ESPN analyst talks Miami-WVU, calls Mark Walton ‘the most underrated player in the country’

Mark Walton runs free against Florida State. (Getty Images)

Mark Walton runs free against Florida State. (Getty Images)

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[Njoku should be big factor against Mountaineers]

[Holgorsen: Beating Miami would be ‘huge’ for WVU]

[Catching up with UM-to-WVU transfer Crawford]

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ORLANDO — If you detect any excitement in Greg McElroy‘s voice as he calls Miami-West Virginia, it will be genuine.

“When we got the assignment, we were fired up,” he said in a phone conversation Monday. “It’s a really good matchup.”

McElroy, the former Alabama quarterback, will provide color commentary for ESPN during Wednesday’s Russell Athletic Bowl (5:30 p.m.), alongside play-by-play man Dave Pasch.

Both teams, in his view, were “really close to having pretty special seasons.”

Miami, which lost to Florida State by an extra point, North Carolina by a touchdown, and Notre Dame by a field goal, fell apart against eventual ACC Coastal champion Virginia Tech. That 21-point loss recalled West Virginia’s outings against Oklahoma State (lost by 17) and Oklahoma (28). Those were the Mountaineers’ only defeats.

Though West Virginia has the better record (10-2) and is ranked 14th by the Associated Press (and 16th by the College Football Playoff committee), McElroy isn’t surprised unranked Miami (8-4) is a slight favorite (2.5 points, as of Monday).

“As average as Miami’s been, their talent is still among the elite,” he said. “If you look at their bodies, guys along the defensive line, their quarterback is a marginal first-round pick, possibly — from a talent standpoint, they’re pretty outstanding. That doesn’t surprise me, given the perception of the Big 12 nationally, and how strong Miami has been when they’ve played their best ball.”

The Mountaineers, who have won four games by four points or fewer, are “solid” in McElroy’s view. But he said the 56-28 loss to Oklahoma — “one of their biggest opportunities they’ve had in years” — had people making up their minds about the ‘Eers.

“They had a chance to win the Big 12 and they got beat pretty badly,” he said of the Nov. 9 game.  “It was 34-0 before anyone knew what was going on. The perception after that game was that they really weren’t for real. But that’s one game. Most of the time, in crunch time, they make big plays and they have a lot of veteran guys.”

When WVU’s offense is clicking, McElroy said, the Mountaineers tire out defenses with tempo and hit downfield shots. Senior quarterback Skyler Howard isn’t an imposing figure — he’s listed at 6-feet and 208 pounds — but knows what is expected of him in coach Dana Holgorsen‘s Air Raid-style offense.

“They don’t really have a lot of guys that look like first-round picks,” McElroy said, “But they play really well within the scheme. … They have some NFL players, but in a beauty contest, I don’t know if they will look like Miami.”

While McElroy believes the Hurricanes’ offensive talent is superior, the Mountaineers’ aggression and confidence on defense has made it tough on teams all season.

“They know they don’t have NFL defensive linemen, so they blitz the house,” McElroy said. “They can do it on every snap. They don’t care. It’s really fun to watch. If they give up a score, they have so much confidence in their offense they know they can get it back.”

McElroy is excited to watch Hurricanes running back Mark Walton, whom he called “the most underrated player in the country. I really believe that. He’s really good.” McElroy was impressed that Miami has been able to keep Walton’s workload down; he averages 16 carries a game.

Incidentally, Walton’s season-high (24) came in a game McElroy worked (North Carolina-Miami on Oct. 15). McElroy also manned the mic for Miami’s game at Appalachian State on Sept. 17 and West Virginia’s 34-10 win over TCU on Oct. 22.

More McElroy on Miami:

“I think Walton is fantastic,” he said. “I think David Njoku is fantastic. I think he’s as good a tight end as you’ll find in college football, when it comes to putting stress on a defense in the passing game. I really like Brad Kaaya, but he’s inconsistent. His best is as good as anybody, but his worst is below where he should be. He’s not as consistent as I’d like; he’ll get that sorted out if he comes back, which I’d recommend.

“If he plays like he did at Pitt and Duke, no doubt he’s a first-round pick. If he plays like he did earlier in the year when he was inconsistent, he looks very average.”

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