By Parker Stone, Panhandle News Network Sports
In the over 100 years of West Virginia University football, there have been remarkable players that have made their mark on the Mountaineer program. With 15 conference championships, over 200 players selected in the NFL Draft, and seven members of the College Football Hall of Fame. The task is a mammoth one, but after consultation with peers, analysts, and the Panhandle Sports Live! faithful, here is how I would construct the best West Virginia University football team of all time.
Head Coach: Don Nehlen
By far one of the easiest selections on the list, Don Nehlen helped make West Virginia football the brand it is. Having the most wins in school history with 149, Nehlen led the Mountaineer program out of its struggles in the late 1970s to the closest West Virginia has ever been to a national title in football. Suffering a loss in the 1988 Fiesta Bowl. His accomplishments were honored when he was enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005. Nehlen is by far the greatest coach in WVU history.
QB1: Pat White
The argument has been made between Pat White and the quarterback who will serve as the number two on this roster on who is the greatest to ever wear the gold and blue. I give a slight edge to Pat White with just how dynamic he was with the ball in his hands. He left WVU as the NCAA career leader in rushing yards by a quarterback with 4480 yards and sixth all-time in NCAA victories as a QB with 34. He currently ranks 6th all-time in passing yards, 5th in passing touchdowns, and leads WVU history in touchdowns responsible for. Throw in being a three-time member of the All-Big East First-Team, twice being named Big East Player of the Year, and giving Mountaineer fans the most to cheer for since the turn of the century, he earns QB1. It’s a travesty he will never be able to enter the College Football Hall of Fame due to never being named an All-American.
QB2 and QB3: Major Harris and Geno Smith
Coming inches away from QB1 is Major Harris, who was the leading man behind the Mountaineers 1988 undefeated regular season and National Championship loss to Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Harris became the first quarterback in NCAA history to pass for 5000 yards and rush for 2000 yards in a career. His memorable performance against Penn State in 1988 featured him out-gaining the Nittany Lions in offense by himself and “The Play.” A 2009 inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame, Major’s legacy as a Mountaineer is celebrated fondly with his legendary number nine being retired in 2021.
Geno Smith settles in as an outstanding third quarterback on Mountaineers. Smith exited Morgantown after four seasons as the career passing yards, passing touchdowns, and total offense. Arguably the best pure passer out of the three quarterbacks, Geno Smith has gone on to the most successful NFL career, being named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year with the Seattle Seahawks for his performance in the 2022-23 season. I made sure to write Geno back and get him on the list.
Starting Running Back: Steve Slaton
Steve Slaton takes to the top tailback spot in Mountaineer history as he was a lightning rod on offense as soon as he stepped on campus in 2005. Statistically, he is 5th all-time in rushing and is the all-time leader with 50 career rushing touchdowns in just three seasons in Morgantown. As a freshman, he was named the 2005 Sugar Bowl MVP where he had one of the greatest college football bowl game performances in history. Slatten picked up numerous awards and honors in his tenure at WVU, most notably his 2006 All-Big East First-Team and Consensus All-American awards, and will be the lead in the WVU all-time backfield
RB2 and RB3: Amos Zereoue and Avon Cobourne
Rushing for 1000 yards in each of his three seasons at WVU, “Famous Amos” will slot in as the second greatest running back in WVU history. Zeroue was a First-Team All-Big East member all three years and was named a Third-Team All-American in 1997 and a Second-Team All-American in 1998. At the time of his graduation, he was the Mountaineers’ all-time leader in career rushing yards and the single-season rushing yards record holder, both would not stand long.
Avon Cobourne made the loss of Amos Zereoue into more of a transition in 1999, as the freshman ran for over 130 yards against the top defense in the nation, Virginia Tech. He is still the all-time leading rusher in Mountaineer history with 5164 rushing yards in his four year career and has the second-best single-season rushing performance in Mountaineer history with his 1710-yard season in 2002.
Starting Fullback: Ira “Rat” Rodgers
One of the first stars and the first All-American in WVU history, Ira “Rat” Rodgers did it all. He came to Morgantown as a quarterback but settled into the fullback position by the end of his freshman year. His 1919 season is one of the more legendary of its time: leading the nation in scoring with 147 points, kicking 33 extra points, and setting what is still, over 100 years later, a program record of 19 single-season rushing touchdowns. Not to mention he held the program record for rushing touchdowns in a career until Steve Slaton broke it in 2007, and just for fun, he held the WVU touchdown passes career record with eleven until 1949. He more than deserved to be the first Mountaineer inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1957 and had his number 21 retired by WVU in 2010.
