WVU FOOTBALL: Defensive struggles could affect players’ draft status

West Virginia defensive back Darwin Cook returns a fumble for a 99 yards for a touchdown against Clemson during the 2012 Orange Bowl.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Since winning the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, West Virginia has had 17 players drafted into the National Football League. For a program known in that time first for the zone read and now for the Air Raid, it probably doesn’t make sense that most of the draftees played defense for the Mountaineers.

The only picks from the 2011 and 2012 draft were defensive stars before Tavon Austin, Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey went in the first three rounds a year ago. That came in the wake of the worst season-long defensive performance in school history. This year’s draft continues with two more rounds Friday and concludes with the final four rounds Saturday and follows a WVU season that was only slightly better defensively.

For the Mountaineers from that side of the ball, for the co-conspirators who allowed 40 or more points nine times in the last two seasons and wielded a heavy hand in a combined 11-14 record, they’re well aware of how WVU’s struggles can be viewed at the next level.

They’re aware because they’ve been asked. Often. And they admit it matters. They admit the defensive statistics and rankings will be held against them. Nose guard Shaq Rowell answered in the affirmative, though with a look more than words, a look that said the same thing safety Darwin Cook said.

“When you suck,” Cook said, “you’re not going to get picked.”

His choice of words is strong, but where the defense ranked the past two seasons and how minimal the numerical improvements were this past season stand to serve as support.

And so does the contrary.

“If we would have went to the national championship the (last) year Geno was here, everyone would have left,” Cook said. “It’s all about winning. If you win, you’re going to get drafted. If you lose and play bad, you’ve got work to do.”

While running back Charles Sims could be picked Friday and defensive end Will Clarke might join him that day, or even a day later, the rest of the draft-eligible Mountaineers face long odds. Just about all of them played defense.

“But at the same time now, the scouts are going to put film on and see what’s real,” Rowell said. “If you’re a good player, they’re going to find you. All you need is one team to fall in love with you. That’s all I’m looking for.”

Out of all of WVU’s eligible defensive players, only Clarke was invited to a postseason showcase. He played in the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl and participated in the NFL combine. Everyone else was left out and made to maximize WVU’s pro day in March.

“I wouldn’t say I was surprised,” Rowell said. “A lot of good players get passed over. It is what it is and it wasn’t meant for me to go, but I was able to rest up more than the people at the combine. I had an extra two or three weeks to get ready.”

While Rowell and Cook both said at the pro day they hadn’t even heard from NFL teams, Clarke said he’d talked to all 32 teams.

“So far, it hasn’t been a problem for me,” Clarke said. “I don’t know about how it’s gone for Darwin or Shaq so far, but with the scouts I’ve talked to, it really wasn’t an issue. They were more concerned about me and how I played.”

Cook and Rowell managed to see something good in the series of slights. They were both able to rest and recover, something neither could do much of during a season in which they were forced to overextend their playing time on a defense that was ravaged by injuries and inexperience, especially on the defensive line and in the secondary.

Rowell had knee problems during the season and was without a backup after Christian Brown was injured early and missed the rest of the games. Rowell also wore knee braces during the season, and he was sure it raised questions about his health. He went through pro day without the braces.

Cook was bothered by a groin injury throughout the season, but managed to play just about every snap of every game without the presence of a trusted backup until his body gave into the demands in the 11th game. Cook collided with the Kansas tight end and took the worst of it, but stayed in the game. Not long after that, he couldn’t make a tackle as the last line of defense on a long touchdown run.

“My body said, ‘Enough is enough,’ and a few players later I started to look terrible and couldn’t chase down the running back,” Cook said. “I let him walk right through. I knew I was hurting the team and I couldn’t play anymore. That was a hurtful feeling.”

It’s a feeling he won’t soon let himself forget, too. Healthy again, Cook wants to be on the field and to make his time count, which means bringing every opponent to the ground wherever he ends up after this weekend.

“I just know when I get to training camp and I get somebody, if they’re not getting a big contract, I’m laying them out,” he said. “If you’re not first-team or second-team, if you’re on the practice squad, I feel bad for you.”

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymailwv.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.

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