Potential diamond for Coach 'Ruff'

Apr. 19, 2014 @ 12:35 AM

East Carolina’s Ruffin McNeill should be plenty familiar by now with Henderson football.

The Pirates’ head coach helped Michael Applewhite, Northern Vance’s principal, get his first teaching job at Westover High School in Fayetteville in addition to suiting up with Eddie Hicks at ECU.

Vance Senior High’s Hicks, drafted by the New York Giants in 1979, was the last city product to star in the Pirates’ backfield.

Northern’s Devin Anderson wants to be the next.

Anderson will join ECU’s program in the summer as a preferred walk-on, meaning a spot on the roster is guaranteed. The 5-foot-9, 200-pound Vikings senior made it official on Thursday in a signing ceremony at Northern.

“My goal is to be the best running back to walk through ECU — or any position,” said Anderson, a fullback and linebacker at Northern. “I just want to be the best to walk through ECU.”

That may seem a little overzealous for a player that hasn’t been awarded a scholarship, one that most schools think is too short to play linebacker and one that played in a high school program that has six combined wins in the last four seasons.

Try telling that to Applewhite, a 1985 Vance High graduate that featured as a defensive lineman at ECU under head coaches Art Baker and Bill Lewis before making the Phoenix Cardinals’ roster.

“We won’t have a player like this for the next 10-20 years,” said the former Pirates captain. “This young man has the ingredients to go to the NFL and here we are talking about walking on.”

“He’s gifted beyond gifted,” added Applewhite, “and I don’t know when the next time we’ll have one of our players anywhere in Vance County on this level that Devin is. I know football. I’ve played it all my life. I’ve played it at the highest level. He has those ingredients.”

Anderson was recruited to ECU as a running back despite an impressive career at linebacker for Northern. The three-time all-conference and two-time academic all-conference selection built a reputation as a punishing tackler while rushing for 900 yards and five touchdowns his senior season.

Safety is the most likely position if the defensive side of the ball becomes an option for Anderson in Greenville.

READ — Why Devin Anderson chose ECU

But the most impressive thing about Anderson may be his overall athletic package which includes strength and work ethic.

Anderson was a member of Northern’s 4x200-meter relay team that qualified for the 2013 track and field state championships and he’s well on his way to making it back to Greensboro in at least one event.

Anderson, who aims to major in health fitness, carefully monitors his diet and lives in the weight room. His top bench press cleared more than 400 pounds.

“He made other guys lift by example, not by running off his mouth,” said second-year Northern head coach Eric Watkins. “Other kids follow. They look at his physique and are like, ‘Wow, how can I get this way?’”

The praise from those close to Anderson couldn’t be higher. Applewhite and Watkins each said they’d like their sons to be like him.

“He’s like one of my sons,” said Watkins, who played defensive back at Winston-Salem State. “That’s how much I care about him. Everybody in the school loves him. That’s what we want for the direction of Northern Vance football. We want Devin Anderson.”

Applewhite and Watkins each were active in the recruiting of Anderson.

Applewhite can’t understand why Anderson wasn’t recruited by more ACC schools (UNC showed heavy interest) — or even SEC programs.

“These two guys here have been by him the last two years,” said Devin’s mother, Nickole Anderson, “pushing him and trying to get his name out there when coaches don’t want to come to Vance County. They have really stuck by him and we appreciate it.”

Watkins said Devin Anderson’s tight-knit group of supporters are the foundation of his character.

Blue and Gold runs deep in the Anderson household. Nickole Anderson is president of the Vikings Booster Club and husband, Bernard Anderson, played football with Watkins at Vance High.

Of course, the Andersons didn’t miss many of their son’s games and neither did Dontrel Anderson, Devin’s older brother and biggest critic. Breaking down game film was a weekly ritual for the siblings.

Applewhite believes that film shows all one needs to know about Devin Anderson.

“The film does not lie. He plays like a man amongst children,” said Applewhite. “It is unfathomable to me that this young man did not get a scholarship. It bothers me to the core, but that’s OK because I believe in him. I know what he’s going to do. He cannot and he will not be stopped.”

With such bold endorsements for Devin Anderson, it’s hard to question that outlook.

Contact the writer at kholtzman@hendersondispatch.com.