Starting Wide Receiver 1: Stedman Bailey
Other than the quarterback spot, this is the position of most controversy for Mountaineer fans. My pick is Geno Smith’s high school teammate Stedman Bailey as the greatest wideout in Mountaineer history. In just three seasons at West Virginia, Stedman Bailey decimated the record books for receivers. The most significant dent came in his historic 2012 junior season. Bailey set the single-season record for receiving yards in the program with 1622 yards, which is almost 200 more than the next highest player. That same season, he set the single-season receiving touchdowns record with 25 touchdowns. Yes, I did not make a typo that is 25 receiving touchdowns in a season and seven more than the next closest Mountaineer wideout. Bailey in his career was named to Second-Team All-Big East in 2011, First-Team All-Big East, and First-Team All-American in 2012. He should have been the first Mountaineer to win the Fred Biletnikoff Award for his 2012 season if you ask me.
Starting Wide Receiver 2: Tavon Austin
Arguably the most explosive athlete to ever grace Milan Puskar Stadium, Tavon Austin completes the Orange Bowl champion trio on the all-time Mountaineers. Starting off as a return specialist, Austin blossomed into a full receiver in his junior season with nearly 1200 receiving yards and eight scores. The nation was introduced to Austin with his four-touchdown performance in the 70-33 victory over Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl, dubbed The South Beach Smackdown. Austin didn’t stop the standout performances there as he returned to his high school roots against Oklahoma in their first matchup as members of the BIG XII in 2012. Austin lined up a good portion of the game as a tailback and set the WVU single-game record for rushing and all[-purpose yardage with 344 and 572 yards respectively. Austin was a two-time selection to the All-Big East First Team, an All-BIG XII First Team selection in 2012, Special Teams Player of the Year in the Big East and BIG XII, recipient of the Jet Award and Paul Hornung Award in 2012, and a two-time First-Team All-American in 2011 and 2012 as a return specialist. Austin is the Mountaineer career leader in receptions and receiving yards, third all-time in receiving touchdowns, and more than 1500 yards ahead in the lead for career all-purpose yards.
Starting Wide Receiver 3: Kevin White
While Kevin White only was at WVU for two seasons, his dominance in his tenure could not be overlooked for the final starting wide receiver position. In 2014 Kevin White set the WVU single-game receptions record with 16 against Texas and ranks second all-time in single-season receiving yards with 1447. Kevin White was named to the All-Big XII first team and a Second-Team All-American for his 2014 season. White was the opposite of how Austin and Bailey were, with his tall 6’3 frame aiding the WVU All-Time offense in the red zone and with gazelle-like running for an athlete of his height. White became the highest wideout ever drafted from the Mountaineers, being selected 7th overall in the 2015 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears.
Backup Receivers: Chris Henry, David Sills V, and David Saunders
The late Chris Henry is our first backup receiver and our WR4 on the all-time Mountaineers team. Named as the Big East Freshman of the Year in 2003, Henry became only the second Mountaineer to ever record 1000 yards receiving while being named to the All-Big East Second-Team. Henry’s 22 career touchdowns still rank him fifth all-time in WVU history in just two seasons starting for the Mountaineers.
David Sills V took an interesting road: being a highly touted quarterback prospect he enrolled at WVU with hopes to be the next great Mountaineer signal caller. After losing out on the starting job for the Mountaineers, he spent a year at El Camino College in California playing quarterback. Shockingly he re-enrolled at WVU now committing to play where the Mountaineers had him before as an outside receiver. In his final two seasons at wide receiver for WVU Sills became a touchdown machine, scoring 33 of his 35 career touchdowns in that span. He ranks second all-time in career receiving touchdowns to only Stedman Bailey and owns the second and third best single-season receiving touchdown performances.
The pioneer of WVU receivers: David Saunders was the first receiver in Mountaineer history to reach over the 1000 yards receiving milestone in his sophomore season of 1996. He was named to the All-Big East First Team that year and was named to the All-Big East Second Team in his final season in 1998. His records for career receptions and receiving yards in WVU history both stood for over a decade.
