MORGANTOWN - His numbers would suggest that Noel Devine's senior season has been anything but a rousing success.Oh, they're OK. Shoot, if the guy somehow manages to come up with 147 rushing yards on Saturday against Rutgers he will have his third straight 1,000-yard rushing season. A couple of weeks ago he passed Avon Cobourne at the top of the school's all-purpose yardage list.Think about that for a minute. No one in West Virginia football history has held the ball in his hands while running further - 5,651 yards on runs, receptions and returns. No one. Ever. He's shattered the school's career record for passes caught by a running back. No one else is within 20 receptions of his record 93.And with a little luck, after two more games he will have rushed for more yards than anyone in school history besides Cobourne. He's already third with 4,234 yards, ahead of guys like Steve Slaton and Amos Zereoue. He could catch Pat White with 246 more yards.
Still, as far as 2010 is concerned, this is not what Devine had in mind. As much as he tried to downplay it - and it was sincere - there had to be Heisman visions at least dancing around his head, if not right up in there. After rather surprisingly deciding to return for his senior season and going into it as part of an offense the potential of which seemed unlimited, this is not what he expected after 11 games:Six games with fewer than 20 carries, including two with a combined seven.An average of 4.6 yards per carry, which is pretty good unless compared to his career average coming in - 6.5.One run of 50 yards or more (It was exactly 50). He had 11 in his first three years and going into the season had more runs of 70 yards or longer (7) than any active player.Just 853 yards rushing and six touchdowns. Again, not bad, but a year ago in 13 games he ran for 1,465 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The root cause of it all is simple to document. In the first three games of the season Devine averaged 24 carries and 118 yards. In the fourth game, on an out-of-bounds hit at LSU, he bruised the bone at the bottom of his foot behind the big toe. He's not been the same since.And now he has an ankle problem on the other leg, the result of an injury two weeks ago at Louisville. By his own admission, his health right now is maybe 75 percent of normal.But guess what? Noel Devine has still contributed mightily. He broke open that Louisville game with a 48-yard pass reception for a touchdown. He kick-started the West Virginia offense against Pitt last week with another 48-yard run with a pass to set up an easy score.Playing on basically one leg he carried just three times against UNLV - the game following his first injury - but gained 84 yards and scored twice. He ran for just 29 yards against South Florida, but he was also the guy who made that hook-and-lateral thing with Jock Sanders work for the backbreaking touchdown.Heck, even in losses to Syracuse and Connecticut he carried a combined 40 times and gained almost 200 yards, even though he had no initial burst because of the foot, the one thing that separates Devine from most other backs.None of that, though, has apparently meant as much to the Mountaineers as what Devine has managed to do off the field. Bill Stewart talks about it all the time, but let's face it, Stewart talks about a lot of stuff, and sometimes it's hard to tell if maybe he's not just trying to keep Devine's spirits up.
Others have no such agenda."I think he had the Heisman hopes and I still think he's one of the best players in the nation. It hasn't shown statistically because of his injuries, but he's definitely one of the most dynamic players in the nation,'' quarterback Geno Smith said. "But I think the main thing is that this has helped him mature. Going through this situation I think this whole situation has helped him become a great team leader."Even though he's not getting the touches or the numbers that he had last year, I think he's become one of the best teammates that I've ever been around.''That's a bit of a contradiction, at least in a public sense. Devine has never been all that outgoing beyond the borders of his own locker room. By all accounts, within those borders he has steadily grown as a person and a leader over the course of his four seasons, but then when he disappears from public view for more than two months in the middle of the season one has to wonder.Is it because he is sulking or is he simply too focused on working to get healthy that he doesn't want distractions?"I was just trying to get better,'' he said. "That's where my energy and my focus were.''
As for the leadership role over the course of these past months, Devine said it was simply a matter of finding something to do."Knowing I can't always be out there I figure I better encourage and help my team the best way I can,'' Devine said the other night after agreeing to speak publicly for the first time since prior to the LSU game. "I'm just trying to be more vocal and encourage guys and get them going.''Still, that's not what Devine's role was supposed to be this year, nor has it ever been that. He was supposed to be leading by example, not by cheerleading. He cringed while talking about how hard it is to have to watch parts of practice that the coaches and trainers won't let him take part in because they are trying to get him healthy or save what reps they think they can get from him for game days.But in the end, Devine has resigned himself to doing what he can, when he can. While he hopes for big performances every week on the field, he has come to understand that there are other ways to contribute. He had no choice."At first it was tough and there were times when I was just quiet and laid back,'' he said. "But I figured if I'm going to be out there I should be doing something, even if I'm not out there running around.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org