The car door clicks shut, and before M.J. Devonshire can even lean back into the seat of his parents’ car, his father Marlin is already speaking.
It’s not uncommon for fathers to coach up their sons following a game, especially if that father grew up coaching his son, but sometimes M.J. wishes his father would at least wait until they got home to dive into every snap M.J. took during the game.
‘Play 47,” Marlin says, “you should’ve been a little bit more physical.’
‘I don’t even remember play 47, but alright,’ M.J. says. ‘I’ll see it tomorrow.’
It’s Marlin and M.J., and of course, M.J.’s mother Theresa, riding home together. After two seasons at Kentucky, two years away from home, it’s just a blessing that M.J. is able to see his parents on a regular basis. That family time together cannot be replicated. And he’s even come to appreciate Marlin’s lectures.
“I took it for granted as a kid, I used to get so upset when he would do it when I was younger, but now — since I’m passionate about it and I’ve learned so much from it, I’ve realized now that, yeah, I need that,” M.J. said. “So, that’s really why I ride with him from the games. I need to hear what you think because you got me here, so he’s always gonna be in my corner.”
Even if sometimes Marlin approaches the situation as more of a father than a coach, not really understanding the scope of M.J.’s responsibilities in Pitt’s defense, he’s doing it out of a place of love. However, that doesn’t stop M.J. from saying, ‘I should be doing this, I don’t know if that will work.’ M.J. is thankful for his father, nonetheless. He’s thankful for his mother too.
The approach from Marlin and Theresa is different, a different way of helping M.J. get to where both want him to be, and he wouldn’t be where he is today without the help from both his mother and his father.
M.J. sees his mother and father every weekend. Theresa and M.J. often get lunch together — she actually picked up his laundry after Saturday’s scrimmage too. She wants to help her son in any way she can, and while he’s had to tell his mother that he can handle it on his own now, that hasn’t stopped him from learning about life from his mother. Where Marlin has used football to teach life lessons, Theresa has emphasized those softer skills that sometimes only a mother can.
Marlin has always been M.J.’s teacher, even an assistant coach at Aliquippa High School as he transitioned to that level of football, but it’s truly between the sort of relationship that’s exclusive to a father and his son. Marlin may have been M.J.’s coach, but he was always his father. As such, the lessons never ended.
“I lived with him, so it was like, going home, it was never over,” M.J. said. “If I messed up in practice, we would go over what to do and why I did it and how it was going to help me off the field. It would always translate. My dad was a big lecture guy. He would talk to me for hours and hours, but in the long run, I look back and I loved every moment of it.”
Now that M.J. is entering his redshirt junior season at Pitt, after two seasons at Kentucky and one at Pitt, he’s had a chance to grow. He picked Kentucky out of high school, relocating to Lexington, Kentucky, but it didn’t work out. He could’ve gone anywhere when he entered the transfer portal after the 2020 season. He chose Pitt; he chose his hometown.
The Aliquippa to Pitt pipeline, the same pipeline that’s produced Mike Ditka, Sean Gilbert, Darrelle Revis and Jonathan Baldwin, is still running strong this season with Devonshire and walk-on quarterback Eli Kosanovich. The past and the present often collide too, with Darelle Revis and Ty Law making a point of serving as mentors for M.J.
M.J. admittedly doesn’t do a good job of reaching out to the future and current NFL Hall of Famer, but he knows he has that help whenever he needs it, and the message from both has come off in the same way: Just be yourself, just be M.J.
“Just run your own race,” M.J. said. “Do what you gotta do to be successful and don’t get too focused on what other guys did. Whether it’s them or what other guys did in the nation. Playing corner, just do what you gotta do to be successful. Because everybody’s path is different.”
Everybody’s path may be different, but that Aliquippa connection is always present. M.J. knows that he can reach out to either Law or Revis whenever he needs it, or anyone in the community, but it goes deeper than that. Aliquippa is a proud town, community and program. A proudness that can’t quite be expressed.
