MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- From almost the moment they arrived in college together, West Virginia teammates Noel Devine and Jock Sanders shared a motto: Three and out.
They repeated that phrase to each other all the time, reminding themselves that after three years on campus, they'd both be bolting for the NFL. During the buildup to the Gator Bowl in January, the plan remained the same.
"Our mindset was to have a good bowl game, go out with a bang and rack up a bunch of yards," Sanders said. "And then we're gone."
But a funny thing happened on their way out of town. The two best friends realized they weren't quite ready to leave college and start their professional careers. Two city kids from Florida had found a home in the hills of West Virginia. "Three and out" turned into "stay for four."
And their return -- which West Virginia coach Bill Stewart called his best recruiting coup of the offseason -- injects major hope into this year for the Mountaineers, who have more starters back (18) than any other Big East team.
"They're our two bell cows," Stewart said. "They get everything started."
Stewart awarded different colored jerseys to each player during the winter conditioning program based upon each individual's effort. A gold jersey meant the player was working at a championship level. Blue signified solid if not spectacular performance. A brown jersey -- well, you can probably figure out what brown stood for. Devine and Sanders were pure gold the entire offseason.
Those two seemed like an unlikely pair of senior leaders earlier in their career. Devine endured a difficult upbringing and faced questions about his character in high school. Sanders has landed in the doghouse a couple of times in college, including a suspension last spring and summer following a DUI arrest near campus. But both have grown up.
"It's all about trust," Stewart says. "They trust us, and we trust them. They've matured a lot. It just takes time."
Of the two, Devine's return to college registered as the bigger surprise. One of the most dynamic runners in the country, he averaged 6.1 yards per carry on his way to 1,465 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. His background also seemed to suggest that he was ready to collect an NFL paycheck. Both his parents died of AIDS before he turned 12 years old, and he has fathered three children.
Devine looked into his NFL prospects after the Gator Bowl, but in the end he said he didn't feel like he was ready to handle a professional lifestyle just yet.
"Coming from where I come from, you just want to be the best and be able to help your community," Devine said. "That's why I always said, 'Three and out.' But I learned it's not all about that."
Sanders started thinking the same way, especially after a lackluster Gator Bowl showing in a loss to Florida State. The receiver/running back/return man registered a career-best 72 catches last season, one of the highest totals in West Virginia history. Still, he wants more.
"To me, 72 catches is average," he said. "I want to be a 100-plus guy this year."
Each player's decision to return became easier when both settled on it. Though Sanders and Devine didn't meet until after high school, they formed an easy and immediate bond based on common backgrounds. Both grew up in Florida cities -- Devine is from Fort Myers, Sanders from St. Petersburg. They've both been doubted because of their size -- Devine is listed at 5-foot-8, while Sanders is 5-7.
They're nearly interchangeable on the field, with Sanders occasionally filling in for Devine at tailback. Off the field, they're inseparable.
"We have a brotherly bond," Devine said. "I told him, 'I can't picture myself here without you. I can't imagine not being at the [NFL] combine together, pushing each other.'"
They've also found an unlikely home in Morgantown, which is worlds away from the inner cities in which they were raised. Devine knew plenty of hardship growing up and once witnessed a friend get shot and killed in front of him. In Morgantown, he and Sanders like to walk to the top of a hill and appreciate the changing colors of the trees in spring and fall.
"We got away from something we thought was good but really wasn't," Devine said. "There was so much negativity around the areas where we come from. Going back home now, you find yourself being kind of lost. Here, it's calmer and there's less going on. That's when you can really get your mind right."
Devine wants to provide an example to other kids who grow up in tough areas and show them what they can accomplish. He and Sanders are both on track to graduate in December, which is something they never imagined achieving with their three-and-out plan. The stay-for-four revision could produce better results for both them and West Virginia.
"This is the best decision we could have made," Sanders said.