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January 4, 2012
The connection with Miramar, Fla., that's been so kind to West Virginia started modestly with a walk-on who enrolled in Morgantown sight unseen.
Defensive tackle Josh Taylor, a South Florida kid through and through, had never even seen snow, but he saw enough highlights of Pat White and Steve Slaton to take a chance walking on with the Mountaineers in 2007.
"I think the mountains got me," Taylor said. "It was beautiful scenery."
Players from Florida high schools fill both rosters in Wednesday's Orange Bowl, including Rivals.com National Freshman of the Year Sammy Watkins, Clemson's wide receiver from South Fort Myers.
No school, however, has been more kind to either of the Orange Bowl participants than the one three miles from the site of the game.
West Virginia has five players on its roster from Miramar High School, including the most prolific single-season passing duo in school history. Quarterback Geno Smith, a Miramar grad, rewrote the Mountaineers' passing records this season with 3,978 yards.
Smith's college and high school teammate, Stedman Bailey, set a school record with 1,197 yards this season. A third Miramar player, Ivan McCartney, is a starting wideout who contributed 572 receiving yards this season.
Two of the five Miramar players won't dress for the Orange Bowl, however. Taylor is injured, and linebacker Dominick Bryan is redshirting after a transfer.
Though he's not playing in the Orange Bowl, Taylor's gamble eventually paid off as he's now a former walk-on, having earned a scholarship in 2009. Before that, he gave a West Virginia a thumbs up when Smith and his two prolific receivers started looking into the Mountaineers.
"I told them it was a good place to come, and when they came up, they fell in love with it too," Taylor said.
[ More West Virginia: WVSports.com ]
Since 2002, Miramar has sent more of its players to West Virginia than any other FBS school. West Virginia has six Miramar alums either on the current roster or committed to play for the Mountaineers. The same high school has sent only two players to in-state FBS programs: Artis Warthen to FIU in 2005, and wide receiver Malcolm Lewis, who is committed to Miami.
The origins of the Miramar-West Virginia connection date to 1997 when Miami native Damon Cogdell transferred from junior college to play for Don Nehlen for two seasons. Cogdell was one of more than a dozen Florida players on the West Virginia roster in his two seasons there.
After leaving West Virginia, Cogdell became a high school coach, landing at Miramar eight years ago and becoming the head coach five years ago.
At Miramar, his office is dotted with blue and gold memorabilia and photos from his playing days as a Mountaineer linebacker.
Cogdell and his former players said he never pushed them to go to West Virginia, but he gave the program high marks when asked.
"Those kids ask me all the time about West Virginia," Cogdell said. "I'm going to tell the kids the truth. In that town, you can't go wrong. It's a small town and it's tough to get in trouble."
When Taylor was a senior, Cogdell reached out to West Virginia assistants Bill Kirelawich and Steve Dunlap, who were on Nehlen's staff when Cogdell played, to see if they had room for a walk-on defensive lineman.
Cogdell also arranged for his team to visit West Virginia for a Rich Rodriguez camp. On that trip were then-sophomores Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey.
"I always wanted my kids to see where I went to school," Cogdell said. "Now a few players on my team wear West Virginia gear."
That wasn't always the case. Like many South Florida football players, Smith and McCartney grew up Miami fans. Bailey grew up a Florida fan.
When Smith was being recruited, though, Miami already had Jacory Harris entrenched as a starting quarterback. West Virginia didn't need a quarterback until Tajh Boyd, now Clemson's starting quarterback, decommitted from the Mountaineers in October 2008.
Then-West Virginia assistant Doc Holliday, a noted recruiter in South Florida and a former Mountaineers assistant when Cogdell was a player, started looking into Smith. As a senior, Smith was on his way to passing for more than 3,000 yards and 32 touchdowns. His receivers, Bailey and McCartney, each caught at least a dozen touchdown passes.
[ More Clemson: TigerIllustrated.com ]
That year, Pat White was a senior. Jarrett Brown, a Florida product himself from Palm Beach Lakes, would be a one-year starting quarterback. That meant Smith could start as early as his sophomore year.
"In this generation, every kid wants to play right now," said T.Y. Conyers, Miramar's offensive coordinator and receivers coach since Smith's freshman year. "When you have those [in-state] schools loaded with talent, a lot kids have no choice but to go to the other options, like West Virginia or Northern teams where they can play right now."
Altogether, it wasn't a bad tradeoff. Boyd's switch to Clemson opened the door for Smith, who agreed with Bailey to go to the same school. McCartney followed a year later. Now Smith and Bailey are roommates in Morgantown; McCartney lives around the corner.
"We're all brothers," Smith said. "We all love each other. There's a connection with all the Miramar players."
It's a connection West Virginia would like to continue.
The pipeline from Miramar may not dry up. Wide receiver Devonte Mathis committed to the Mountaineers in November. Beyond Mathis, West Virginia is recruiting Miramar teammate Tracy Howard, a five-star cornerback.
"We all communicate, but I don't pressure those guys," McCartney said. "I was in the same position they were in. Pressuring someone might make them go somewhere they don't want to be. I just tell them to go where their heart is."