“It’s like you shared something, and it’s not even spoken about. We all went through the same thing from running in the gym to that week of camp,” M.J. said. “Everybody knows what it’s like to be a Quip, so you share that kind of bond, and when you get older, it’s like, ‘Okay, now you’re going to the next level, I’m gonna show you how to get to the next level.'”
M.J. has reached the next level. He’s reached quite a few levels at this point. From Marlin’s talented son, he’s continued to grow. He’s been a superstar state champion at Aliquippa, a four-star defensive back recruit, a sparsely used Kentucky defensive back and a burgeoning star at Pitt. What comes next? The fight to be Aliquippa’s next star cornerback at Pitt.
Marquis Williams is Pitt’s returning starter at field cornerback this season, but with last season’s boundary cornerback Damarri Mathis heading off to the Denver Broncos in the NFL, M.J. and A.J. Woods have been working to help fill the void this season. Woods has watched how M.J. has not only acclimated himself into the system but taken the steps to ensure he’s ready to step into any situation defensively.
“M.J., he’s been doing great at everything,” Woods said. “He’s really — I’ve seen the work he’s put in the offseason, and he was able to correct anything he had issues with. It’s shown in camp, he’s having a really good camp.”
M.J. himself has seen the growth in his own game, playing at cornerback now after splitting time between safety and cornerback last season, and it’s come as his time in the film room evolved into something of a fanaticism. He’s calling Woods and Williams all the time; they’re calling him and it’s a cornerback’s unit that has made an effort to grow together. It isn’t exclusive to cornerbacks either, as — including safeties Brandon Hill and Erick Hallett — the entire unit has made it an effort to grow.
The morning lifts take place at six in the morning, and nearly every cornerback is in early on off days for film sessions, treatment and training.
After working with the safeties last season, studying under safeties coach Cory Sanders, M.J. has that added benefit of knowing both spots in the defense. He has that added benefit of knowing how the safeties operate and where they line up on the field. The camaraderie with the unit is huge, and secondary coach Archie Collins has seen how it’s helped M.J.’s position in the defense.
“(M.J. is) a lot better with his technique,” Collins said. “A lot more understanding about everything that’s going on around him as far as linebackers, as well as safety rotations. He’s able to up his game based on his technique being at those different positions as he has been.”
M.J. feels confident in his place in the defense now. He knows where the linebackers need to be, where the safeties need to be and if they’re where they need to be — and he knows he can’t be where they are — there’s only one other place he can be. Knowing where his help is on any play and in any scheme is a big relief, and he feels at ease in the defense.
After a debut season at Pitt in which he recorded 18 tackles (10 solo), a tackle for loss, an interception and five pass breakups, M.J.’s season-defining play was an interception of Sam Howell to clinch an overtime win against North Carolina at Heinz Field — and propel Pitt toward an ACC title.
With just over 400 snaps last season, just under 250 in coverage, M.J. graded out as one of Pitt’s best defenders in coverage. According to PFF, he allowed just 15 receptions on 31 targets, for 215 yards and three touchdowns. He was credited with five forced incompletions and five pass breakups.
It was a good debut season, the first season of his college career with extended playtime, but he’s hungry for more. M.J. will play even more this season, and it all starts with West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl on Sept. 1.
In educating true freshman Ryland Gandy, a Georgia native, about the Brawl, he pointed to the level of intensity that surrounds the matchup. And the level of added intensity that it will be Gandy’s introduction to college football.
“I told Ryland because we were watching the Tennessee game,” M.J. said. “He was like, ‘That game was crazy.’ I was like, ‘Sept. 1 will be like the craziest game you’ve ever played.’ He’s gonna look back like my first college game was crazy. (Acrisure Stadium’s) gonna be crazy, I know the fans, they’re gonna back and forth.”
M.J. feels like there may be some fights that night, inside or outside of the stadium, but he just hopes his family won’t be caught up in the intense energy surrounding the rivalry’s renewal.
West Virginia was actually M.J.’s first college offer, and a team that wanted to secure his signature after he left Kentucky, but he came home to Pittsburgh. He’s a hometown kid, and it takes a town to raise a hometown star.