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August 12, 2010

Devine living up to the hype at West Virginia

It all began with a 1-yard run for West Virginia running back Noel Devine.

One. Measly. Yard. Against a MAC team, no less.

But the crowd at Mountaineer Field went wild that afternoon after the first carry of Devine's career, on Sept. 1, 2007, against Western Michigan. The excitement wasn't about the outcome of the carry; it was about what could be. And Devine has produced on his vast promise.

"Bam, he's gone!" West Virginia coach Bill Stewart says. "When he plants his foot and heads upfield, he's awfully difficult to catch."

A lofty goal
West Virginia running back Noel Devine has said a goal this season is to rush for 2,000 yards; it would be the 15th 2,000-yard season in FBS history. Here's a look at the list:
Barry SandersOklahoma State19882,628
Kevin SmithUCF20072,567
Marcus AllenUSC19812,342
Troy DavisIowa State19962,185
LaDainian TomlinsonTCU20002,158
Mike RozierNebraska19832,148
Matt ForteTulane20072,127
Ricky WilliamsTexas19982,124
Larry JohnsonPenn State20022,087
Byron HanspardTexas Tech19962,084
Rashaan SalaamColorado19942,055
J.J. ArringtonCal20042,018
Ray RiceRutgers20072,012
Troy DavisIowa State19952,010
That's why Devine is thinking big this fall. That's why the most exciting player in college football is thinking about rushing for 2,000 yards and winning the Heisman en route to taking West Virginia back to the Big East summit.

"The sky is the limit," Devine says. "Anything is possible. For now, I am focusing on my teammates and team, wanting to win as many games as we can. If we are successful on the field, the other stuff will come along."

Devine is listed at 5 feet 8 and 180 pounds. In his first three seasons, Devine has rushed for 3,381 yards, averaging 6.5 yards per carry, and scored 23 touchdowns. He also has caught 64 passes for 454 yards and a score, and he has returned 28 kickoffs for a 22.4-yard average.

"He is as explosive a back as I have seen in a while," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt says. "Beside the ability to make you miss, he is fast. If he breaks a tackle and gets in space, you can't catch him."

Devine could have run all the way to the NFL after a junior season in which he ran for 1,465 yards and 13 touchdowns. "But I never really considered going to the NFL last year," he says. "I wanted to get my degree and felt that was very important to me. To graduate is a high honor."

Devine had come too far to leave college early. He'd come too far to leave without properly punctuating his WVU career. Consider what Devine has had to overcome to get to this point, a point many didn't think he'd reach after a rocky upbringing:

When Devine was 3 months old, his father died of complications from AIDS.

When Devine was 11, his mother died of AIDS.

Ahhh, memories
Noel Devine became an Internet sensation in high school. Search for him on YouTube. You'll find myriad stunning runs by Devine from his prep and West Virginia career. But what's his favorite performance?

"Probably from my freshman year [2007] against Maryland," Devine says.

Devine torched the Terps for 136 yards on just five carries -- a per-carry average of 27.2 yards. WVU won 31-14, and it was the first of 14 career 100-yard games for Devine. He also has had two 200-yard games. Last season, he had at least one 20-yard run in 11 games and was the only player in the nation to have at least one 70-yard run in four games. He averaged 10.0 yards per carry twice last season -- 220 yards on 22 carries against Colorado and 168 yards on 16 carries (10.5 ypc) against Florida State.

As explosive as he is, is there a place for a 5-foot-8, 180-pound running back in the NFL?

"I know there are some NFL teams that do everything, personnel-wise, by the measurables," says Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, a former NFL coach and assistant. "And by that I mean you have to be this tall, weigh this much and run this fast. But there are a lot of teams, and I'm even referencing back to when I was with the Bears, Dolphins and Cowboys, and really it goes back to Jimmy Johnson's theory -- we never got caught up on measurables as much as we did production.

"I can remember when we [Dallas] drafted Emmitt Smith No. 1 [in 1990]; everyone said he was a 4.6 running back. And I remember Jimmy Johnson making the comment that he was a three-year starter at Florida and had all of these records; he was as productive a player as we had on the board. That is how I would view Devine. ... Look at the production and make a determination. There will be teams that scratch him because of his size."
Devine's maternal grandmother assumed custody, but he often clashed with her and he eventually moved out. He moved in with the parents of one of his friends.

Devine was a witness to a shooting late in 2004 in which one of his closest friends was killed by a shot to the chest.

Devine had two children in high school in North Fort Myers, Fla., a girl and a boy, born seven months apart to different mothers.

Devine lived with Deion Sanders, a North Fort Myers native, for about 10 days in August 2005, before his junior season in high school. It was a bizarre episode that resulted in a Devine friend calling police to say Sanders had kidnapped Devine. After spending time with Sanders at the Baltimore Ravens' training camp in Maryland, Devine went to Sanders' home outside Dallas. But one day after arriving, Devine drove one of Sanders' SUVs to the Dallas airport -- reportedly leaving the car at the curb with the motor running -- and flew back to Fort Myers.

Devine wasn't the best student at North Fort Myers High, and numerous colleges backed off in the recruiting process because of his perceived academic shortcomings.

He has changed a lot in the past few years, though.

"Coming back showed the trust he has in the program," Stewart says. "I hope we can afford him a big year because it would be a fitting tribute to him."

Devine also has done his part off the field in becoming a more mature person. He admits to being frustrated as a freshman, having to adjust to the coaches and the increased talent level of defenders while also playing second-fiddle to Mountaineers stars Pat White and Steve Slaton.

"He's getting better with his reasoning and listening skills," says Stewart, who became coach after Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan following Devine's freshman season. "His temperament has improved and he has become a great teammate. He has become a great role model for our program. He's living right and doing right."

Devine will run this season behind a line that returns four starters. The staff will be counting on a strong ground game to help ease the transition for new starting quarterback Geno Smith. The Mountaineers have won a combined 18 games in the past two seasons but haven't reached a BCS bowl since the 2007 campaign. A big season from Devine is a must to get back to the BCS.

"He's tough to contain," Pitt strong safety Dom DeCicco says. "He's not very tall, so he can be difficult to find. And when he gets into space, he's a challenge to catch and bring down."

One way to catch him is food poisoning, which felled Devine at the recent Big East media days. He says some seafood he ate at the event didn't agree with him, forcing him to miss part of the function.

"I couldn't keep any food down," Devine says. "Not even water. It was bad. I lost about seven pounds in a short period of time. But I'm fine now and ready to go."

The buzz about Devine started at North Fort Myers High (see video above). Devine scooted, spun and shimmied his way into YouTube immortality. As a senior, he rushed for 2,148 yards and 31 scores, and finished his high school career with 6,842 yards and 92 touchdowns. Despite their short falling-out in 2005, Devine consulted with Sanders about how to approach the recruiting process, and their relationship continues to this day.

"He is like a father; he has been there for me," Devine says.

He calls Sanders "a great person and great guy who I admire and look up to. And I hope to live my life like he does. He's a man of God and a great role model for kids. We text, talk."

Devine continues to prepare and dream big.

"I think I can do it all, personally," Devine says. "I am not a big back or powerful runner, but I'm also not weak. For my size, I think I run pretty strong, fast, quick and explosive. But I need to work on my blocking and catching the ball.

"But I'm still aiming for it all. Everything. It's my last year. It's all on me, I think. In Pop Warner, I fell short. In high school, I lost. And now this has to be the year for me and my team. I will try to do it for my team and whole state of West Virginia."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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