MORGANTOWN — There will come a time, not in the far too distant future, when West Virginia football fans will wake up and realize that Noel Devine is no longer here, that he gave them far more than they ever thought they’d get from him, four years of thrills and chills.
And they will begin to wonder.
No Devine. No Steve Slaton, no K.J. Harris, no Quincy Wilson, no Avon Cobourne, no Amos Zereoue.
For a decade and a half WVU has had procession of dazzling, daring, darting tailbacks. Each has been capable of going the distance on any carry from anywhere on the field.
Since 1996, six of the tailback have turned in six of the top 10 rushing games in WVU history, with three of the others belonging to quarterback Patrick White. It has certainly been the era of the breakaway running back.
The question remains, though, does it end with Devine.
Tavon Austin thinks not, and he is the heir apparent.
“When Noel goes, then it’s my time,” Austin said.
Austin currently resides about as far away from tailback as you can get, splitting out wide as a receiver.
A year ago Austin got his first taste of college football as a slot receiver and a kickoff return, a very dangerous one at that, possessing one all the way to the house.
Austin is built more like a slotback, shorter and quicker, something of Jock Sanders clone.
In fact, a year ago he backed up Sanders in the slot, but there are shortages this year at wide receiver. Two players WVU hoped would be here did not show for spring — Logan Heastie and newcomer Deon Long.
Both are in school but Stewart isn’t going hat and hand and begging them to play on his team.
“Right now I’m only concerned with those who are here,” Stewart said, indicating that even if they do come out their regimine will be running stadium steps and exercising until they get into football shape.
So Stewart right now has Eddie Davis playing both defense and offense as a wide receiver and has penciled Austin in as the starter at one wide receiver spot with Bradley Starks at the other, which gives him a talented pair of athletes, although both came to WVU to play different positions. Stark was quarterback, Austin a running back.
Not that Austin is complaining, mind you.
“I’ll do anything to be on the field,” he said.
Last year was hard, he admits, for he came here never having had to watch before.
“Sitting taught me a lot,” he admitted.
It was, to be sure, a temporary condition, just as is this wide receiver thing, for the future puts Austin next in line at running back.
In fact, before the Mountaineers went through their first spring workout on Tuesday, Coach Bill Stewart was wondering what might be. His quarterback Geno Smith, has a broken bone in his left foot, which seems to be healing nicely.
But if it wouldn’t and Stewart decided to play Coley White at quarterback …
“We’d look pretty good in a wishbone,” Stewart said. “Think about it, Coley at quarterback, Devine and Austin at the running backs and Ryan Clarke at fullback.”
Can you say Oklahoma and Barry Switzer?
That, though, isn’t going to happen.
What could happen, though, would be if Devine were injured, Stewart would move Austin back to the running back spot immediately, allowing him to keep Jock Sanders in the slot.
“That way we wouldn’t be weakening two positions,” Stewart said, inferring that Austin could pick up the slack at tailback right now, if necessary.
Austin has thoroughbred breeding. At 5-9, 164 he is quick and elusive, twice Maryland’s consensus Prep Player of the Year while at Baltimore’s Dunbar High, owning Maryland’s record for career points with 790, touchdowns with 123 and 7,962 career rushing yards.
His senior year he average 12.2 yards a carry while scoring 34 rushing touchdowns.
There were, undoubtedly, places he could play immediately but at WVU he had the opportunity to be eased in and get used to college life, which never is easy, especially for a kid whose grandmother woke him up at 8 a.m. every day.
Austin rushed the ball only six times last year, but averaged 7.8 yards a try and included a 19-yard touchdown run in his carries. As a receiver he could 15 passes and average 10.1 yards a reception, again with a touchdown.
And as a kick returned he averaged 25.1 yards a return, including a 98-yard touchdown return.
Danger lurks when the football is in his hands and, rest assured, the Mountaineers will find ways to get it there more often this year.
As for next year, when Devine is gone and Sanders is gone, it will Austin’s offense as a running back.
“That’s my dream position,” he said.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.