, he was left off the preseason all-Big 12 team.
He was named to the Biletnikoff Award's preseason watch list, meaning he was considered one of the country's 65 best receivers, but Bailey was omitted from the Maxwell Award and Walter Camp Award watch list. Both name candidates for the national player of the year, but Bailey wasn't considered to be in the top 64 for the Maxwell or the top 50 for the Walter Camp.
Smith and Austin were both on the Maxwell and Walter Camp lists.
"I don't think Sted gets a lot of the respect I think he should get," Austin said. "If I'm being honest right now, I'd say Sted is definitely the No. 1 receiver on this team. As far as all-purpose yards and making plays, we're probably on the same level. As far running routes and technique, I think Sted is probably the best in the country."
Bailey, a 5 foot, 10 inch, 195-pound junior from Miami's Miramar High, could prove it this season. Smith is starting his third season and the second one in Coach Dana Holgorsen's system is often magical. Austin is in a new spot this season that is usually highlighted in the offense. Thompson is an Austin archetype who is playing Austin's former position.
There's only so much an opponent can do to cover all the parts of the offense and while defenses tend to guard against vertical routes Bailey will run, the Mountaineers do most of their damage on shorter routes and in the middle of the field. The circumstances are in line for Bailey to be as productive as he was last season.
"I'm quite sure we can do the same things you saw last year," Bailey said. "If teams want to focus more on Tavon or think that Jordan Thompson is a guy they have to focus on, that leaves me with one-on-one coverage and that's something we'll take advantage of.
"But I know teams know me and understand what I did last year and they probably consider me a weapon as well. It's really all on them. If they want to focus on me, they have to worry about Tavon or Jordan. If they want to focus on them, it's my job to step up and have another great year."
Bailey makes it sound as easy as a back shoulder fade.
"I don't think my numbers will go down at all," he said. "If anything, I actually look for them to increase."
They key may not be Smith or Austin, though. A year ago, Austin played the inside position on Bailey's side of the field and they were quite a tandem, with Austin adding a school record 101 receptions for 1,186 yards and eight touchdowns. Late in the regular season, though, the other side of the field wasn't producing much and defenses were better able to devote their attention to Austin and Bailey.
Austin is now the inside receiver on the other side of the field, with Thompson in Austin's former spot. At times, the three will be together on one side with Thompson surrounded by Bailey on the outside and Austin on the inside.
"I've got to make plays first," said Thompson, a 5-7, 175-pound native of Katy, Texas. "I haven't played a game in college yet. That's the thing - I haven't played a down of college football, but I feel like once I start making plays, they'll be more worried about me and the underneath game.
"That will leave the top open for Stedman, but then you've got Tavon underneath, too, and he's still a big threat. Either way, I feel like Stedman is going to have another great season."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.