Nothing could get in the way of sophomore Nevada running back Devonte Lee, not even a torn ligament in his knee.
Lee suffered an ACL injury mid-season, but he played through the pain and remained a constant force for the remainder of the 2018-19 campaign. Wolf Pack running backs Toa Taua, Jaxson Kincaid and Kelton Moore offered plenty of depth to help fill in for Lee to shift his focus toward recovery.
But he suited up the pads to stay on the field and helped the Pack clinch its first eight-win season since joining the Mountain West Conference, topping it off with an Arizona Bowl victory over the Arkansas State Red Wolves.
Lee’s physical toughness and selfless attitude during his freshman year helps paint a vivid image of his love for the game.
“It was just a mindset of mine to battle through the pain and hurt,” he said. “I wanted to help the team anyway I can. I knew my role and I could take on the load, so it wasn’t hard for me to play and be the best I can be.”
He underwent offseason knee surgery and is aiming to return for Nevada later this season.
“Rehab has been pretty intense,” he said. “I’ve been putting the work, hoping to make it back sometime this year.”
[pullquote]He’s got such a team-first mentality and he wants to do it all for the rest of the guys, no matter what he’s going through,” — Coach Jay Norvell[/pullquote]Playing through pain is nothing new for Lee. He started the last three playoff games in John Marshall High School with an injury to help the Bears take home a state championship in 2017.
Growing up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Lee was already sprinting down the sidelines in Pop Warner leagues. No matter what happens on and off the field, it doesn’t deter his determination toward a potential football career.
“I’ve been playing football since I was 5 years old, it was the one thing I really ever had,” he said. “I just love this game so much and everything it’s done for me.”
Football wasn’t the only sport Lee participated in at John Marshall High School. He spread his athleticism to football, wrestling, track and field and basketball. Lee flourished in all four sports, but his senior year caught the attention of thousands worldwide.
It wasn’t the 2,175 rushing yards and 35 touchdowns he scored that season — or his 6,681 yards and 89 touchdowns during his high school career— but a highlight reel that really opened some eyes.
He hurtled over defenders or simply ran through them with a unique blend of speed and power. Lee’s senior highlight tape has been plastered all over the internet, and it had hundreds of spectators calling him the next big thing.
“I knew it was a good highlight reel, but I didn’t know it’d blow up like that,” he said. “It really caught me by surprise. I’m hearing people call me the next Marshawn Lynch and stuff like that. … It really helped give me that recognition.”
Despite the hype from spectators, collegiate offers from Lee’s top hometown schools including Oklahoma and Oklahoma State didn’t come.
Nevada head coach Jay Norvell — who served as the co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach with Oklahoma from 2008-14 — pounced on the opportunity to snag Lee away from several other collegiate programs.
Lee’s personality and attitude has made an immediate impact with the rest of the team.
“Devonte has made his presence known since he first stepped onto the field,” Norvell said. “He’s got such a team-first mentality and he wants to do it all for the rest of the guys, no matter what he’s going through. … It’s been great to really watch him mature into a special player.”
In just one season, Lee flashed the potential that garnered a national spotlight. Primarily used as the goal line back, he rushed for 193 yards on 45 carries and scored seven touchdowns.
The 5-foot-8, 230-pound thumper uses his physical strength between the tackles. But he also has a quick burst and enough speed to bounce outside and pick up yardage in the open field. Coming off a strong freshman year, Lee’s focused on adding to his skillset in the backfield.
“I think I’ve found my own style,” he said. “I try to bring that toughness and get dirty between the tackles. I’ve put in the work this off-season to shed a couple pounds and be more agile to become more of a dual-threat.”
Lee and Taua entered Nevada together last season. Taua stole the show with 872 rushing yards in 13 games and was named the Mountain West Freshman of the Year.
Taua has a tight hold on the starting lineup, but Lee isn’t overshadowed. He and the rest of the Wolf Pack running backs have formed a special bond over the last two years.
“I really look to Devonte and the rest of the guys for advice,” Taua said. “With us being such a young group, it’s good for us to work with each of our strengths.”
With a healthy Lee back in the fold, the Pack have a dangerous group of playmakers.
“We’ve got a real diverse group here,” Lee said. “Jaxson (Kincaide), Kelton (Moore), Toa (Taua) and myself make a four-headed dragon of sorts. We all have a unique skill set and it’s something we look to build off of.”
Lee is away from the action for the time being, but his eyes are set on making the most of his return.
“It was just a warm feeling as soon as I came here,” he said. “It just felt like home to me and I’m blessed to be here, I can’t wait to be back out on the field.”
— Isaiah Burrows