For all those who get misted over about the days when Utah football featured the kind of running back good enough to play in the NFL — and Kyle Whittingham is among all y’all — the dewy snapback may come in the form of one Devontae Booker.
Not that many people know about the 22-year-old junior for a single great reason — he hasn’t done a thing yet at the D1 level. But he’s already accomplished enough in spring and summer ball, since transferring to Utah from American River College in Sacramento, to have earned from his teammates a nickname as impressive as it is clunky: Baby Marshawn Lynch.
There’s nothing clunky about the way Baby Booker runs the football.
"He does everything really well," said running backs coach Dennis Erickson, after the Utes’ second camp practice on Tuesday. "He’s the most physical runner we have. He’s a good pass protector. And he has a lot of speed, too."
"I see myself as an every-down back," he said. "Expectations are high. Last year, the defense did well. It’s the offense that has to pick it up. That’s why they lost so many games here. I bring a lot to the table. I run the ball hard between the tackles. I’ve got breakaway speed. I’m a home run threat. I ran the 40 in 4.4."
And now Utah football is counting on Booker to be what it lacked a year ago: a throwback to the days of Jamal Anderson and Mike Anderson and John White IV and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala, a steady force the offense can rely on when more risky attempts to gain yardage sag.
"We talk to these guys about the history here," Erickson said. "Utah has had great backs in the past. These guys have heard the names. Book has the ability to play with all of them."
He just hasn’t proved anything — yet. The closest he’s come was during the Red-White spring game, when he spun heads around by gaining over a hundred yards. During the spring, Whittingham said of Booker: "He’s a natural with the ball in his hands. 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 concurred on that, too, although he’s still competing with Bubba Poole and Troy McCormick for his time. Erickson called all three "Pac-12 running backs."
Poole said on Tuesday that the RBs have come to an understanding of their place in the Ute offense: "All three of us have accepted our roles and our rotation."
Except that, at the same time Poole was saying that, Booker was saying this: "My expectation is to start, to gain over a thousand yards, to get this offense rolling again and to be the running back Utah fans want to see."
That’s the sort of running back Booker was at Grant Union High School in Sacramento. During his junior season, he ran for 1,850 yards and 36 touchdowns. As a senior, he gained 2,884 yards and scored 45 TDs.
"People say I had video-game stats in high school," he said.
On his way to signing with a Pac-12 school, though, Booker toggled capably between the tackles smack dab into an academic brick wall. His grades didn’t measure up. After going the JC route, academic adversity struck again when a former school employee and Booker himself were together accused by administrators of attempting to doctor a transcript. Following his first year at American River, after he ran for 1,472 yards, Utah wanted Booker badly. He subsequently properly rectified his shortcoming in the classroom, and joined the Utes.
Booker swiveled his hips around the transcript story when asked about it Tuesday, calling the accusation "fiction," and saying he’s moved on. He also said, since enrolling at Utah, he compiled a 3.5 grade-point average in the spring and has earned three As and a B in summer classes.
"I’ve gotten the academic support I needed here," he said. "I’m maintaining good grades."
Booker sees himself, some day, as a college grad and a business owner, running a sports-equipment company. En route, he plans on scoring a bajillion touchdowns at Utah and then a bajillion more in the NFL: "I want to make it at this level and at the next."
Erickson said he’s eager to watch how far Booker can zig and zag and straight power up the middle. "He brings 210 pounds of speed and physical running," he said. "Book’s got two years here. I’m excited to see what he’ll do."
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
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