Elusive and Electric

  • August 11, 2008 10:23 AM
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By Steve Stone for MSNsportsNET.com
August 11, 2008

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Running back Noel Devine is ready to garner more national praise during his sophomore season as a Mountaineer.

  Noel Devine is ready to become West Virginia's featured running back.
Brian Persinger photo

Known as one of the country’s most elusive, swift-footed runners, Devine looks to merit all the hype that was created by his arrival in Morgantown. Recognized as a prodigy and a YouTube sensation out of Fort Myers, Fla., the 5-foot-8 inch, 173-pound tailback feels comfortable but not complacent as the team’s starter this season.

“I was guaranteed to be starting running back because when I came in I was hungry, just like other guys that are hungry,” Devine said. “I’m just trying to compete at the same time.”

Devine proved that the national buildup was warranted. He juked, slithered and eluded his way to 627 yards on only 73 carries, averaging 8.6 yards per rush in 2007. He also managed six touchdowns while playing a backup role behind feature back Steve Slaton.

Devine’s coming-out party came on a nationally-televised Thursday night matchup against Maryland last September. He scampered for 136 yards on five carries, including a 76-yard game-breaking run that gave viewers the idea of how fast he can hit an open hole.

Now that the Florida standout is no longer splitting time in the backfield, he continues to put in a heavy load of on-field and off-field training that can help separate him from other heavily-publicized runners.

“I’ve been getting in shape and getting conditioning in because last time I shared time with Steve (Slaton) and this year I have a bigger role in the offense,” admitted Devine. “It’s just getting in shape, and just the little things.”

The little things he does will end up making a big difference. As a person with a small stature but possesses unforeseen quickness, Devine creates difficulty for defenders who don’t just have to tackle him, but spot him when he breaks through the line.

Although his size always helps him stay low, Devine has also built himself into a player with tremendous upper-body and lower-body strength. This season he may double or triple his production from his freshman year because of his added muscle and playing behind a notable offensive line.

“It feels great,” Devine said after being asked how it feels to play behind WVU’s offensive line. “I’ve seen some big holes and they are doing a great job. Whenever they can make me a smaller back and make it harder for the defense to see me, it’s great, because then I get some big holes.”

Devine has been committed to learning the new offense under coordinator Jeff Mullen, and is content with the knowledge he has gained after the new wrinkles were put in during the spring. He routinely engulfs himself in the new playbook after having to learn under a different variation last season.

“It’s simple, but it’s hard when you’re coming in,” Devine said about learning the new offense. “And it’s hard when you don’t know too many people. When you’re comfortable you’ll feel alright, and it will be a simple offense to learn.”

As a preseason all-BIG EAST first team player, Devine is ready to refute any notion of a sophomore slump. His flashes of brilliance last season made him the No. 11-rated running back by Lindy’s Football Magazine, and he was featured in ESPN The Magazine’s 2008 NEXT edition, joining fellow standouts Brandon Roy, Joba Chamberlain, Tyson Gay, Patrick Willis and Novak Djokovic.

Despite the recognition, Devine is learning to stay grounded. His main goals this season are to help his team in any facet, whether he runs the ball efficiently or pass-blocks to give quarterback Pat White more time to make his reads.

Devine cares the most about team success. After last year’s startling run that culminated with a Fiesta Bowl victory, he sees room for more improvement based on WVU’s eighth-place ranking in the USA TODAY Preseason Coaches Poll.

“You just take it game-by-game,” Devine said about the team’s progression. “Eight to me is not good enough. We’ll just have to go out and prove ourselves.”

  Devine feels that West Virginia is ready to take another step this year.
Brian Persinger photo

Devine also takes on the role of a team leader, assisting the newcomers at his position on all the terminology and pointing out to them where they should be on various plays. Head Coach Bill Stewart has already used him to help teach other tailbacks, including newcomers Zach Hulce and Terence Kerns, about the technicalities of the new offense.

Watching his understudies adjust to this season’s offense is all-too familiar for Devine. After learning the complications of the spread offense during his freshman season, he understands and empathizes with what the current newcomers are going through.

“I kept telling them I was in the same place they were, and they just needed to relax and come out here and play and they’d be alright,” Devine said. “I can just help them with the plays, help them get comfortable and welcome them to our offense.”

This season Devine looks to be one of the most challenging tailbacks to bring down, not only in the BIG EAST but throughout the country. Although he looks small at football’s most bruising position, the Athlon Sports preseason second team All-American merely glances back when asked about whether he is durable enough to go through a season’s worth of pounding from muscle-bound linebackers and husky defensive linemen.

“When the time comes, we’ll see,” Devine said. “Instead of saying it, you got to go out and do it.”

The sophomore remains hungry not only to out-perform his opponents, but to out-work them as well. He wants to continue building his name and let his performance on the field do the talking while defining his soft-spoken, laid-back image.

“I try to always do extra; more than anyone else,” Devine said. “It’s about being above average and working harder than anyone else because there’s people out there working harder, too, and I’m trying to work harder than them.”

Devine expects another superb season for the Mountaineers, regardless of the personnel moves made at the end of last year. Although the coaching staff has changed, he anticipates WVU holding the same winner’s mentality.

“All of us are hungry, and all of us are ready to play,” Devine said. “We have to go out and prove ourselves. Whatever happened to our coaching staff happened. We just need to prove to ourselves that we’re still the same team.”