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NFL Draft: Peers expect WVU stars to excel at next level

NEW YORK -- Twenty-four players were invited to attend the NFL Draft that begins tonight at Radio City Music Hall. Three have tried to stop the two West Virginia players who could hear their names called in tonight's first round.

LSU's Eric Reid and Barkevious Mingo and Texas' Kenny Vaccaro expect Geno Smith and Tavon Austin to do in the NFL what they witnessed in college.

"Tavon is probably the most electric player I played against," said Mingo, a defensive end who was 2-0 against WVU in 2010-11.

"I can't even explain it. And Geno just keeps making plays. I don't think he missed that many in the (2011) game we played against him.

"There are just not a lot of people who can bring the ability he has. He sat back in the pocket and he was well-protected, so he didn't have to move that much, but I've seen that if you pressure him, he can get out of the pocket and make plays with his feet."">NFL Draft: Double dose of firsts may happen for Mountaineers  

Austin is commonly considered a certain first-round pick in the three-day event at Radio City Music Hall that begins at 8 p.m. on ESPN and NFL Network.

Most projections have him in the middle of the first round, ranging from just outside the top 10 to the low teens. There are some who believe he's a top 10 pick, though.

"Speed kills," said Reid, a safety named first-team All-America in 2012 by the American Football Coaches Association and the Football Writers' Association of America. "That's what the NFL wants at the next level - receivers with speed and good hands who can pick up yards after the catch. That's one of Tavon's best attributes because he's so fast."

Smith's fate is far more uncertain. His projections range from the top five of the first round to the top five of the second round. Those who have criticized the quality of the group of quarterbacks available this season have seemingly singled in on Smith. His mechanics, leadership and performances in adverse weather have been used against him.

His peers believe outsiders are missing something more important. Vaccaro said he's played in the Big 12 against four first-round quarterbacks: Baylor's Robert Griffin III, Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden, Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford. He believes Smith is "right up there with each of them."

"What I like about Geno was the feeling I got when he was under center," Vaccaro said. "He had everything under control. He had that poise and that leadership that I felt because I was right there playing the nickel spot. I was in the box and we were eye to eye.

"A lot of the time he was reading off me. If I was too far in, he was going to throw it to Tavon. If I was too far out, they were going to run. So I was able to get a good feel for him and I knew he took the game seriously and that he was going to be an elite player."

Reid and Mingo can't help but appreciate the skill of Smith and Austin. Both played sparingly in the 2010 home win, though Mingo had two quarterback hits and a pass breakup and deflected a missed field goal attempt.

In 2011 at Mountaineer Field, Smith completed 38 of his 65 passes for 463 yards and two touchdowns - but also two interceptions, one that was returned to the 1-yard line.

"They had a great game plan that they executed very well," Reid said. "They knew going into the game that we had a great defensive line. That was out strength, so they utilized their quick game and they stacked up yards after the catch. But Geno knows how to play quarterback and maintain the offense and stay calm under pressure and get the ball out of his hands when he needs to."

Austin caught 11 passes for 187 yards and added 100 yards in kickoff returns. He had 72- and 38-yard receptions against the Tigers secondary.

"Tavon's very capable catching the ball and then running after the catch," Reid said. "I remember one play in particular (the 38-yard catch) where he caught a swing pass on one side of the field and took it to the other sideline without getting touched and then turned it up and got another 20 or 30 yards."

If Reid and cornerback Tyrann Mathieu are both picked this weekend, all five defensive backs LSU started that night will have been drafted. Reid and Mathieu might join Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne as first-round picks.

Vacarro figures to be a first-round pick, too, and he matched up with Austin one-on-one after Austin caught a short pass late in the first quarter and turned it into a 40-yard score. Austin had 10 catches for 102 yards, plus another 111 yards in kickoff returns. Vaccaro ended up with 11 tackles, mostly once he corralled Austin.

"We knew we were feeding off each other," Vaccaro said. "I knew Tavon was pretty much the most dynamic receiver in the country and he knew I was one of the best defensive backs in the country. We understood that game as really important to both of us. He's a playmaker you can put in space or put at running back and it doesn't matter. He's so fast and such a great competitor."

Austin and Vaccaro developed a long distance relationship facilitated by social media. One day, long after Texas had played WVU and Oklahoma, Vaccaro decided to watch the game film from the game between the Mountaineers and the Sooners. Vaccaro saw Austin play running back and rush for a school-record 344 yards and two touchdowns.

"He can take over a game," Vaccaro said. "I saw all the things he can do. With the way NFL is going now, everyone is so spread out and Tavon is the exact player those offenses need."


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