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Andy Furillo: Devontae Booker makes case as best college RB ever from Sacramento

Utah senior running back Devontae Booker leaps over Oregon State cornerback Dwayne Williams (29) on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015, in Salt Lake City. The Grant High graduate ran for 121 yards and a touchdown.
Utah senior running back Devontae Booker leaps over Oregon State cornerback Dwayne Williams (29) on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015, in Salt Lake City. The Grant High graduate ran for 121 yards and a touchdown. The Associated Press

Sometime around 5:30 p.m. Saturday in Seattle – about midway through the second quarter of Utah’s game at Washington – Utes running back Devontae Booker will take a handoff and speed through a blotch of open space created by his offensive line, or he’ll crash into a pack of Huskies to finish off a tough run between the tackles.

Somebody on the Utah sideline then will call for the ball, and they’ll stash it away for the trip home to Salt Lake City – a keepsake for Booker’s trophy case, to forever remind him that way back in his college days, he ran for more than 1,000 yards two seasons in a row.

Booker, a 5-foot-11, 212-pound Grant High School product, is making the case that he is the best college running back to ever come out of Sacramento. Last year, he rushed for 1,566 yards to lead the Pacific-12 Conference. This year, he has 966 through eight games. When he accumulates his 34th yard Saturday, he will become the first Sacramento-bred ballcarrier to hit a thousand for two consecutive years since Oregon’s Onterrio Smith, another Grant alum, rolled for 1,058 and 1,141 in 2001 and 2002.

“It means all the hard work is paying off,” Booker said, on the phone after practice Tuesday. “Of course, every back aspires to get 1,000 yards rushing. For me to get it the second year in a row is just a good accomplishment and just makes me continue to just keep pushing harder to get even more yards.”

Utah people this year launched a whispering campaign suggesting Booker as worthy of a Heisman Trophy candidacy. Booker’s 2014 stats made him a credible nominee.

Utah people this year launched a whispering campaign suggesting Booker as worthy of Heisman Trophy candidacy. Booker’s 2014 stats made him a credible nominee. This year’s numbers have not been as spectacular, but they have been solid. He is the 13th-leading ground gainer among Football Bowl Subdivision schools (third in the Pac-12), and only two running backs have more than his 32 catches.

It’s not completely insane to think Booker can pull off a Harry Truman. With four regular-season games left, and no votes cast, the Chicago Tribune is advised to hold off on the “Leonard Fournette Wins” headline. Still, the Heisman race appears to have gotten away from Booker, just as the Republican one in the presidential nominating stages seems to be a sea of trouble for Jeb Bush. But while the GOP’s legacy candidate seeks to recast himself, Booker is comfortable with the way his season has unfolded, as he views it in a context greater than himself.

“I couldn’t care less about it,” Booker said, of the best-player-in-the-country trophy. “I continue to stay humble and go out there and do what I need to do to help us win. I just continue to go about it, working hard out here every day, helping my team win.”

Booker’s Utes have won seven of eight and are ranked 13th by The Associated Press. Utah, however, was undefeated and ranked third before an Oct. 24 loss on the road at USC dropped Utah in the poll. A national title has become unlikely, but they’d still like to play in the Rose Bowl as Pac-12 champs.

Against Washington, Booker will attempt to surpass 1,000 yards against one of the country’s better run defenses. The Huskies last week destroyed Arizona 49-3 and allowed only 127 yards on the ground to a team that averages twice that much. They’ll be the most physical run-stoppers Utah has faced since the opener against Michigan, when Booker gained a season-low 69 rushing yards.

“They’re playing lights out,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of Washington. “They’re fundamentally sound. They have excellent players. They play within their scheme very well, and in my opinion they are the best defense in the conference right now, and the numbers (16.9 points per game, 14th nationally) I think will bear that out.”

You can still bet on Booker getting his 34th yard sometime in the first half.

Booker last year explored the possibility of leaving Utah for the NFL. When informed he would be a low-round draft choice, Booker stayed in school. Football speaking, it looks as if it was the right move.

You can also believe you’ll be watching him as a pro, for years to come.

Booker last year explored the possibility of leaving Utah for the NFL. When informed he would be a low-round draft choice, Booker stayed in school. Football speaking, it looks as if it was the right move. A Fox Sports projection lists Booker as being the fourth running back taken in the 2016 draft. Its mockup has him going in the third round at No. 67 overall – to the 49ers. This year’s 67th pick, A.J. Cann, a guard from South Carolina, signed a four-year, $3.3 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars, with $800,000 guaranteed.

There will be plenty of time for Booker to think about money. Right now, he’s enjoying where he is, while he’s there, while it lasts.

“Obviously, the season is right around the corner from ending – it just started hitting me like last week,” Booker said. “I’m just thinking how much time has flied by, with everything starting to come to an end as far as my career here at the University of Utah. I’m just kind of taking it day by day, just doing the right things, the things I need to do.”

One thing on Booker’s finish list is school, and he is on schedule to graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He can put that in the trophy case, too.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

Devontae Booker file

Age: 23 (born May 27, 1992)

Height/weight: 5-11, 212 pounds

High school: Grant, class of 2010

College: Utah, class of 2015

2015 key stats: 200 carries, 966 yards, nine touchdowns; 32 catches, 282 yards

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