Noel Devine will be the first to admit that this wasn’t the way he expected his senior year at West Virginia University to turn out.
He was coming off a 1,465-yard junior campaign in which he ran for more than 100 yards in a game seven times, including a career-best 220-yard performance against Colorado.
In last year’s Gator Bowl against Florida State, Devine went for 168 yards – the vast majority coming in the first half when West Virginia was ahead.
After briefly testing the NFL waters last winter, Devine chose to return to WVU for his senior season in 2010 to improve his draft status and earn a college degree. His year got off to a decent start, Devine running for more than 100 yards in his first three games against Coastal Carolina, Marshall and Maryland.
But then against LSU on Sept. 25 his foot got rolled up on while he was running out of bounds and from that moment on he just hasn’t been the same player.
The jump cuts and the quick bursts he was known for simply weren’t there. He ran for 84 yards and scored two touchdowns in an abbreviated appearance against UNLV, and later added 122 yards on 24 carries against Syracuse, but that extra gear and open field elusiveness was missing.
After a 16-carry, 67-yard performance against Connecticut, it was decided to try and involve sophomore Shawne Alston more in the running game and utilize Devine more as a receiver coming out of the backfield.
And while Noel was getting additional opportunities in the passing game (two long receptions against Louisville and Pitt set up important touchdowns) his carries out of the backfield were declining (17 carries for 58 yards in his final two games against Pitt and Rutgers).
During the regular season finale against the Scarlet Knights, a very ordinary 13-carry, 31-yard afternoon for Noel, the coaching staff chose to put him back into the game late to try and get him a rushing touchdown in his final appearance at Milan Puskar Stadium.
But that moment became sort of symbolic of his senior season when Devine fumbled the ball and was thrown for a four-yard loss.
He still needs 116 yards in the bowl game for a third straight 1,000-yard season and if he gets it he will join a small list of WVU players that have achieved that during their careers. His yards per carry average is roughly two thirds what it was during his sophomore and junior seasons, and nearly half what it was when he was a freshman in 2007 serving a backup role behind Steve Slaton.
Yet Devine remains hopeful the time off after the Rutgers game will help his body heal and give him an opportunity to finish his career on a high note.
“Our bodies need a little rest and that’s what we’re doing with the two weeks that we have – taking care of business in the classroom and on the field,” he said.
Will there be enough time?
“It’s all in God’s hands,” he shrugged. “We’ll see when the time comes.”
Devine is excited to be returning to his home state to complete his college career, and duplicating last year’s performance against Florida State is certainly in the back of his mind.
“To have the support from home it’s getting me excited and thrilled about it,” he said. “Hopefully I can go out with a bang and throw out a coming out party – my last one at WVU.”
But in order to do that, Devine is going to have to perform well against an NC State defense ranked 12th in the country against the run allowing just 113 yards per game. He knows he is going to have to give maximum effort against the Wolfpack, whether he’s 100 percent healthy or not.
“It’s just like every other game. I’m going to play my hardest,” he said.
As the time on his playing career winds down, he took time recently to reflect on what playing for West Virginia University has meant to him athletically, socially and personally.
“All of the opportunities football has brought me as far as growing as a person and being away from home to work on myself and better myself as an overall person,” he says of what four years in the Mountaineer program has done for him.
Devine has had many highlight reel runs during his career, most notably long touchdown jaunts against Oklahoma, Auburn, Colorado, Syracuse and Connecticut, but coming up with a signature play that sort of encapsulates his WVU playing career was difficult for Devine. After thinking for a moment, he picked a non-descript run against Western Michigan during his first game at Milan Puskar Stadium as a freshman in 2007.
“My first college experience getting that standing ovation,” he says, “that really stood out to me that I meant a lot to the state and that they were thrilled to have me here.”
Perhaps Noel can provide Mountaineer fans with another reason to stand up and cheer in Orlando, Fla. in the Champs Sports Bowl on Dec. 28.
By John Antonik
Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.