Boobie Hobbs stayed in his lane, backpedaling down the left seam inside LaVell Edwards Stadium, never unlocking his eyes from Tanner Mangum. As BYU’s starting quarterback let loose, Hobbs was precisely where he needed to be, disrupting in the middle of two routes, the ideal place for Utah’s nickel back.

Once Hobbs snagged Mangum’s pass, he sprinted down the east sideline before being pushed out of bounds. Back on his feet, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior from the heart of New Orleans sprinted across the end zone, the ball tucked tightly into his right forearm. Hobbs stared up at the silenced crowd all the way toward the red side of the field, the first interception of his lengthy Utah career — finally — in hand.

A snapshot to savor, but one he initially hoped would’ve come years prior.

Hobbs arrived in Utah in 2014 with dreams of jumping to the front of the depth chart as a talented defensive back and kick returner from a highly touted high school in New Orleans. What he joined was an accomplished mix of defensive backs from across the country that since has continued Utah’s tradition of sending players on to the NFL.

“You just assume that things are going to be given to you because you come from phenomenal school — that matters nothing,” Utah defensive backs coach Sharrieff Shah said. “That doesn’t matter here. We have kids who come from schools no one has heard of, yet they go on to be all-Americans and get drafted in top rounds because they develop as a football player.”

When coaches and teammates mention Hobbs’ career arc, they laud the senior for adapting. He’s matured, they say, taken a step forward where he might’ve been disappointed in himself in years past. Hobbs is now the elder statesman of a deep yet inexperienced positional group.

“I’ve seen him just kind of grow up and recognize that it won’t all happen in one day,” said Shah, who recruited Hobbs out of Landry-Walker High School. “He’s very patient now. He takes to very hard coaching, and we are very, very hard on him as well as anyone else.”

BOOBIE HOBBS

Height • 5 foot 10

Weight • 180 pounds

Position • Defensive back/punt returner

Class • Senior

Hometown • New Orleans

A key part of D-backfield •Recently grabbed his first career interception against BYU in Utah’sseventh straight win over the Cougars. After three years on the depthchart, Hobbs won Utah’s starting nickel back job in fall camp. He alsohas two career punt returns for touchdowns.

Hobbs admits early on in his career he wasn’t getting the reps he thought he deserved but said looking back, his learning curve in college peaked when he decided to let go of frustrations and just listen. As he sat outside the Eccles Football Center after a light day of practice, Hobbs chuckled when he thinks about all the days former Utes like Brian Allen, Reggie Porter and former nickel starter Justin Thomas told him, “Boobie, man, it’s so easy.”

He assumed his peers, two of whom are now in the NFL, meant the entire game itself. No, they were trying to ingrain in him that perfecting the intricacies of the position helps immensely once game time actually rolls around.

“The plays will come,” they’d tell him.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah Utes defensive back Boobie Hobbs (1) celebrates a long punt return as the University of Utah Utes host the Southern Utah University Thunderbirds, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Thursday September 1, 2016.
Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah Utes defensive back Boobie Hobbs (1) celebrates a long punt return as the University of Utah Utes host the Southern Utah University Thunderbirds, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Thursday September 1, 2016.

That first interception came, and as Hobbs continues to get used to life as Utah’s full-time nickel back, he envisions more game-changing plays are on the way. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said Hobbs is “a big luxury” at a position that only will garner more attention as the Utes expect to see several high-octane spread offenses in Pac-12 play.

“That nickel spot is probably one of the most difficult positions on defense to play,” Whittingham said.

Senior defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei pointed toward a change in Hobbs’ maturity level before both Utes started their senior campaigns. Hobbs, Lotulelei explained, has been waiting three years for his time to see more time on the field and will not be satisfied until he makes a more consistent impact.

“I feel like everything is just falling into place for him,” Lotulelei said. “I think he’s going to keep balling out.”

“It’s cool that [Hobbs] is making some plays,” junior strong safety Chase Hansen said, “but not surprised.”

Hobbs has been Utah’s lead punt-returner the past two seasons before earning the starting spot at nickel this year. His 35 punt returns in 2016 led the nation, and he was third in the Pac-12 in punt return yards. Special teams, he maintains, was his original ticket on the field, and it’s where he hopes he can continue to excel and possibly get a look at the next level.

“If you’re not producing on special teams, you won’t see the field, in no way, shape or form,” Hobbs said.

Hobbs is projected to graduate in December with a degree in sociology. The reality of his collegiate career coming to an end continues to sink in with each passing game, which he says has led to him taking a more pronounced role with Utah’s young defensive backs. And he doesn’t miss an opportunity to use his own missteps as an example.

“Take my situation and use it as fuel, to light your own fire to get yourself going,” Hobbs said. “A lot of those young guys are looking like they want to play right away. I made those same judgments like them. One thing I had to learn is nothing is handed. You’ve got to earn it.”