SALT LAKE CITY — When Devontae Booker was asked if he’s eager to play Pac-12 football, the Utah running back sported a smile. The junior college transfer answered in the affirmative while noting a void in the conference.
“They were missing something and now I’m here,” said Booker, who joined the Utes on Feb. 26 after missing all of last season while working out academic issues.
Being sidelined for more than a year, he acknowledged, was difficult.
“It was hard. Mentally you’ve got to stay focused,” Booker said. “I kept wishing for better days and better days came. I’m blessed to be here and play with this great group of guys.”
Booker has worked his way up the depth chart this spring. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound back from Sacramento, Calif., is currently No. 2 behind Bubba Poole.
“Every time I get in I’m trying to make the most of it and make the coaches proud,” Booker said. “Pretty much, I’ve been out a year without playing at all, so they want to see what I can do.”
Booker’s resume is impressive. As a senior at Grant Union High, he ran for 2,884 yards and 45 touchdowns. Booker netted 1,850 yards and 36 scores as a junior.
When scholarship opportunities at Fresno State and Washington State failed to materialize because of academics, Booker attended American River College. His first season resulted in 793 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns. Booker’s second and final year of junior college ball featured 1,472 yards rushing and 15 TDs. He also had kickoff returns of 95 and 94 yards.
Then came a longer-than-expected move to Utah. Booker said it had something to do with an online course and the delayed posting of a grade.
Whatever the case may be, Booker said he’s just “happy to be here now.”
The Utes have similar thoughts.
“Relative to how long he’s been here and what he’s doing on the field, we’re very pleased. We think he’s got a lot of upside,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “It’s a lot like when John White got here a few years back. He was here in spring and you could see the talent, but there was not a lot of production along with the talent. Then that next fall he really started to come into his own.
“I think we’re hopefully in the same boat with Devontae. He’s doing some good things,” Whittingham continued. “But I think he’s got a lot to offer that he hasn’t shown yet.”
Whittingham noted that Booker hasn’t been in the program very long. He got all of his academic loose ends wrapped and was not able to participate much in winter conditioning.
“It was just a little bit of catch-up. It took me a couple of weeks to get back in real football shape because it’s a different type of shape,” Booker said. “I believe I’m in pretty good shape now — running the offense we’ve got, we’ve got to run a play within every 20 seconds — so I think I’m in great shape now.”
Although Utah running backs coach Dennis Erickson notes that Booker still has a lot to learn and needs to continue improving his conditioning, he said the transfer is doing real well — on and off the field.
“He’s been very accountable in everything we’ve asked him to do. He hasn’t missed class. He’s doing really, really well academically in the classes that he’s taking and he never misses anything here,” Erickson said. “He’s got a chance to be really a good football player. He’s really physical inside. He makes one move and goes. He’ll really be a good addition to the backs that we have.”
Erickson added that Booker catches the ball well, is a good blocker and is probably the strongest player in the group.
“He’ll really help us, really make a big difference,” Erickson said.
Booker, meanwhile, is learning all he can from Erickson. He appreciates having such an experienced coach overseeing Utah’s running backs.
“It’s nice. He’s a players' coach. I love him. I loved him since the day I got on campus,” Booker said. “He’s a great dude. Man, he’s going to be a Hall of Famer. So it’s really nice for him to be my position coach.”
Booker also enjoys competing with returning starter Bubba Poole in camp.
"Each practice, he’ll make a big run and I’ll make a big run. He’ll catch the ball and I’ll catch the ball,” Booker explained. “So it’s pretty competitive and we’re just going to keep making each other work and grind this thing out.”
Whittingham acknowledged that three running backs have emerged this spring — Poole, Booker and redshirt freshman Troy McCormick. He said that sophomore Marcus Sanders-Williams is also doing a nice job and that senior Lucky Radley will return to the mix when preseason camp opens in August.
“It’ll be good competition at the running back position and there won’t be a clear-cut one-two-three until probably two or three weeks into fall camp,” Whittingham said.