Stedman Bailey is joining a growing list of Mountaineer football players leaving school early to try their luck in the NFL.
For some, the choice to leave early was pretty clear cut. In 2005, cornerback Pacman Jones left school after his sophomore season to become the sixth overall pick in the draft by the Tennessee Titans. Jones has had his off-the-field difficulties, for sure, but he is still in the league seven years after the fact with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Running back Amos Zereoue was a third round draft choice of Pittsburgh in 1999 following three productive years at WVU, including a sophomore campaign in 1997 when he ran for 1,589 yards to rank third in the country in rushing. Zereoue played a total of seven seasons in the NFL with his best year coming with the Steelers in 2002 when he rushed for 762 yards and scored four touchdowns.
Offensive lineman Soloman Page left school a year early in 1999, was drafted in the second round by the Dallas Cowboys, and parlayed that into a five-year career with the Cowboys, Chargers and Lions, appearing in 67 career games.
Chris Henry, like Jones, was an early entrant in 2005 and appeared headed for a productive pro career with the Cincinnati Bengals before tragically dying from injuries sustained during a domestic dispute in December, 2009. Henry managed just 119 receptions for 1,862 yards and 21 touchdowns during his brief pro career.
Darius Reynaud left early following West Virginia’s upset victory over Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl and was not drafted, but he caught on with three different teams and is still in the league with the Tennessee Titans where he leads the team in kickoff returns, bringing one kick back 105 yards for a touchdown earlier this year.
Steve Slaton also left West Virginia with eligibility on the table following the 2008 Fiesta Bowl and appeared headed for pro football stardom after a rookie season with Houston in 2008 that saw him run for 1,282 yards and score nine touchdowns, but injuries limited him to just 43 carries over the last two seasons with Houston and Miami before he was released during training camp earlier this year. Slaton continues to work out for teams but has not signed with anyone.
Robert Sands chose to leave school after his junior season in 2010 and was selected in the fifth round by the Bengals where he remains on the roster, although he is currently on the team’s inactive list. Where and how Sands fits into Cincinnati’s future plans is yet to be determined.
For others, the decision to leave school early clearly didn’t turn out as well.
Back in the early 1970s, a pair of West Virginia running backs departed early to play in the Canadian Football League. Eddie Williams, the star of West Virginia’s victory over South Carolina in the 1969 Peach Bowl, spent one additional season at WVU in 1970 before deciding to give pro football a try in the CFL. Two years later, in 1972, Kerry Marbury left school a year early after West Virginia’s disappointing loss to NC State in the 1972 Peach Bowl and spent parts of three seasons in the CFL and the defunct World Football League. At the time, the NFL was not accepting underclassmen so the Canadian route was a player's only option of leaving school early.
Perhaps the biggest miscalculation was made by two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Major Harris, who passed on his senior season at WVU in 1990 for a chance to play in the NFL. Harris wasn’t taken until the 12th round by the Los Angeles Raiders and never played a down in the NFL. He did play one year in the CFL and had success in the Arena League, but Harris has since stated publically that he regretted his decision to leave school early and wished that he had access to the evaluation process underclassmen can use today.
Two others - fullback Rodney Woodard, and defensive end Johnny Dingle - also left school early but were not drafted and never played in the NFL.
Where Bailey fits on this spectrum is yet to be determined, but the fact that he has had two very productive seasons including a 100-plus-catch, 1,500-plus-yard season in the Big 12 bodes well for his future.
“If you put two good years together as a receiver and you’re an underclassman, then you have a chance to do some good things at the next level and that’s what they look for,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, who also coached early NFL draft entrants Michael Crabtree and Justin Blackmon.
However, both Crabtree and Blackmon are in the 6-feet-1, 210-pound range while Bailey is listed at 5-feet-10 and 195 pounds. His size (or lack thereof) and how he performs in front of NFL scouts will play a big role in where Bailey eventually ends up in the draft.
“I will be curious to see how he tests out,” said Holgorsen. “All of the NFL people want to know. We don’t 40-yard dash them and we don’t do any of that stuff here. It is all player development.”
Bailey does have an impressive body of work and a willingness to work hard and improve that will be beneficial to him when teams start working him out next month.
“He allowed us to coach him,” said Holgorsen. “He bought into it, he worked hard, he got out there and he practiced hard, he developed in the weight room and he listened and made plays. He is a good football player. He’s durable, he is smooth and he has got great hand-eye coordination.”
Those things certainly bode well for Bailey. Now it will be a matter of how well he performs in front of a stopwatch and all of the other things that pro scouts seem to rely on today. Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.