Dion Lewis, Noel Devine ready to take Big East, nation by storm
With exceptional turnover at QB, 2010 Big East could be dominated by tailbacks
Speedy backs Dion Lewis, Noel Devine are conference's top Heisman candidates
Two share plenty of similarities -- including desire to lead team to BCS berth
NEWPORT, R.I. -- Dion Lewis didn't use Big East media day as a platform to launch his Heisman Trophy campaign. And that shouldn't surprise anyone. The soft-spoken Pittsburgh running back isn't one to brag.
When Lewis begins his sophomore season at Utah on Sept. 2, don't expect him to hold that silence. That's when his shifty moves and explosive speed will start making headlines -- and his powerful legs will again do the talking.
"When I was little, I used to dream about winning the Heisman," Lewis said Tuesday. "I'm too busy to dream now. Football is 24 hours, seven days a week."
A year ago, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt had no idea what he had in Lewis. But week by week, a great story began to evolve. Lewis rushed for 190 yards at Buffalo, 180 at Rutgers, 155 at West Virginia and 194 against Cincinnati.
By the time the season was over, Lewis had chiseled out a special place in Big East history. The conference named him Offensive Player of the Year and rookie of the year, marking the first time one player had captured both honors in the same year since Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick in 1999.
Even more impressive were Lewis' 1,799 rushing yards, which broke Tony Dorsett's freshman record at Pitt.
"I've seen a little film of him -- it was in black and white," Lewis said of Pitt's only Heisman winner (Dorsett took the trophy in 1976). "I don't really look for similarities. I've learned he was a great player. But I don't really pay attention to that stuff. I'm just trying to be the same person I am and trying to get ready."
With an exceptional amount of turnover at quarterback, the Big East could be dominated by running backs this season. That makes Lewis the likely face of the conference, along with West Virginia's Noel Devine, the Big East's other Heisman candidate and a senior who has rushed for 3,381 career yards and ranks 10th on the Big East's all-time list.
The two share plenty of similarities. They're the star players on two of the Big East's top teams (Pitt was picked to win the conference in the preseason media poll released Aug.; WVU and Cincinnati tied for second). And they both stand 5-foot-8, a fact that created a lot of small talk at media day.
"It's tough," Connecticut linebacker Scott Lutrus said when asked about the task of tackling either elusive back. "Noel gets so low and gets to the hole. He's hard to find and he's so fast and explosive through there. If you don't get him at the line of scrimmage, he's hard to chase down.
"Same thing with Dion. He's so shifty that you can get him one-on-one in the backfield but he'll put a good move on you and he breaks a lot of tackles. I don't know how many missed tackles there were on him last year, but I'm sure there were a ton."
Devine enters the season ranked No. 1 among active Bowl Subdivision players in career rushing. At 180 pounds, Devine is 15 pounds lighter than Lewis. But he has fared so well he considered leaving the Mountaineers for the NFL after his junior season. When Devine was projected between the second and fifth rounds, coach Bill Stewart took time to discuss all the options with his star back.
And Devine decided to stay.
"There's something about being a senior on a college football team," Stewart said. "And that tells you the trust Noel has in the program. There's a trust, a bond, and a love that is special."
Devine made it to Newport for the Big East's annual clambake, but never left his hotel room the next morning. School officials said he was sick and couldn't participate in the interview sessions. Word instantly swept through the ballroom that a way to stop Devine had finally been discovered.
"It might have been the lobster," West Virginia linebacker J.T. Thomas said.
Thomas, who had 76 tackles for the Mountaineers last season, said he no longer tries to bring Devine down during practices in Morgantown.
"I think I'm probably one of the better tacklers on the team," said the 6-2, 225-pound Thomas. "But if I get a good lick in on him, he'll come back and break me down to my knees the next play.
"I don't think [Lewis] is as good as Noel Devine. But those guys are small, so they have cat balance. It doesn't matter which way you throw them, they always land on their feet. They are super quick and super fast."
To say Lewis has landed on his feet is accurate in more ways than one. Devine rushed for 6,842 yards and 92 touchdowns and was highly touted coming out of North Fort Myers (Fla.) High, but that wasn't the case for Lewis.
Even though Lewis played in Albany, N.Y., the heart of Big East territory, he didn't receive any scholarship offers until he transferred to New Jersey's Blair Academy and averaged 12.3 yards per carry there. Even then, Lewis had to send videotapes to 20 schools before Pitt actually took notice. His parents were ready to pay his tuition to give him the opportunity to become a walk-on when Pitt assistant coach Jeff Hafley noticed Lewis as he was recruiting another player at Blair Academy.
That's when Wannstedt took a look at one of those tapes. He watched eight plays, started scratching his head and went back to Hafley.
"Tell me where the problem is?" Wannstedt said. "Does this guy have no grade point average? Is he really not at school? Did he just get released on parole? What are the holes in this guy?
"My assistant coach said the only thing is, he's probably only 5-8. But I said bring him in for a visit. Let's spend some time with him. It didn't take long for us to say, 'He's the type of guy we want in our program.'"
Now, Lewis may be the guy to put Pitt's program back on top.
"It feels good to be mentioned in the same sentence with the Heisman," Lewis said. "But it's such a team reward. You've got to win games to win the Heisman. As long as my team wins, everything will be right."
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