Devine taking country roads to find a home

Country roads take me home,
to the place I belong.
West Virginia,
Mountain momma,
Take me home country roads

Noel Devine didn't have any John Denver in his iPod before he arrived in Morgantown, W.Va.

He still doesn't, actually, and probably never will, but "Take Me Home, Country Roads" is beginning to grow on him. That's the Denver song they crank through the Milan Puskar Stadium loudspeakers after every win. Which means they crank it a lot.

When a 48-7 victory over East Carolina Saturday prompted yet another massive stadium sing-along, somebody asked Devine, West Virginia's sizzling freshman running back, what he thought of the ritual.

"The atmosphere here, I love it," he said, flashing a smile lit by gold-capped teeth. "It's something way different from back home."

Ah yes, back home. Devine is headed there, or close to it, Friday night when No. 5 West Virginia (4-0) travels to Tampa, Fla., to take on No. 18 South Florida (3-0) in a Big East showdown at Raymond James Stadium (ESPN2, 8 ET).

"There will be a lot of motivation and a lot of support there for me," Devine said.

The 5-foot-8, 175-pound Devine grew up amid tumult and tragedy in Cape Coral, 125 miles south of Tampa. He also grew into a nationally renowned, game-breaking, YouTube legend at North Fort Myers High.

One popular clip shows Devine spinning and bouncing and racing his way through tacklers like a video-game character on a simple screen-pass-turned-90-yard-touchdown.

"I was there for that," says North Fort Myers athletic director Erik Timko, then an assistant football coach at the school. "It was his freshman year, and it was one of those things where you just shook your head and said, 'That's not right.'"

The team's head coach, James Iandoli, did some head-shaking of his own early in Devine's freshman year.

"I felt like, 'Holy crap, I've got this amazing talent, but he's so young, what do I need to do to ensure he doesn't have a bad experience?'" Iandoli recalled. "I approached it kind of the way [West Virginia coach] Rich Rodriguez is doing it. We got him the ball seven or eight times a game where he could be successful. And then, let's just say by Game 5 or 6, he was 60 percent of our offense."

That's not going to happen at West Virginia, where quarterback Pat White and tailback Steve Slaton rule the roost. But a little Devine intervention might be just what the Mountaineers need Friday in a matchup that pits their powerful rushing offense (357 yards per game, second in the country) against South Florida's suffocating run defense (79 yards per game, 13th nationally).

The Bulls corralled West Virginia's tricky spread-option attack in November 2006 in a 24-19 upset win at Morgantown that ruined West Virginia's chance for a Big East title.

"It's going to be different this year," Devine promised.

The Mountaineers rushed for only 132 yards in last year's game. Slaton has gained just 2.8 yards per carry in two games against South Florida.

Devine gives the Bulls something else to think about. He is seventh in the Big East in rushing with 267 yards, despite only 24 attempts. His 11.1 yards per carry is easily the highest among the nation's top 100 rushers.

"He's awfully good," South Florida coach Jim Leavitt said. "We knew that out of high school."

Devine lines up at various positions and can strike from anywhere. On a play against East Carolina, he started wide left and broke into a full sprint toward White before the ball was snapped. White handed off to Devine, who was held to a short gain. He managed only 11 yards on seven carries, but in a game at Maryland nine days earlier, he rang up 136 yards on five carries, torturing the Terrapins with knee-buckling cuts and Audi-like acceleration.

In an offense that also includes NFL-bound fullback/tight end Owen Schmitt and multitalented receiver Darius Reynaud, Devine practices patience.

"I'm jumping in slowly and getting a little more reps," he said. "By the end of the season, who knows?"

Iandoli said a contingent of Devine backers will be among the throng of 65,000-plus at South Florida's first sellout at Raymond James. Iandoli and Timko would have been among them if not for North Fort Myers' homecoming game that night.

Iandoli and Devine had a challenging relationship, but remain in touch about once a week. Last season, Devine, who has fathered two children by two different women, was suspended for two games because of what North Fort Myers officials called a "confrontation" at school. The school also kept him out of a postseason all-star game because of what a game official described in the Fort Myers News-Press as an "incident in the locker room."

Dan DeLuca covered Devine's high school career for the News-Press and recently told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "A lot of people around here feel he's gotten breaks because he's an athlete and that once he gets up there [to West Virginia], he'll screw up and be back here, on the streets. But he has a lot of people rooting for him, too. It'll be interesting to see what happens up there."

It's almost heavenly, so far. Devine recently sent Iandoli a text message thanking him for the tough love, which apparently worked as good preparation for life as a major college football player.

"It wasn't a long text, but I got from it that [conditions are] the same way in college," Iandoli said. "I also expressed my feelings toward him that everything was done from my heart, me being tough and whatnot, because I wanted him to succeed. … And one thing I will say about Noel is that regardless of any mistake, the kid shows remorse, empathy and sympathy. To me, that means he's a quality kid. It means he cares."

The odds have been stacked against Devine practically since birth. He lost his father to complications from AIDS when he was an infant. His mother died of the same disease when he was 11. Devine has experienced various living situations, including a brief stay with fellow North Fort Myers grad and former NFL star Deion Sanders in Texas.

Timko acknowledges that some people felt Devine got preferential treatment at North Fort Myers. He denies it.

"He was treated the same as any other student," Timko said. "If he got in trouble, he got the same punishment as anyone else. He needed to understand that every action has a consequence. There isn't one person who can say they did high school perfectly. I'm sure most of us have done something where we wouldn't want other people to know, but because he was in the limelight, everyone wanted to know his business."

When Devine avoided prep school on his third try at the ACT, Florida State and plenty others were knocking at his door, but he was drawn by the coaches -- and the offense -- at West Virginia. His mentors encouraged him to make his own college decision.

Rodriguez was impressed from the start.

"As far as his reputation, there wasn't a lot of concern there at all," Rodriguez said. "The only concerns were whether he'd make it academically or not. The school had a plan for him, and he was very determined to make it, so we hung in there with him."

West Virginia, like any self-respecting mountain momma, wrapped its arms around Devine the instant he arrived. He received a standing ovation after his first career carry (it netted zero yards) at Milan Puskar Stadium.

"I'm getting good help from my players and coaches and classmates," Devine said. "They treat you like family."

Part of Devine will always be in South Florida, but once Friday's game is finished, he'll be eager to get back to his new home.

Already, it feels like the place where he belongs.

Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.