Small Mountaineer backs make a big point

By Darrell Laurant  |   Thursday, October 30, 2008  |  Comments( 0 )

College Football
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A couple of little things really made the difference in West Virginia's 34-17 victory over Auburn last week. Their names were Noel Devine (5-foot-8, 173 pounds) and Jock Sanders (5-7, 174).

Devine scooted, slid and darted for 207 yards on just 17 carries, while Sanders gained 42 in six tries. The Mountaineers' killer munchkins also burned the Tigers several times when lateral passes for quarterback Pat White gave them space in which to operate.

All of which raises a pertinent question: Why does a running back have to be tall -- or even average in height?

The first thought is that little guys like Devine and Sanders might be more prone to injury. But both are solidly built, and probably less likely than a 6-2, 220-pounder to absorb a big hit. Whenever Devine got the ball, the Auburn defenders -- rated among the toughest in the Southeasatern Conference, by the way -- resembled a pack of dogs chasing a squirrel.

A lot of running backs are tough to tackle -- Devine and Sanders, both Floridians, are tough to find. Operating behind hulking offensive linemen like Greg Isdaner and Ryan Stanchek, they burst through holes and creases like birdshot.

As for White, he's listed at 6-1 and 192 pounds, but doesn't seem that large. Yet whenever West Virginia needed a play on short yardage against Auburn, White generally supplied it with his feet rather than his arm.

Auburn actually wanted White, a native of Daphne, Ala., but it wanted him as a defensive back. So did everyone else in the SEC. Then-WVU coach Rich Rodriguez promised White he'd have a shot at quarterback, and the rest is Big East history.

Still, recruiters seem to rhapsodize far more over a 6-3 quarterback or 6-0 running back than their smaller counterparts. When the University of Virginia was struggling at the quarterback position earlier this season, there was a rising drumbeat of support for 5-9, 190-pound cornerback Vic Hall, who broke all of Ronald Curry's state and national total offense records as a prolific quarterback in little Gretna, Va.

As it turned out, sophomore Marc Verica (6-3, 220) stepped up to lead the Cavaliers to three straight victories. Yet the argument in Hall's favor was a compelling one.

Of course, it is helpful if a quarterback can see over his linemen. But with increased size generally comes decreased mobility. And with running backs, it's hard to see where size matters at all -- in most cases, any passes they catch are in the flat with no defenders around to reach over.

More and more, college and pro scouts are recognizing this, and the last few seasons have given us mini-marvels like Maurice Jones-Drew and Garrett Wolfe. Devine may well be the next small back to succeed in the NFL.

What makes him special is his ability to change direction and speeds. Every college team these days has a couple of offensive playmakers who lock 4.3 in the 40. Yet just as baseball hitters will eventually lock on to a string of 95-mile-an-hour fastballs, raw speed in a straight line will only take a back so far -- literally.

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