Devontae Booker took the ball on the zone-read handoff against UCLA last year and found himself penned in by two of the best linebackers in the Pacific-12 Conference. The Bruins’ Deon Hollins had first crack at the punishing Utah running back out of Grant High School, but Booker ran right through him. Now, the pride of Del Paso Heights squared up against 232-pound Myles Jack, one of the most ferocious hitters in the country.
“And he frickin’ hits Myles Jack like, ‘Bam!’” Hollins said, when somebody asked him about Booker at last week’s Pac-12 media blast at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank. “Hit him flush – ran right through him like we weren’t even there.”
Hollins grimaced at the memory.
“Whew – crazy player,” Hollins said of Booker. “He might be the best back we faced last year. He just refuses to go down on contact.”
Booker carried the ball 33 times for 156 yards against eighth-ranked UCLA in the Oct. 4 game in the Rose Bowl, the one that got him on the board as one of the best backs in the country. Five times that day, Devontae converted third downs into firsts to keep scoring drives alive in Utah’s 30-28 upset victory. On a third-and-four from the UCLA 32 with the game winding down, Booker gained 15 yards to set up the Utes’ winning field goal with 34 seconds left.
The 5-11, 212-pound Booker finished the season as the second-leading rusher in the Pac-12 with 1,512 yards. He also caught 43 passes for another 306.
An all-conference first teamer, Booker seemed to be ready for the NFL. He talked it over with the experts, including his head coach at Utah, Kyle Whittingham. They told him he could expect to go in the third or fourth round.
Considerable money awaited Booker’s decision on whether to go pro. He talked it over with his parents, and he came to his own conclusion: He would go back to Utah and he would get his bachelor’s degree. He would take his chances he would not get hurt. He would try to improve on his 2014 performance with the help of a Utah offensive line, featuring four returning starters, that his coaches think will be one of the best in the country. He would make himself a first-round pick.
“I put it as, do I want to be a thousandaire and just come out, or do I want to be a millionaire in a year?” Booker said.
Long-term financials of course figured into Devontae’s decision, but they were important to him beyond the comfort and status that seven-figure deals might bring.
A sociology major who wants to counsel kids, Booker said his plan is to spread some of the cash around Sacramento and put it to work where he grew up.
He made it safely out of the high-crime Heights, where shootings and gang violence are on every young person’s mind. Now he talks about going back and wanting to do something to make it better for the kids still there and the ones who will be there in the future.
“I was kind of thinking, ‘Get the money I want to get, and then I can open a Boys and Girls Club in Del Paso Heights,’” Booker said. “As kids, we didn’t have anywhere to go to play ball or get homework done. Just everybody was out in the streets pretty much. If we had a Boys and Girls Club, the kids wouldn’t get in trouble or do bad things.”
Growing up in the Heights, Booker couldn’t avoid witnessing some trouble.
“Oh, yeah, I seen a lot of stuff, from friends and stuff getting killed, at a party I was at, or from just being there and seeing stuff ... guys getting shot or running home from a party ’cause some people shooting,” Booker said.
Booker enjoyed the supportive environment created by his parents and the advice they offered to help him survive the gritty streets north of Arcade Creek.
“A lot of my friends can gang bang or do whatever they want to do out in the streets, but my parents told me ... ‘You’ve got something to go for,’” Booker said. “Every time I do be outside with (friends), or (when) I go home now, I may see them in the daytime and say, ‘What’s up,’ and sit outside with them. But once the sun goes down, I know it’s my time to go home.”
When the chance of drama swells, “They’ll tell me like, ‘Book, you need to go home.’”
One of the best ever to come out of the Grant High football factory, Booker originally signed with Washington State, but academic circumstances re-routed him to American River College. He had to sit out a year when he transferred to Utah before he could gain his eligibility.
With no linebackers to hit, he crushed the books. Now he has a grade point average of 3.38, a nice metric to go along with his 5.2 yards-per-carry average.
Whittingham, the coach at Utah, describes Devontae as a “deep thinker.” The coaching staff at Utah also has brains enough to know to get the ball to Book a lot this fall. If the season goes as Whittingham plans, the Utes will contend for the Pac-12 South championship and Booker in December will be one of the four or five players in suit and tie at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York to await the Heisman Trophy announcement.
“If he has the type of year we hope he can have, which is in the 2,000-yard range, he’s got to at least be in the conversation,” Whittingham said.
Then it’ll be on to the NFL, and as a first-round draft pick – or so goes the hope in Salt Lake City and Del Paso Heights.
“He is a complete back,” Whittingham said of the senior. “When you’re a complete back, you have a chance to play a lot of years at the next level. He’s going to have a great career.”
Smart as he is, Booker knows his game. His self-view is of a tough, punishing runner. He loves the identity, and he loves to bring the bad news to defenders, even if one of them happens to be Myles Jack.
“When I run with that punishing style, the players on the other team, they just don’t want to tackle me anymore,” Booker said. “At the beginning of the game, they want to head up with me, and they go, ‘Man, he just hit me like hard.’ But even though they got me down, it’s, ‘I can’t do this the whole game.’
“I know they felt something, and I’ll be like, ‘Man, it’s going to be a long day for him.’ They’ll get up, they’ll drop their head, and after that, I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I got him.’”