We’re just five practices into spring and it’s starting to feel like a broken record:
Somebody asks Kyle Whittingham who stood out. He mentions Devontae Booker.
Thursday’s practice was the third straight in which the junior transfer gashed Utah’s defense on seemingly every other handoff, his red No. 27 disappearing into a swarm of black jerseys and emerging on the other side at the same speed.
"He’s a natural with the ball in his hands," Whittingham says. "There’s a lot more to a running back than just running the football, but that’s his strong suit. … All the things that you need to do in the run game that we have here, he seems to be very natural at."
Booker’s journey to Division I hasn’t been near so direct as his sprints downfield.
As a prep he attended perennial powerhouse Grant Union High School in Sacramento, Calif., and spent the first two years on the junior varsity — a fact that still astounds Grant Union head coach Mike Alberghini.
Varsity coaches had no idea what he was capable of because JV coaches "were letting other people carry the ball and not him," he said, and Booker never made a fuss.
When Booker received the call-up as a junior, Alberghini says he grilled him about being resigned to JV. "Where was that fighting spirit?" he said.
He saw it soon enough on the field. Booker would have been Grant Union’s best receiver, linebacker, you name it.
Alberghini decided on running back. Booker rushed for 1,850 yards and 36 touchdowns as a junior, scoring the winning TD to beat Long Beach Poly for the state title. His senior year he rushed for — not a typo — 2,884 yards and 45 touchdowns.
Alberghini says 11 of his players have gone on to the NFL, and "I think Devontae, at that stage in high school, was as good as most of them."
But the road ahead twisted. Booker had been a disinterested student his first two years of high school, and Alberghini says that by the time coaches got him to buy in, he was behind the 8-ball. He first committed to Washington State but was ruled an academic nonqualifier, and even after Booker says he took the ACT and scored a 28, the same happened at Fresno State.
His only choice was to burn two years obtaining his associate degree. The Utes offered him as a sophomore after he rushed for 1,472 yards as an American River College sophomore, and he committed.
So what happened to 2013?
Hard to say. Booker was ruled an academic nonqualifier yet again because he hadn’t passed a math class that Utah required. The American River Current reported last year that Booker and an unnamed former ARC employee tried to forge his transcript to make him eligible, and that the school found them out.
Booker denies any involvement in such a scheme.
American River AD Greg Warzecka told The Tribune on Wednesday that he was told first by coaches and then by academic affairs that Booker played a role in attempting to forge his transcript, but said Booker retook the needed class and got a good grade, and that he feels Booker has paid his penance and is a "special man."
Whatever happened at ARC, Booker has a chance to put that story — and fellow Utah running backs — behind him.
Utah RB coach Dennis Erickson says Booker is a "real strong, one-cut guy that gets up the football field," adding, "He breaks out there and nobody seems to catch him."
As if that’s not enough, American River head coach Jon Osterhaut says Booker can throw a ball 70 yards, a claim that Booker affirmed Tuesday.
"Maybe 75," he said. "They should put in a couple halfback passes for me."
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