TAMPA — Before running back Noel Devine was a star at West Virginia, he was a sensation on YouTube, where videos of his big plays at North Fort Myers High have drawn more than a million views.
Time and time again in those clips, Devine breaks loose in the open field for long touchdowns. Often, the only player with the speed to keep up with him is teammate and friend Quenton Washington, the two as inseparable in end zone celebrations as they were the rest of their lives.
"We're like brothers," said Washington, now a sophomore cornerback at USF. "We were always together in high school, just always hanging out. We still talk every week, see how the other's doing, making sure everything's going good. Any time he's getting home, he'll call me to let me know because he knows it's just a two-hour drive for me."
Friday nights always meant playing football together. But tonight, their friendship officially becomes a rivalry as the Bulls and Mountaineers meet at Raymond James Stadium. Washington, 5 feet 10, 183 pounds, played on special teams for USF in last year's West Virginia win. But now he's a starter whose job includes limiting the big plays he knows his friend is capable of making.
"We've always played together on the same team, in Pop Warner, in high school," said Washington, who tried to lure Devine to USF after committing to the Bulls. "I've seen a lot of his moves, so I know just to watch his hips. Wherever his hips go, that's where he has to go."
Devine's hips have gone pretty far this season. The 5-8, 176-pounder's 130.3 yards per game are third in Division I-A. His 912 yards are seventh overall and put him on pace to surpass the 1,289 of last season, his first as a starter.
"He's a real gifted athlete. Sometimes, I watch him and just don't know how he does some of the stuff," said Washington, who has 15 tackles and two fumble recoveries this season.
The Bulls have struggled the past two games, allowing 34 points to Cincinnati and 41 to Pittsburgh. West Virginia is capable of the same, averaging 31 points and 421 yards during its 6-1 (2-0 Big East) start.
USF coach Jim Leavitt said he's encouraged by Washington's progress.
"He's just growing up so much," Leavitt said. "He's got a lot of talent, but he's listening. He's coachable. He wasn't always that way, but he has been now."
That's not to say Washington hasn't enjoyed a little back-and-forth with Devine. The two talked Sunday night and have exchanged text messages such as, "You'd better be ready."
"He has his trash-talking. I have my trash-talking," Devine said during a teleconference Tuesday. "He knows how it goes. He played with me, so we know what we're both capable of doing. We get to go out and play and have fun, compete against each other. We'll have a lot of people from home watching, so it's exciting. It's like a homecoming for me."
That could be said for West Virginia's 23 other players from Florida, including quarterback Jarrett Brown (West Palm Beach), receiver Jock Sanders (St. Petersburg Catholic) and linebacker J.T. Thomas (Fort Lauderdale).
Devine has been largely contained against USF, 36 yards on four carries as a freshman and 90 on 17 carries last season and no touchdowns in either.
And the Bulls defense has had overall success against West Virginia in the past three years, wins of 24-19 and 21-13 in 2006 and 2007, respectively, and a 13-7 loss in December. Finding the same tough play will require a stark change from the defense they've played in the past two weeks.
"We have to get our fundamentals back, get back to playing our style of football," Washington said. "We're not playing South Florida football. Play fast, play hard, play physical. Swarm and punish."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.