Starting Tight End: Anthony Becht
Anthony Becht takes the position of the top tight end in WVU history. The current St. Louis Battlehawks Head Coach ranks second among tight ends in WVU history in catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns and was a fantastic blocker at the tight end position for the Mountaineers. His blocking and short yardage game led him to have a decade long NFL career playing for five teams.
Backup Tight End: Owen Schmitt
Slightly cheating with this entry as The Runaway Beer Truck was listed as a fullback during his WVU career, but with him starting at tight end for four games plus the lack of depth at tight end for the All-Time WVU team, I’m going to make the exception. Schmitt was a member of the legendary Sports Illustrated cover with Pat White and Steve Slaton for the upcoming 2007 season and was the definition of the old-school hybrid. His ferocious blocking for Pat White and Steve Slaton led one of the greatest Mountaineer rushing attacks ever. His 57-yard rushing touchdown in the upset Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma is still one of the most emotional moments in Mountaineer football history. Plus being that I randomly met Owen Schmitt at a Princeton bar when I was in college at Concord and he took a picture with me, I have to include him on this list.
Starting Tackle: Brian Jozwiak
One of the great stories in the coaching career of Don Nehlen, Brian Jozwiak came to WVU as a defensive tackle but was switched to an offensive tackle in 1983. He became one of the most dominant blockers in Mountaineer history. A Second-Team All-American in 1983 and a 1985 consensus All-American selection makes Jozwiak arguably the greatest offensive lineman in WVU history. He was selected seventh overall in the 1986 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs, making the NFL All-Rookie Team in 1986.
Starting Tackle: Bruce Bosley
Bruce Bosley was a star for the Mountaineers in the 1950s. A letterman all four years at WVU while playing on both the offensive and defensive line, he was named a consensus All-American in 1955 as well as an Academic All-American while majoring in chemical engineering. He never had to use the degree as he was a second-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers in 1956. Bosley would have a successful career as an interior offensive lineman for the 49ers being named four times an All-Pro, four times a Pro Bowler, and a member of the 49ers Golden Era team spanning from 1949-1969. Bosley was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1982 and has been honored since his passing with his number 77 jersey being retired by WVU in 2016.
Starting Guard: Mike Compton
Mike Compton played all over the offensive line in his college and professional career as he slides perfectly in at one of the guard spots on the greatest West Virginia team ever assembled. Playing from 1989-1992, Compton garnered All-Big East honors in his junior season, he followed that up with being named First-Team Big East, a finalist for the Lombardi Award, and a consensus All-American, and an Academic All-American. He was picked in the third round by the Detroit Lions in the 1993 NFL Draft and would play four out of the five offensive lineman positions for Detroit in his eight-year stint. Blocking for Barry Sanders in his 2000-yard rushing season, winning two Super Bowls with the New England Patriots, and being a member of the WVU Athletics Hall of Fame lands Mike Compton on the all-time roster.
Starting Guard: Chuck Howley
But wasn’t Chuck Howley on defense? While he eventually would land in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his work on the defensive side of the ball, Chuck Howley was one of the outstanding blockers for WVU and one of the greatest athletes in the school’s history. Howley, despite playing and lettering in swimming, gymnastics, track and field, and wrestling along with football, was a Third-Team All-American in 1955. The Wheeling native would go on to be drafted by the Chicago Bears seventh overall in the 1956 NFL Draft and a knee injury early was thought to be career-ending. He would be traded to the Dallas Cowboys where he became one of the key defensive pieces in the Tom Landry teams of the era, being the only player to be named the MVP of a Super Bowl while on the losing side of the game. Howley as one of the greatest athletes in WVU history lands on the roster of the greatest Mountaineer football players of all-time.
Starting Center: Dan Mozes
Dan Mozes rounds out the All-Time Mountaineers offense as the man in the middle of a stout offensive line. Mozes dominated early at WVU, starting his career at guard and being named First-Team All-Big East and a Freshman All-American. Mozes would eventually move to center early into his junior season where he remained for the rest of his Mountaineer career. He was named a Second-Team All-American his junior season in 2005 and followed that up with maybe the greatest year of a WVU offensive lineman ever. In 2006 Dan Mozes was named a unanimous All-American and winner of the Rimington Trophy, given annually to the nation’s best center. Mozes will be the center of the plow that will lead a vaunted rushing attack of the All-Time West Virginia Mountaineers.