Rasul Douglas' journey to becoming the Big 12's best DB

Rasul Douglas' path to becoming the top defender on a Big 12 title contender included weekends at the bowling alley, a bus stop and sometimes only a dollar a day for food.

And now he's one of the biggest reasons why West Virginia has emerged as a dark-horse hopeful for the College Football Playoff heading into a Saturday showdown with ninth-ranked Oklahoma (8 p.m. ET, ABC).

"He's just a kid that keeps fighting," said West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson.

On the field, as perhaps the Big 12's best defensive back on the league's leading defense.

And before that, off of it.

"I'm actually doing what I came here to do," Douglas said. "I always envisioned it.

"The struggle is paying off."

One of seven siblings raised by his grandmother in East Orange, New Jersey, Douglas grew up where, as he puts it, kids "are lost to the streets."

Thankfully for Douglas, he had a strong-willed grandmother, a little league coach who saw something special in him and an innate passion to play sports.

Mike Davis, a P.A. announcer for East Orange High School sports and a mentor for at-risk youth in the area, first met Douglas while coaching him in little league baseball. The two immediately hit it off.

"I was hard on him as a coach," Davis said. "Because he was so competitive, he took a liking to that."

Davis made it his mission to prevent this kid brimming with potential from falling into trouble on the streets.

"It was like a vehicle," Davis said. "There was a lot of trouble around in that community. Unfortunately, a lot of young people there were getting involved in gangs. Sports offered him something else."

"He was the one who took me out of the streets," Douglas said. "He made sure we did what we had to do."

Davis kept Douglas focused on sports. All sports. Any sport. One time that was the Vince Carter basketball camp. Other times, it was taking Douglas and his brother to the bowling alley.

Time spent playing those sports didn't just keep Douglas out of trouble; they provided him with a foundation, turning him into a terrific all-around athlete by the time he reached high school.

Douglas had dreams of playing basketball at the next level. But at 6-foot-2, he didn't have the height to draw the attention of college recruiters. He did, however, have the size as a defensive back to catch the eye of Nassau (New York) Community College coach Curtis Guilliam.

"Coach Guilliam, he kept hitting me up, 'What is he going to do?" said Douglas' high school football coach, Marion Bell. "At the last moment, I finally convinced Rasul to take a shot at it."

Nassau didn't have dorms. Instead, Douglas had to find an apartment located eight miles from the Garden City, New York, campus. Douglas didn't have a car, so he had to take the bus every day to class and to practice. And because his grandmother still had to take care of his younger siblings, Douglas essentially was on his own financially.

"That was probably the hardest part of my life, for sure," said Douglas. "It felt like nothing was going my way. I couldn't ask my family for money, because they needed it. I didn't have a lot. I was struggling to eat."

Sometimes, Douglas would just wait until the evening to eat. Other times, he would go to McDonald's, order off the dollar menu, eat half of the meal and save the rest for dinner.

Douglas, however, remained determined, despite being redshirted that first year.

"He did what he had to do," Guilliam said. "He made sure he got to class. He did the work. Got to study hall. Did everything he was supposed to do. We call it the juco grind. But he never complained and just continued to work."

That mentality carried over into the weight room and onto the field. And by his second year at Nassau, Douglas was primed to shine.

Early in the season against Lackawanna College -- which produced former West Virginia All-American wideout Kevin White and his brothers Ka'Raun and Kyzir, both starters now for the Mountaineers -- Douglas delivered a breakout performance.

"He picked off a pass, and it was like, 'Oh, shoot, this guy is going to be a dude,'" Guilliam said. "Then he laid a hit on a receiver, knocked him clean out, and you were like, 'This guy was going to be a thumper.'"

By his third year at Nassau, Douglas had turned into one of the top junior college corners in the country. He garnered scholarship offers from the likes of Florida State and Louisville, but after visiting Morgantown for the Mountaineers' game against TCU in 2014, he knew West Virginia was where he wanted to be.

Due in large part to Douglas, West Virginia leads the Big 12 in scoring defense, despite losing several key defensive backs off last year's team. He is tied for second in the country with six interceptions, including one last weekend in West Virginia's 24-20 win at Texas.

Saturday, he'll face off against Oklahoma wideout Dede Westbrook in what figures to be the premier matchup of the game. Westbrook has emerged as a Heisman contender after a scorching past two months. But Westbrook hasn't faced a corner in the Big 12 the caliber of Douglas, either.

"I'm glad we've got him," said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. "Right now, he's our best defensive football player. He's continuously gotten better. He's making big plays that have a big outcome on the game.

"I couldn't be happier or prouder of what Rasul has done."

Though he's come far, Douglas hasn't forgotten the path he traveled or the people who helped him along.

On Thanksgiving a few years ago, Davis was in the middle of calling the P.A. for an East Orange football game when he got a text that still touches him.

"It was Rasul just thanking me for keeping him on course," Davis said. "I'm in the middle of this game, and I'm in tears.

"I've been blessed to have been part of his life. It's been a wonderful privilege."