The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

October 7, 2010

What to do with no Devine?

MORGANTOWN — You might say that if injured running back Noel Devine can’t make it for West Virginia University’s date with the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels on Saturday afternoon at Puskar Stadium he’ll be hopping mad.

If you are not quite that corny, you might just say that the bruise under his big toe that he suffered as he was hit going out of bounds against LSU didn’t have quite enough time to heal.

No one with the Mountaineers was giving any promises that Devine would be there, including Devine himself, who wisely opted out of team interviews on Tuesday night, perhaps in fear of putting his foot in his mouth and saying something he could not deliver.

It makes for great intrigue heading into a game that really has no intrinsic value outside of the business offices of both schools, UNLV being a growing 1-4 team and the Mountaineers being a 3-1 team from a BCS conference that has been snubbed for two weeks by the national polls.

Will Devine play or will he not, and if this senior who came back to school to try and help the Mountaineers win some ball games can’t play, who will fill in?

Will it be Tavon Austin, the heir apparent next year, a record-shattering runner out of Baltimore who has been waiting his turn as a slotback?

“I’ll have to do whatever it takes to help the team,” he said. “I pretty much have the wide receiver position down. I might see more time as a back because I’m not as used to it, but I’ll do what’s asked of me. They might put me in motion or do other things.”

Is there a hint there? Do they have some plays for him where he goes in motion and carries the ball?

You can bet they do.

But then there’s another promising freshman back named Trey Johnson, a star in the spring game, who well may be ready to move in and play if Devine can’t, allowing coach Bill Stewart to keep Austin and/or Jock Sanders at the slot receiver spots they now own.

“He’s been outstanding so far,” Sanders said of the diminutive Johnson, just 5-10 and 172 pounds. “Knowing that you’re behind someone like Noel, you’re watching from the sidelines and picking things up. Every time that Trey has a chance, he’s made the best of it. He’s making plays and that’s why his name is coming out of the coach’s mouth.”

Offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen has no qualms about using Johnson, even if he is a freshman.

“I would have no problem putting him in a game and letting him go,” Mullen said. “We’ve seen Tavon and Jock and Ryan Clarke out there (in that spot). We have enough depth at tailback if Noel can’t go.”

There is also Daquan Hargrett, another small scatback type, and Shawne Alston, a pair of untried young players, but they are not yet in the mix.

“You just can’t play five. We’re at the point right now where we got to get those guys ready,” Mullen explained.

Clarke, of course, has experience running out of tailback in the I-formation, especially with Matt Lindamood in there at fullback to give the Mountaineers a “jumbo” look. That, however, is out of character for what WVU likes to run.

“Sure, it’s different with Clarke there,” Mullen said. “Certain guys are just good at certain things. You don’t want to ask a kid to do something they won’t be successful doing physically. They are two different kinds of guys.”

The Mountaineers, however, have not ruled Devine out, and Mullen is fine with that.

“I’d feel better if I didn’t have to worry about Plan B,” Mullen said. “I’d like it like the first three weeks where everyone is healthy.”

Devine, considered one of the nation’s premier breakaway backs and the leading active career rusher in the NCAA, had 100-plus yard games in WVU’s first three victories, but the injury at LSU limited him. He played through it but gained only 36 yards on 17 carries.

If he’s healthy, of course, he plays. But he really does have to be 100 percent healthy because there is an extenuating circumstance here, that being that five days after the UNLV game, the Mountaineers open Big East play against South Florida.

“Here’s the thing. We’ve got to win this football game. That’s our sole objective. That’s our mission,” Stewart said. “But the second thing is we’ve got another opponent, not in seven days but in five. And the crucial thing is that it’s a league opponent.”

So, you don’t chance losing Devine for the league opener.

“There are going to be bumps and bruises. This is a physical contact game. We hit; they hit,” Stewart said. “So how do we adjust or balance that with our next opponent in five days? Can we get a lot of people in? Can we play more people? Can we get this win — get in, get out — without a lot of injuries?

“Do we want to win this game? It’s our No. 1 priority. Beat UNLV. But we have another big opponent in five days. That’s always in the back of your mind.”

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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