There’s nothing on Devontae Houston’s recruiting profile that tells you he should be a star on the college level.
In fact, there’s very little to suggest that he should even be playing major college football.
That profile on 247sports.com describes a player who is 5-10 and 163 lbs. He’s a 2-star recruit, the 3,584th-ranked player in the country, the 236th-best running back and the 129th best player in Alabama. The profile doesn’t even have Houston’s picture, just a faceless digital image of a generic football player to serve as a placeholder where his picture should be.
That’s not the typical description of a player who receives a full scholarship offer from a school that plays at the highest level of college football.
But Houston defied the odds on national signing day Wednesday when he accepted just such an offer, to play running back and slot receiver for the University of Connecticut.
You see, there’s a number that’s not on that recruiting profile that is probably the most important number in the low-key recruitment of Devontae Houston. That number is 4.4 – the number under which Devontae Houston has been consistently timed in the 40-yard dash.
That speed put Houston on the recruiting map heading into his senior season, albeit on the lower levels of college football. Schools from the NAIA and Division III were keenly interested early, and then larger FCS schools like Kennesaw State and Jacksonville State came knocking. But there was never a crystal clear message from those schools that said to Houston, “We want you.”
Then about 10 days before signing day, the 3,584th-ranked player in the country found himself in UConn head coach Randy Edsall’s office in Storrs, Conn., after Houston was invited to visit the school.
“The coach took us in a room, we had a meeting with him,” Houston recalled. “He asked me if I was going to commit then, but I didn’t commit. But when we got to the airport I was thinking.”
He was thinking about the differences between an FBS full ride scholarship and the same type of offer from a lower-tier school.
“Coach Strain was telling me the difference between a D-II full ride and a FBS full ride. That’s two different things,” Houston said.
At the FBS level a full scholarship covers everything – tuition, books, meals, residence. Everything.
“I might not have to buy toilet paper,” Houston joked.
At FCS or Division II schools that scholarship is not as comprehensive. It was that financial gap that set UConn apart and led Houston to call the UConn coaches and commit before he got on the plane to come home.
“The ultimate goal is graduating from college, but not having to pay anything out of your pocket is big,” Houston said.
And so it was that a lightly recruited but lightning fast running back from rural Alabama sat in his school’s library last Wednesday and signed his national letter of intent to attend a school roughly 1,100 miles away from home.
That letter represented the fulfillment of a dream that Houston said he has had since he was three years old, a dream that he first verbalized to Handley head coach Larry Strain when Strain happened upon him running cones on the Handley band field when Houston was in the eighth grade.
“His goal the whole time, ever since that point, was he was wanting to play college football. That’s what he said,” Strain said.
Houston joins a program that is in rebuilding mode. Edsall was the coach that took UConn to the Fiesta Bowl in 2010. But he has since left and come back, rejoining the program prior to the 2017 season. In the three seasons since Edsall’s return the Huskies have gone 6-30, and the program made the choice to leave the American Athletic Conference after last season and become an FBS independent.
But a rebuilding program needs to find diamonds in the rough in order to be successful, which is why they took a chance on the potential that Houston possesses, recruiting rankings be damned.
And Houston is determined to make that chance pay off.
“I got discouraged a lot through this process because I was working every day trying to get better. Colleges weren’t reaching out to me, and I was really fixing to give up,” he said. “But I just kept going. All of my teammates were like, brother, keep going, you’re going to be great. I just went to the field every day, kept working and UConn popped up. They believed in me. That’s all I needed was somebody to believe in me.”
Houston has left his mark on Handley after he set the school record for single-season rushing yards (2,494) and touchdowns (29) and earned first-team all-state honors for his efforts following his just-completed senior season.
And with that sub-4.4 speed and an intense determination to succeed, Houston’s coach thinks his new school will be pleasantly surprised.
“Devontae got a great deal,” Strain said. “But I think UConn’s the one that got the deal by signing him.”