Devin Singletary was never the biggest or fastest player on the field when he played running back at Florida Atlantic University.
The same will be true when he makes his professional debut soon with the Buffalo Bills.
Normally, Singletary’s size-and-speed combination – 5-foot-7, 203 pounds and 4.66-second 40-yard dash – would be viewed as a detriment.
Lane Kiffin has a different theory, though. Singletary’s coach at FAU, Kiffin said those measurables are actually why the running back thrived in college – and why he has the chance to do the same for the Bills.
“Sometimes things people see as a negative can be a positive. When you're not the biggest or fastest guy, you've got to find ways to make guys miss and feel where guys are behind you,” Kiffin said. “Sometimes when you're always the fastest kid, you don't necessarily need that. It's like he can see everything in slow motion.”
It’s that vision that has guided Singletary to a prolific career. Growing up in talent-rich South Florida, he was the 2015 Sun Sentinel All-Palm Beach County Player of the Year and a two-time all-state pick at American Heritage High School. He originally committed to Illinois, but stayed in state after a late recruiting push by FAU.
Singletary played for the Owls as a true freshman in 2016, rushing 152 times for 1,021 yards and 12 touchdowns – numbers that earned him a spot on the All-Conference USA honorable mention list, as well as conference All-Freshman honors.
Kiffin took over the Owls’ program in 2017, and leaned heavily on Singletary. He had 301 carries (tied for the most in the nation) as a sophomore for 1,920 yards and 32 touchdowns – a total that led the nation.
A big chunk of that total came in a September 2017 loss against the University at Buffalo. Singletary rushed for 156 yards and three carries in a 34-31 UB win.
“Extremely explosive runner with great vision and make-you-miss-ability,” Bulls coach Lance Leopoldo said. “I’m not sure of the stats, but he was the difference maker in the first half, for sure. Our goal was to slow him down the second half because he could win the game for them single-handed.
“It’s no surprise to see him wear he’s at. I look forward to watching his contributions here in Buffalo.”
Singletary had 3 tds, 156 yards, 7.1 per carry in a 34-31 FAU loss at UB in September 2017.
He was a first-team All-Conference USA pick and made the Associated Press’ All-American second team – becoming the first player in Florida Atlantic history to do so. As a junior last year, Singletary was again a first-team all-conference selection after he rushed 261 times for 1,348 yards and 22 touchdowns.
He elected to leave school with one year of eligibility remaining, with his 4,299 yards and 66 rushing touchdowns setting Florida Atlantic records.
“First off, he's a great kid. I know that's kind of coach-speak, but he really is an amazing kid," Kiffin said. “Very quiet, soft-spoken, nicest kid you could ever imagine, but then he just turns it on on game day. He's got a lot of runs where he makes people miss and all that stuff, but he plays a lot bigger than he is.
"He runs violent at times. He's just a human highlight film.”
Bills General Manager Brandon Beane saw it the same way. On the night he chose Singletary with the 74th overall pick in the third round of the NFL Draft, Beane told reporters the running back – nicknamed “Motor,” which was the same moniker given to his father, Devonn, at Norfolk State – was the “most fun” player he scouted all year.
Like Kiffin, Beane saw a player who excelled despite less-than-ideal measurables.
“It’s not what … we would call the prototype size for the position, but what does he do to overcome those things? It’s vision. It’s instincts,” Beane said. “He’s got, I would say, pretty solid hands. I’m not going to call them rare like his vision or lateral quicks, but he’s a good football player.”
Singletary wasn’t much of a receiver in college. After making 26 catches as a freshman, he dropped to 19 the following year and just six in 2018. He brushed off any concerns about that part of his game, saying it’s “still playing football,” and it should be noted that he looked comfortable in the spring as a receiver.
It’s safe to assume the Bills had as thorough a scouting report on Singletary as possible. That’s because the team’s running backs coach, Kelly Skipper, had previously coached with Kiffin at the Oakland Raiders. Skipper’s son, Kaelen, is a redshirt freshman safety at Florida Atlantic. In keeping tabs on his son’s program, Kiffin said Kelly Skipper became familiar with Singletary as a player and as a person.
“Like anybody, he’s going to have to figure out the pro game and there will be adjustments along the way,” Beane said. “We don’t have pads on yet, so I’m not going to sit here and proclaim we found a steal after T-shirts and shorts, but I like where he’s at. He got a lot of reps (in the spring) and it didn’t look too big for him. I think he can play on any down and I think he’ll be a good football player for us. I’m not going to try and predict he’s going to be an every-down player for ‘X’ number of years, but he’s going to be a good football player for us.”
When that will be is a fair question to ask. Singletary’s selection was mildly surprising given that it came after the team added veterans Frank Gore, T.J. Yeldon and Senorise Perry to a running back room that already included starter LeSean McCoy and Marcus Murphy. Who makes the roster from that group and how the coaching staff keeps everyone happy with only one football are legitimate issues heading into training camp.
Particularly when it comes to McCoy, Singletary’s addition has led to plenty of speculation. Are the Bills truly committed to keeping McCoy for the final year of his contract at a salary-cap charge of more than $9 million, or would they be willing to move on?
“I think LeSean still can play,” Beane said. “If not, we would have made the decision to move on. I think he embraced the competition this spring. Guys handle competition in different ways. I don't think he's shied away from it. I don't think that's his nature. He's very confident, when you talk to him, that he still sees himself up here. I don't think you're changing that, and I wouldn't want him to think any different. But we're focused on this year. That's what we have him under contract for, and I definitely think he's got enough left in the tank to help us in 2019."
Having too many running backs as opposed to not enough falls into the good-problem-to-have category.
“We're looking for the best 53 players,” Beane said. “You do have minimums you've got to keep at a position. But I don't go every year into camp and go, 'We got to keep ‘x’ number of O-linemen, ‘x’ number of running backs.' We've got to keep the best football players.”
“I've been on the side of it where you've got too few. … You can say we're deep at running back, but a couple of guys go down and it starts getting thin quickly, that's a position where the pads come on where you do start to see injuries can happen and things like that. I like the room that we have in there. And I'm looking forward to the competition.”
Joining a backfield that includes two potential future Hall of Famers in McCoy and Gore can be looked at a couple of different ways for Singletary.
On one hand, he can learn from two of the best to ever play. On the other, carries might be difficult to come by.
“I think for young players, or really any players that might not be right in the starting role right off the bat, you've got to have some mental toughness and be able to focus on your job,” offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said. “Worry about how you perform and not get caught up with, 'they're saying this about that guy.' You just have to concentrate on your job, do it to the best of your ability, and usually that will work out.”
Singletary, 21, was 7 years old when Gore broke into the NFL in 2005 and 11 when McCoy joined the league in 2009. Now, he’ll be attempting to take playing time away from them.
“That's a part of football – you compete,” Singletary said. “So I have no problem with competing. … Definitely can learn something from those guys, but definitely looking forward to competing.”
With McCoy and Gore on the wrong side of 30, they figure to see limited carries at training camp and the preseason. That will give Singletary plenty of opportunity to showcase what he can do.
“That's big,” he said. “I just got to keep doing what I'm doing – keep working hard. Find ways to contribute to the team.”