By Cam Huffman
When Connor Arlia was injured in a jet skiing accident on New Year’s Eve of 2011, just a few days before his West Virginia football team faced Clemson in the Orange Bowl, there was a common reaction among Mountaineer fans when the news was released.
The walk-on receiver from Weirton wasn’t exactly a household name at that point.
But prior to the start of Saturday’s Gold-Blue Spring Game in Morgantown, Arila was far from a stranger when he was introduced as one of three winners of the Iron Mountaineer Awards and then the reciepient of the Tom Nickolich Award, presented annually by the Blue & Gold News to the school’s top walk-on, there was a different reaction.
“Well deserved,” was now the prevailing sentiment among the 8,000 Mountaineer fans in attendance.
Arlia caught seven passes for 43 yards last season, including some acrobatic grabs, drawing the attention of coaches, teammates and fans. This year, the 5-foot-9, 181-pound wide receiver figures to be a major part of a WVU receiving corps that loses two of the best the school has ever seen in Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin.
“I don’t know that I’m tired of hearing it; I loved those guys,” said Arlia of the concern around how the Mountaineers will ever replace that dynamic duo. “But they’re gone. We’re moving on, and we’re putting the work in now to go on a new path. Hopefully we can make a name for ourselves.”
A bigger name, anyway.
Arlia doesn’t pretend he has the physical skills as those two former Mountaineers. He’s not as fast as Austin — then again, the roadrunner strapped to a jet engine might not be — and few wide receivers at any level have the hands that Bailey displayed during his three-year career as at WVU.
But what Arlia — whose physical stature may be more suited to being a jockey in the Kentucky Derby than a wide receiver in the Sugar Bowl — has is a tremendous work ethic and a burning desire to prove he can play at that highest level.
That’s why he turned down scholarship offers at smaller schools and accepted an invitation to become a preferred walk-on at WVU.
“I think my family — my mom, my dad and my grandfather, who just passed away — taught me that,” said Arlia, the MVP of the North-South All-Star game after his senior season at Weirton Madonna High School. “Growing up, he preached that you have to go harder each day than you did the day before. That’s what I try to do.”
Another motivator, of course, is playing for the school he grew up watching and representing the state he’s always called home.
“Everyone is motivated out there,” said Arlia. “But I am extremely motivated. Being a West Virginia guy, I feel honored and blessed to have grown up in this state. We have so much state pride, and I love this state. So I definitely want to do my best every time I’m out there and succeed for this state.”
WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said he’s already done exactly that.
“He’s a tremendous kid,” said the third-year coach, who actually had plans to involve the then-freshman heavily in his game plan for the Orange Bowl, before the freak jet ski accident forced him to change his attack. “He’s a West Virginia kid and comes from a great family. He’s as good as they come from an academic standpoint. It doesn’t get any better than his work ethic. He’s a guy that you want on your team. He’s not the most talented kid that we have, but he works his tail off. He has earned his right to be on this team.”
But Arlia wants more than that. He wants to make a bigger impact. He wants to help lead WVU to Big 12 success. And, just like he was taught by his grandfather, he wants to keep getting better — every practice, every game, every workout.
“I need to work on improving my route running and my quickness,” he said. “There’s always things I can get better at.
“This spring, we ran this screen play, and I missed a block twice. So I definitely need to work on that.”
And there’s no doubt inside the Mountaineer program that he will.
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.