By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Ever since Rich Rodriguez discovered football gold in these here hills of West Virginia, a steady flow of top-level national talent has come to the state, lifting the WVU program back to the heights Hall of Fame coach Don Nehlen had built it to during the 1980s and 1990s.
While readily adopted as its own by a state starved for victory and national recognition, West Virginia is always craving for one of its own to rise to the top, be it Randy Moss at Marshall or Quincy Wilson at West Virginia.
This past weekend a trio of West Virginians were given a chance, and all three made solid to spectacular contributions in a game that turned out to be a fourth straight Mountaineer defeat, 55-34, at Oklahoma State.
That threesome will be back at it trying to end the losing streak and Oklahoma’s BCS dreams when the Sooners coming to Milan Puskar Stadium for the first time at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Ryan Nehlen, the former coach’s grandson and a senior out of Morgantown’s University High trying to close out his career with his biggest contributions, caught four passes including a touchdown; Connor Arlia, a sophomore out of Weirton, had a pair of catches, one of them as spectacular a diving grab as has been made on any football field in the nation this year, college or NFL; and Cody Clay, a 260-pound redshirt freshman tight end/fullback out of George Washington High, gave the Mountaineers the big man blocking on the corner that had been lacking in the attack.
Now one may wonder why, at this late date, three West Virginia players should be getting their chance.
Part of it, of course, is that four-game losing streak, which forces change, but the Mountaineers also lost two wide receivers during the week.
First it was Travares Copeland, a talented freshman who had caught 10 passes during the season and had just earned a chance to start, and highly-rated Ivan McCartney, also a sometime starter, left the team.
Coach Dana Holgorsen has been making a point lately that his team isn’t lacking talent or coaching, but it is lacking attitude, a hard-nosed, gritty, attacking attitude … the kind of attitude West Virginians are known for, and these three players had it.
Asked what makes a good inside receiver, Holgorsen replied:
“It is grit, toughness and effort.”
This, he noted, comes when playing and winning means a lot to a player.
“You take guys like Connor (Arlia), Ryan (Nehlen) and Cody Clay. Those are three of the most disappointed kids in our locker room after the game. We need more of that to exist. I am proud of how they did that. I can’t manufacture new people. It is what we’ve got.”
Clay’s size and blocking ability was something Holgorsen had been seeking much of the year, his two inside receivers being Tavon Austin and Jordan Thompson, whose nickname “Squirt” gives you an idea about his size.
“It helps on the inside,” Holgorsen said. “We watched Texas Tech’s offense against Oklahoma’s defense. I studied that a lot this week. That guy (big inside receiver Jace Amaro) just destroys people. So the physical presence on the inside is necessary.
“We don’t have that physical presence on the inside. You have Tavon (Austin) and Squirt (Jordan Thompson). Those guys run circles around people, but they don’t necessarily run right into people.”
So, he put Clay, who had been more of a fullback but was overlooked since Ryan Clarke returned from injury, back into the slot.
“Having Cody (Clay) at that spot last week did us some good. He sprung Tavon for a touchdown, and he blocked well on the perimeter. He probably blocked better on the perimeter than he did in the backfield.”
While Nehlen’s touchdown and Arlia’s diving catches were noticed, what went unseen was the blocking … not only from Clay but also form Arlia, also an inside receiver.
“Having those guys I think is important, yes,” Holgorsen said. “Connor (Arlia) brings some toughness like that to the inside. He will get in there and give it everything that he has got. He will go in there and stick his hat on somebody and fight for everything that he is worth.
“That type of guy is important. You need those type of guys who can score, too. A Wes Welker type and Danny Amendola, who stick their nose in there and be gritty and then also make a guy miss and go score.”
Arlia understands it.
“It’s definitely something the coaches preach,” Arlia said. “They want you to block hard every play and run your routes as hard as you can. I’m not the biggest or fastest guy. I know that, so I know I’ve got to go as hard as I can. That’s all I try to do out there.”
The departure of Copeland and McCartney opened things up for Nehlen, Arlia and Clay.
“This is my last year here. I’m trying to make the most of it. The group of receivers we have here now, we all want it real bad and it shows the past three games,” Nehlen said, perhaps taking a shot at some of the other receivers like McCartney and Copeland.
Nehlen has had to wait his turn and, to be honest, it almost didn’t come, but he stuck it out, even though it wasn’t always easy.
“I’m patient,” he said. “It burns me inside sometimes. I don’t show it, but I try to be as patient as I can.”
And that is how Arlia is approaching it.
“I see a lot of Connor in me when I was young and going through college. He’s basically going through the same thing I did. West Virginia kid, walk-on. He’s going to make a name for himself, and I’m proud of him.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.