- Mitch Sherman, College Football
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NEW ORLEANS -- Raindrops began to fall at halftime and turned to a steady precipitation in the third quarter two weeks ago as the Edna Karr High School football team faltered, trailing rival Saint Augustine by 10 points.
This clash at Tad Gormley Stadium in City Park, the revered and rebuilt area of New Orleans to which so many of the players on both teams trace their football roots, featured some 20 major-college prospects, notably three of the top 30 players in the 2014 class.
Saint Augustine running back Leonard Fournette, the No. 1-rated recruit nationally, accounted for touchdowns by pass, rush and reception in the first half. Through three quarters, Edna Karr's Devante "Speedy" Noil and Gerald Willis III couldn't match Fournette.
Noil, the No. 1 athlete and eighth-rated prospect overall, moved from quarterback to wide receiver after halftime. But Texas commit Jermaine Roberts, another member of the ESPN 300, from his cornerback spot contained Noil during the third quarter.
Among the thousands who came to support Karr, spirits were dampened. Noil, after another failed offensive possession early in the fourth quarter, botched a fake punt, apparently on his own, from inside the Karr 10-yard line.
Instead of sitting their star player, the Karr coaches reinserted Noil at QB with seven minutes. Three Speedy-directed touchdown drives later, Karr walked out with a 34-24 win, leaving Fournette and many of his teammates in search of answers amid a tearful postgame scene.
What just happened?
Well, Noil and Willis happened.
"That's what makes them different," Karr assistant coach Brice Brown said two days before the big game. "They love the game. They study the game. And they'll do whatever it takes."
Noil and Willis, in an exceptional year for elite talent in Louisiana, form the state's most dynamic duo. Equally electric, they've created a daunting legacy at Karr, winning a 4A Louisiana title last year.
"It's about the program," said Karr coach Nathaniel Jones, a 1995 graduate of the school who returned this year after spending the past two seasons as cornerbacks coach at Texas-San Antonio. "It's about developing players. But I can't say enough about those guys. They're special."
Noil and Willis, the No. 29 overall prospect and third-rated defensive end, may continue their careers together after high school. According to Noil, "it's probably about 70-30" that they'll sign with the same college. The pair visited Texas A&M on Sept. 14 for the Alabama game and plan to see Florida for its Oct. 5 meeting with Arkansas.
The Aggies and Gators rank as finalists for both players. Willis said he also considered LSU among his top three; for Noil, it's USC.
Both plan to announce their decisions in January at the Under Armour All-America Game.
"We've gone this far, so let's keep going together," Willis said. "We talk about it. If the school that's best for me is best for him, we'll do it. But I've told him, 'If you have a school you really want to go to, and I'm not interested, go to your school.'"
Noil and Willis both played in the park as middle school stars. They knew of each other but did not stand on the same sideline until high school, when both rose quickly to prominence.
"They just do things to make you say 'Wow,'" Karr defensive coordinator Taurus Howard said. "Gerald and Speedy are in the ranks by themselves. We have other great players here, but you could put any 60 kids on a team with them and they would still do their thing."
The 6-foot, 176-pound Noil also plays basketball and stars in track and field. He won the SPARQ Rating national championship -- a series of drills designed to test athleticism -- at elite national football event The Opening in July. On his first high school play in 2010, Brown said, Noil forced a fumble and recovered the ball. Minutes later, he took a pass 30 yards.
"Even before he got to us, it was out there that he had Mike Wallace speed with Craig Davis-type catching ability," Brown said in reference to the New Orleans-bred receivers who advanced to the NFL. "Speedy gets your attention right away. It's his pure athletic ability."
Don't discount his intelligence, though. Coaches at Karr insist that Noil is as gifted intellectually as physically. He reads defenses well and anticipates action on the field. Primarily, he plays quarterback because it only makes sense to maximize his touches.
But Noil harbors no dreams to play QB in college.
"I want to be a receiver," Noil said. "Football is about mastering your craft. I still have a lot of things to work on, but at the same time, I have big plans as a receiver. And playing the other positions [in high school] is helping me become a great wide receiver."
Noil said the athleticism comes naturally. His mother, Lechelle Noil, competed in basketball, softball and track at Karr. Her picture hangs at the school among its athletic greats.
Speedy and his buddy Willis figure to make it there, too. Of the two, Noil possesses the brash personality. He likes to talk -- and his play says plenty more on Friday nights.
Then there's Willis, the 6-foot-3, 275-pound brother of Alabama defensive back Landon Collins. When Willis started school at Karr, coaches said, he barely muttered a word.
Willis is a fearsome pass-rusher. As a freshman, his inexperience showed. He regularly forgot assignments and ran the wrong direction. But from the stands, Howard said, few people noticed.
"He was just moving so fast," the coach said. "That all you saw.
"As soon as he got on the field, I never saw anybody transform into the ultimate football player like that. He has that 'it.' He's mean. He's aggressive. He's strong. He gets to the football. He signifies what a football player should be."
Willis recorded 19 sacks last season. As his numbers accumulate this fall, invariably, he hears from LSU fans that he ought to head to nearby Baton Rouge next year. Noil hears the same encouragement.
Though the Tigers don't fall within his top three, Noil said he's still considering LSU. He said he gets tired of hearing about the Tigers. The talk comes from every direction. His cousin, Frank Wilson, works as the LSU recruiting coordinator and running backs coach. Their relationship, Noil said, pertains little to recruiting.
Same goes for Willis.
"The teachers here are LSU fans," Willis said. "The principal's an LSU fan. It's crazy."
Noil and Willis wear purple to school every day. Karr colors. They don't get a choice.
And if they did?
"I'd just wear black," Willis said.
Together or not, that choice is coming.
ATH Speedy Noil, the nation's No. 8 player, and DE Gerald Willis III, No. 29, have combined to make New Orleans Edna Karr one of the state's best. Will their productive partnership continue in college?