Mountain State to the NFL
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At the start of the week, there were 36 players bearing West Virginia ties on NFL training camp rosters and just about as many story lines.
First are established veterans like running back Ahmad Bradshaw (Marshall), safety Ryan Mundy (West Virginia) and offensive lineman Doug Legursky (MU), all bearing Super Bowl rings and all debuting with new teams this season - Bradshaw with the Colts, Mundy the Giants and Legursky the Bills.
Then there are the high draft choices looking to make an immediate impact in the league - such as WVU receiver Tavon Austin (first round, Rams), WVU quarterback Geno Smith (second round, Jets) and Herd receiver Aaron Dobson (second round, Patriots).
Finally, there are the undrafted free agents just trying to hang around long enough to get noticed and finagle a coveted roster spot - players like receiver Tyrone Goard (Bengals) and running back Jordan Roberts (Chiefs).
Most NFL camps opened this week, and by Saturday all rookies and veterans across the league are scheduled to report.
Certainly, most of the attention this preseason will focus on Austin, Smith, Dobson and another WVU rookie receiver, Stedman Bailey, a third-round pick of the Rams who is rooming with Austin in training camp.
Austin, taken eighth overall, was the first skill-position player selected in the draft. He said his first few workouts provided a difficult adjustment.
"In the beginning, it was kind of difficult,'' Austin said on the Rams' official website, "because at West Virginia there are signals and now it's just words. It's hard, but it's slowing down a little bit for me. It's totally different, but it's all repetition and getting it down pat.''
Austin, who is expected to split time at running back, receiver and kick returner, is glad a familiar face like Bailey is there with him in camp.
"We're learning together because we're roommates,'' Austin said. "We definitely quiz each other while we're in there. It's a blessing to have Stedman with me, because we can definitely learn together . . . but at the same time, it depends on [the chemistry between] the quarterback and the wide receiver.''
Austin said he's not feeling the pressure of contributing right away as a high draft pick.
"It's just something I'm trying not to think about, to be honest,'' he said. "I know I ain't Superman, but I want to come in and do my part when the coaches call on me. Right now, they're trying to get us caught up with the veterans when they come back.''
Dobson, the former South Charleston High School standout who became the first state high school player drafted into the NFL since 2004, will also have his progress scrutinized in Patriots camp, as New England attempts to identify new targets for quarterback Tom Brady.
If tight end Rob Gronkowski's injuries don't heal in time for the season opener, the Patriots will be without players who provided 82 percent of their catches and 85 percent of their touchdown receptions last year, making Dobson's learning curve and contributions all the more important.
Dobson is presently penciled in as second-string on the depth chart, running behind Michael Jenkins, a 10-year veteran and another newly acquired receiver. Most Patriots observers feel like Mike Reiss and Field Yates of ESPNBoston.com when sizing up that battle.
"When it comes to a taller 'X' receiver on the edge,'' Reiss and Yates wrote, "there is the proven commodity [Jenkins] versus the higher-upside rookie [Dobson]. In spring drills, Jenkins was a consistent presence in the role by taking most of the top-unit reps, but that doesn't mean he'll necessarily be there when it counts.
"You have to figure Dobson will be given every chance to seize the job and develop the desired connection with quarterback Tom Brady. He showed flashes of excellence in camp [specifically in contested situations down the sideline] but also some inconsistency catching the ball.''
The brightest spotlight of training camp, of course, will focus on Smith, who's in the running with veteran Mark Sanchez to quarterback the Jets. Smith just signed a four-year deal Monday worth about $5 million.
Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has already heaped praised on Smith.
"He's way ahead of the pace of a normal rookie," Mornhinweg said to the New York Daily News. "Guys that are quite skilled sometimes get away with some mechanical [flaws] in a game. They're just so good athletically that they get away with them for a period of time and then they get better and better and better and better.
"I think Geno's close. I don't think he's there yet. But he's close to being able to get into a game and function at a high level. So our whole challenge - and his challenge - is that first preseason game. Now let's get to a point where you can function at a high level.''
At the other end of the spectrum are players like Goard and Roberts, West Virginia high school products who got their foot in the door as UFAs and hope their play in camp turns more heads than UFOs.
Both appear to face uphill climbs to earning a roster spot.
In Goard's first two days at rookie minicamp in May, the Capital High graduate dropped at least five passes, according to Bengals beat reporter Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer.
With the Bengals sporting a more experienced receiving unit this season, Goard's challenge becomes even more difficult unless he does something to make himself stand out in training camp. He's currently listed as fifth-string at right wide receiver, and on Thursday was placed on the active/PUP list with a finger injury.
