Donovan Noel didn’t realize when East Carolina offensive line coach Geep Wade invited him to the school’s football camp in June that it was for an audition.
Noel, a 6-foot-4, 265-pound offensive lineman from Raleigh’s Millbrook High School, displayed enough talent and technique during the one-day affair that he left Greenville with a scholarship offer. A follow-up visit to ECU’s campus about two weeks later was all Noel needed to know he wanted to be a Pirate.
It turned out to be a big recruiting score for ECU, which beat out more than 15 other schools for Noel’s services. Appalachian State, Boston College, Buffalo, Charlotte, Colorado State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Old Dominion and Syracuse were just some of the other schools that pursued Noel.
“What really sold me on East Carolina out of all the other schools is I felt like they really saw me as a human being more than a player,” Noel said. “I felt like they had a deep understanding about the way I felt and the way I wanted to help the program. Plus, I love the coaches and I love Coach Wade.”
A relative later starter in football, Noel didn’t play with any organized team in the sport until the eighth grade. But the game didn’t come especially easily for Noel.
“I was kind of overweight and fat,” Noel said. “I went out and made the team, but I had to grind day in and day out. I wanted to be good, so I started checking out videos on YouTube about blocking. Then, I was blessed to meet Derek Morris.”
Morris was one of the nation’s most coveted offensive line prospects back in 2002 at North Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte. Ohio State won an intense recruiting battle for Morris and he signed with the Buckeyes in February 2002.
But academic issues eventually led Morris to ask to be released from his letter of intent in September of that year before he’d even played a down at Ohio State. He would transfer to N.C. State, where he lettered for three seasons between 2003-05.
Noel crossed paths with Morris one day while working out at DI Sports Training, a Raleigh gym that specializes in training athletes.
“It was about four or five years ago and he was rehabbing an injury in hopes of getting a chance at the league (NFL),” Noel said. “(Former N.C. State running back) Kenny Apilli, who works there, played with Derek at N.C. State and introduced us.
“Derek is the first one who really helped me grasp the basic techniques of blocking. I’m really not the biggest guy on the offensive line, so he instilled in me how important it was for me to know technique.”
Noel also credits Mike Vassel, a local offensive line instructor, and former Oakland Raiders linebacker Sio Moore with expanding his knowledge about blocking and football in general.
Their efforts helped Noel earn a spot on the Millbrook junior varsity as a freshman. He was promoted to the varsity at the end of an 11-3 campaign that saw the Wildcats advance to the East 4-AA finals led by quarterback Reid Herring. Herring, of course, is now a redshirt freshman at ECU.
An injury sidelined Noel for most of his sophomore season, but he returned late in the season to start the final two games. He started all 12 games as a junior for a 7-5 squad at Millbrook.
Noel has been recruited to play tackle at East Carolina.
“From what they’re telling me it is tackle,” he said. “They said physically I’m able to do some things other offensive tackles can’t, like go out and block a linebacker. But they also told me it wouldn’t hurt to learn how to snap also to show my versatility.”
Like many ECU prospects, Noel has been in contact with both quarterback Holton Ahlers and fellow offensive lineman Winstead, who have been at the forefront of the Pirates’ recruiting efforts since becoming the first two players to commit earlier this year.
“Holton actually followed me on Twitter,” Noel said. “I had to look to see who he was, then realized what a great athlete he is. We’ve talked back and forth since and have developed a friendship.
“I didn’t formally meet Peyton until we went to camp. I wanted to meet him more than anyone at camp because he is one heck of a center. We all try to stay in contact now. We’re trying to develop that team unity for the 2018 class.”