The path of any running back is never a straight line. And in that way, Utah’s Devontae Booker is no exception.
On the field, he has been one of the best running backs in the Pac-12 this season, rushing for 844 yards and eight touchdowns.
But off the field, he was like a running back as well. His route to Utah began with a commitment to Washington State, then Fresno State, then two seasons at a junior college before he found his way to Salt Lake City.
Booker came out of Grant Union High School in Sacramento, California, with video-game statistics -- 2,884 yards and 45 touchdowns as a senior, 1,850 yards and 36 touchdowns as a junior. He initially committed to former Washington State coach Paul Wulff after much of the Pac-12 had passed over him.
However, his SAT score wasn’t high enough, so the Cougars had to rescind their offer. Fresno State came calling and he told them he’d retake the SAT the next month and do better. He did, but by the time all the paperwork was filed, they’d missed a deadline with the NCAA Clearinghouse and Booker was deemed a nonqualifier, leaving him few options -- none of which involved playing Division I football.
Booker sat down with his parents, who told him his only choice was to go to a junior college. He had no one to be angry at but himself for being in this position.
“I really didn’t want to hear it at the time,” Booker said.
So he got in touch with American River College coach Jon Osterhout, who had already been recruiting him, knowing there was a chance that Booker wouldn’t qualify because of his test scores.
Osterhout said that Booker had “everything you look for athletically, but he had some things to get taken care of in the classroom.” He knew those kinds of issues could be solved at a junior college and Booker would be an instant-impact player for his team.
“He showed up on our doorstep prior to training camp beginning and did an unbelievable job from Day 1,” Osterhout said. “We knew we had somebody special from Day 1.”
Booker lived at home with his parents while attending American River College and Osterhout was right -- the academics improved and Booker, along with Bryce Pratt and Joseph Ferguson, helped to create a three-headed running back monster for Osterhout.
By the end of the season, he was Osterhout’s top guy and finished 2011 with 793 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Even with those numbers, nobody was really talking about Booker. However, in his second year in the program, Booker rushed for 1,472 yards and 15 touchdowns.
“Every game I went out for juco, I thought about all the schools that had passed me up,” Booker said. “Every game I went out there and played with a chip on my shoulder. … The whole time I was at JC pretty much just made me a monster.”
Still, there weren’t many coaches coming to talk to Osterhout about the player he described as “the most complete back I’ve ever been around.”
So, if teams weren’t going to hit the recruiting trail for Booker, he decided he would hit the promoting trail for Booker.
“I reached out to everybody in the country I knew, from Oklahoma to North Carolina to USC to Oregon State,” Osterhout said. “You name it.”
Finally, Kyle Whittingham came calling. It was more than two years after Booker had made his initial commitment to a Pac-12 school, but now Booker was the kind of player and student who would excel in the conference.
“Going the JC route made me more mature,” Booker said. “I pretty much just learned a lot of things being back home. It was tough for a while when I found out I had to do the JC route, but when I finally did it, it was all worth it and I would do it again.”
Now, Booker’s next challenge will be propelling an offense that lost its best wide receiver, Dres Anderson, this week. Amid a chaotic South Division, Utah seemed to be making the most sense of it all, and now the chip on Booker’s shoulder is about carrying the load for the Utes' title chances.
Through four games of conference play, Booker has averaged 5.8 yards per carry -- the third-best average of any back in the Pac-12. Now, with Anderson’s absence, he might be called upon even more. But his former coach knows that raising the bar and expectations for Booker might be the best thing for him right now.
“I think his top shelf still hasn’t been reached,” Osterhout said.