At Eastern Kentucky last fall, Goard provided plenty of explosive plays with his 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame, catching 41 passes for 900 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 22 yards per catch. He hauled in 24 TD passes over three seasons and was one of only a few FCS players invited to the NFL combine.
Roberts likewise faces long odds in Chiefs camp.
The former Scott High and University of Charleston runner saw his week start off nicely as he threw out the first pitch at a West Virginia Power home game Sunday. The next morning, he flew out for the start of training camp in St. Joseph, Mo.
Roberts put a photo of himself running the ball in individual drills on his Twitter account Wednesday. He wore the Chiefs bright-red uniform bearing the No. 45.
It's going to take a lot for Roberts to catch the eye of first-year coach Andy Reid, however, as the Chiefs didn't attempt a single running play in team drills through the first two days of camp. Reid was notoriously pass-happy when the coached the Eagles.
With the Chiefs, Roberts is listed as fifth-string at running back behind Jamaal Charles, Knile Davis, Shaun Draughn and Cyrus Gray. Roberts set several school records at UC after transferring from WVU.
Of the 36 players with West Virginia ties in NFL camps, 21 played at WVU and 11 at Marshall. The other four hail from Eastern Kentucky (Goard and former Roane County lineman Derek Hardman, now with the Lions), UC (Roberts) and Shepherd (Colts tight end Dominique Jones from Shepherd).
Five are former state high school players - Legursky (Woodrow Wilson), Dobson, Goard, Roberts and Hardman.
At least three other West Virginia college players who signed NFL free-agent deals after the draft in April are no longer listed on their respective teams' rosters - WVU guard Jeff Braun (Ravens) and running back Shawne Alston (Saints) and Marshall receiver Antavious Wilson (Jets).
One more state native could hook up with a team before training camps end - and it's a well-known name.
Randy Moss, now a 14-year NFL veteran and 36 years old, has been the subject of speculation at 49ers camp and for a few other NFL teams. Last year for a San Francisco team that reached the Super Bowl, Moss caught 28 passes for 434 yards and three TDs.
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Ryan Pritt and Jesse Smith contributed to this report.
From the Mountain State to the NFL
The following is a list of 36 players currently in NFL training camps with connections to the state of West Virginia:
Player NFL team Hgt Wgt Pos College/Prep
Tavon Austin Rams 5-9 174 WR West Virginia
Stedman Bailey Rams 5-10 193 WR West Virginia
Daniel Baldridge Titans 6-8 323 OT Marshall
Don Barclay Packers 6-4 305 G-T West Virginia
Ahmad Bradshaw Colts 5-10 214 RB Marshall
Omar Brown Ravens 5-11 195 S Marshall
Selvish Capers Giants 6-5 315 OL West Virginia
Vinny Curry Eagles 6-3 279 DE Marshall
Aaron Dobson Patriots 6-3 200 WR Marshall/SC HS
Terence Garvin Steelers 6-3 221 LB West Virginia
Tyrone Goard Bengals 6-4 205 WR Capital HS
Najee Goode Bucs 6-0 244 LB West Virginia
Derek Hardman Lions 6-6 300 OT Roane County HS
Mario Harvey Colts 6-0 264 ILB Marshall
Bruce Irvin Seahawks 6-3 248 DE West Virginia
Will Johnson Steelers 6-2 238 FB West Virginia
Adam Jones Bengals 5-10 180 CB West Virginia
Dominique Jones Colts 6-3 270 TE Shepherd
Johnny Jones Raiders 6-4 314 NT Marshall
Ellis Lankster Jets 5-9 190 CB West Virginia
Doug Legursky Bills 6-1 315 C-G Marshall/WW HS
Joe Madsen Steelers 6-3 310 C West Virginia
Pat McAfee Colts 6-1 233 P West Virginia
Albert McClellan Ravens 6-2 255 LB Marshall
Ryan Mundy Giants 6-1 209 S West Virginia
Chris Neild Redskins 6-2 325 NT West Virginia
Darius Reynaud Titans 5-9 208 KR West Virginia
Kent Richardson Browns 5-11 200 DB West Virginia
Jordan Roberts Chiefs 5-10 222 RB Scott HS/UC
Lee Smith Bills 6-6 265 TE Marshall
Geno Smith Jets 6-3 221 QB West Virginia
C.J. Spillman 49ers 6-0 199 S Marshall
Keith Tandy Bucs 5-10 205 S West Virginia
J.T. Thomas Bears 6-1 236 LB West Virginia
Pat White Redskins 6-0 190 QB West Virginia
J.D. Woods Steelers 6-0 203 WR West Virginia