I’ve never had anything given to me on the football field, except probably when I played Pop Warner. But I’ve learned ever since that it’s just put me in a mode where I’ve like got to fight every time. Nothing’s going to be given to me anymore, and I’ve got to go out there and fight and work my butt off. —Devontae Booker
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah running back Devontae Booker has pulled away from the pack. After rushing for a career-high 178 yards in last week’s loss to Washington State, the junior has ascended to the top of the depth chart for the Utes.
“He earned the spot with his performance Saturday night,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “He probably had the slight edge with the ball in his hands the entire year, but there’s more to playing running back than just carrying the ball. You’ve got to be good in blitz pickup, you’ve got to be good in the throwing game coming out of the backfield catching the ball.”
Whittingham noted that Booker wasn’t bad at such things. They were just variables that made the competition with Bubba Poole, who started the first four games of the season, very tight.
“But when you look at Saturday night he separated himself,” Whittingham said. “And so he’s the starter and when he needs a blow it will be Bubba.”
For Booker, the distinction is something he treasures.
“It means a lot to me,” he said. “It’s obviously a confidence booster for me, just being the main guy now and going out there and making big plays for my team.”
Booker had Utah’s lone offensive touchdown in the 28-27 setback to Washington State, scoring on a 76-yard run in the first quarter. The performance, though, was overshadowed by the loss in the Pac-12 opener.
“I had a nice game but that’s all behind me,” Booker said. “The rushing yards and all that was nice, but I would have loved it more had we won the game.”
The encouraging news for Utah fans is Booker’s belief that he can put up such numbers on a consistent basis.
“Yeah. Absolutely. The more you give me the ball the more I start getting into a groove,” he said. “I believe that’s what happened against Washington State and you’ve seen the results from there.”
Booker tops the Utes with 357 yards rushing and 89.2 yards per game. His 6.5 yards per carry average is second best in the Pac-12 and ranks 21st in the country. Booker’s all-purpose yardage (120 ypg) is the ninth highest in the conference.
“He’s a huge weapon. He’s a crazy athlete. He’s very elusive in the open field,” said Utah quarterback Travis Wilson. “So I’m really glad he’s on this team and I’m really happy for all his success so far.”
Booker, a 5-foot-11, 209-pound transfer from American River College in California, is motivated by competition. He’s faced it throughout his career.
After missing the 2013 season to complete academic requirements, Booker enrolled at Utah last spring and battled Poole and Troy McCormick for positions on the depth chart. The competition continued into fall camp.
Booker said they worked their butts off every day and made each other better, always trying to top plays made by one another.
“I’ve been in this situation pretty much my whole life,” said Booker, who noted that he beat out two seniors for the starting running back job in high school and moved past two returning backs in his first year of junior college ball despite arriving late for camp.
Such challenges, Booker explained, have served as motivation and helped keep him humble — matching what he calls his determined running style.
“I’ve never had anything given to me on the football field, except probably when I played Pop Warner. But I’ve learned ever since that it’s just put me in a mode where I’ve like got to fight every time,” Booker said. “Nothing’s going to be given to me anymore, and I’ve got to go out there and fight and work my butt off.”
It’s a battle Booker is taking on with his teammates as they prepare to face No. 8 UCLA Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. The Utes (3-1, 0-1), he said, just have to put the disappointing loss to Washington State behind them.
“Everybody is back, humbled again. We’ve got a big game this week at UCLA,” Booker continued. “It’s going to be nationally televised on ESPN, and I think our guys are going to come out there and have that energy as we did when we played Michigan.”
Utah (3-1, 0-1) at UCLA (4-0, 1-0)
Rose Bowl (91,136)
Saturday, 8:30 p.m. (MDT)