Before the start of Dunbar’s football season, Poets coach Lawrence Smith enthusiastically offered a take to everybody he talked football with.
“You’ve got to see this kid,” he declared. “I’m telling you, this kid is special.”
Time and time again, Dunbar’s electric running back Devin Roche has proven his coach correct.
The 5-foot-7, 165-pound junior, in his first varsity season, has dazzled with his elusive outside speed, baffled with his inside power and shown a knack for doing whatever is necessary to lead the No. 5 Poets to a 7-0 mark ahead of Friday’s game against host Carver Vo-Tech.
Through seven games, Roche has run for 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns — averaging a staggering 18 yards per carry with 100-yard rushing games each time out. He’s also thrown for 471 yards and seven touchdowns with another score on a punt return.
Smith’s assessment of Roche put him in elite company as he’s mentioned in the same breath as Poet great Tavon Austin, a 2009 grad who was a three-time Baltimore Sun All-Metro Player of the Year before moving on to West Virginia and an NFL career that continues with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“I know for us, we get good players every year, but don’t get special players too often. I said to everyone — I remember thinking this early on — that I haven’t had a kid this special, that could basically take over a game like he can, since we had Tavon,” said Smith, now in his 13th season.
The Poets season has been filled with one highlight-reel play after another by Roche. And it’s his all-around performance against the team’s fiercest Baltimore City rival, Mervo, on Sept. 18 that set him apart.
Consider that in the Poets’ 48-46 overtime win, Roche, who served double duty also playing quarterback with starter Jeremiah Dallas becoming ill in the first half, accounted for 260 total yards with five touchdowns. Trailing by 16 points with under three minutes to play, he threw his second and third touchdown passes of the game — a 61-yard strike to Devin Page with 1:04 that forced overtime.
The sports clichés “leave it all out on the field” and “will your team to a win” are often overused but fit in describing Roche’s performance on that hot Saturday afternoon.
After watching his emerging star run the ball 21 times for 141 yards and two touchdowns and throw for 119 yards and three more scores, Smith hoisted a gold championship belt over Roche’s shoulders and told a couple of reporters: “That’s the man! That’s the man!”
Roche, a B student who has received an offer from Maryland, genuinely puts aside his individual success for that of the team. A hint at just how much he gave that day came with what he did afterward. Typically after a win, he gets together with teammates to celebrate. But that day, he went home, showered and went straight to bed.
“I just do whatever I can to help my team get to the next game and I really don’t know what to say — it’s just me being me,” he said. “I learned a lot about our team and not necessarily just about me, myself, that day. As long as we stick together, we’ll be fine. We came back from down 16 points in two minutes because we put our mind to it and our coaches kept us feeling like it wasn’t over. We just kept playing and got the win.”
At this point, nothing Roche does on the football field — as mesmerizing as his play can be — surprises teammate and good friend Detwuan Player Jr. He has seen Roche’s unique qualities for so long, it’s become the norm. He says there is 100% confidence when the ball is in his hands.
“On the football field, there’s nobody I’ve seen that moves like that, but he’s humble with it,” said Player, a junior linebacker. “He’s a leader. He steps up to the plate and he’s someone you can really put your trust in. It’s never a dull moment with Devin. He makes every moment possibly one you can always remember.”
Roche takes a strong foundation to the football field.
He has loved the sport since he started playing flag football when he was 5 years old, recalling the bootleg he ran around the end for the first of many long scores.
He has always been smaller — and better. After scoring seven touchdowns playing on his under-12 rec league team, he fully recognized he brought something to the field that most others didn’t.
A strong support system is in place, led by his mother, Kaya Lewis, who provides encouraging words at home and loud support in the stands. Inspiration comes from his late father, Tommy Roche, who died following a chronic illness in 2018. And he has a path to follow that was laid down by his uncle, Quincy Roche, a New Town grad who finished his college career at Miami and is now playing for the New York Giants.
“He has always loved the game and it’s always been his passion. He’s self-driven and disciplined — it’s just his thing,” said his mother, a Dunbar alum. “I’m his big cheerleader, always surprised because I’m always overwhelmed. It’s like I’m sitting there watching the kid that I see at home every day and it’s like he turns into a different person when he’s out on the field. He’s such a mild kid until he takes the field — it’s just his element.”
When he first started playing, his mother would always say: “but he’s sooo little!”
And Dunbar assistant Mike Hall, a close family friend who coached him from the beginning, always replied: “But he’s special.”
Over the years, that hasn’t changed.
“Devin was always the kid that stood out to me and I didn’t care how small he was. I think it was his passion. I never saw a kid love the game like he did. He’s just all about the game,” Hall said.
“You could just see it. He would run so low to the ground, emulating whatever he saw and he was always watching. If they can do it, I can do it and he never shied away because of his size. It made him go 10 times harder.”
Smith has been impressed with how Roche has gone about making a name for himself, staying humble and aware he needs to keep working hard to get better and better. As for the Austin comparison — the highest of praise when talking Dunbar football — Smith doesn’t shy away.
“It was remarkable standing on the sideline and watching how he used to take over football games. When I first watched what Devin was doing, that was the first time I ever said out of my mouth that I had a kid that I could honestly compare to what Tavon did on that same field,” he said.
A student of the game, Roche takes the time to study film of Austin, particularly during his sensational college career at West Virginia.
“We all look up to Tavon, not just my school, but all over the city,” Roche said.
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As for the lofty comparison Smith used, Roche is appreciative but stays humble: “That’s putting me to a high standard and I’m just going to do me. That’s the way I look at it.”