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Utah football 2014: Utes are betting it all on new running back Devontae Booker

Utah Utes running back Bubba Poole.
Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

A new era has begun at Utah, begat from a loudmouthed new offensive coordinator fired as head coach at point blank range on the plains of Laramie, Wyoming and from a demoted former national champion head coach at Miami who allowed his Hurricanes to run amok decades prior--shamed at every coaching stop since.

What was once a program filled with reverent young men who were brought up to believe in Urban Meyer's steadfast, unwavering Midwestern principles--were later ashamed to have known the guy after a Learjet appeared out of the fog, in the faint light of darkness, whisking Urban, and the Utes hopes and dreams, away to sunny Florida.

Sure, the Utes made one more BCS bowl in 2009--but let's be honest here: things were never the same. And so, in came other people willing to put their bankrupted coaching careers on the line, one more time, for a shot at more glory in reverse order.

That's precisely what Dave Christensen and Dennis Erickson have done, joining embattled Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham's staff. Now they've all passed the torch on--they'd never say so publicly--to junior running back Devontae Booker, a guy who couldn't even make grades to play Division I football at Washington State or Fresno State as a freshman. Instead, Booker had to settle for two years of JUCO ball at tiny American River College in Sacramento.

You've kind of heard this story before because you remember a JUCO product by the name of John White IV, an unassuming Superman from California who was as quiet as a mouse by day, drawing caricatures in his dorm room and minding his own business.

By the time White donned pads his junior year at Utah, however, he became a superhero capable of leaping tall defenders in a single bound while juking linebackers flying past his diminutive but stout 5-foot-8-inch, 185-pound frame--presumably to separate White's shoulder from his chest plate.

White led Norm Chow's otherwise pathetic, slow-as-molasses excuse of a pro-style offense to a 7-5 record in the Utes first season of Pac-12 play and a victory in the Sun Bowl. White did so without shooting off his mouth--he just zoomed forward with his powerful legs, churning through tackle after bone-crunching tackle.

White's body paid the ultimate price the next season; even his wiry frame couldn't hold up--and the Utes were never the same. Neither was White--he moved on to play Canadian football after taking such a beating. Two 5-7 seasons later, the Utes still haven't found a guy who can do the things that White could do at Utah--until Booker came on the scene last spring, that is.

The thing about Booker is that he can book, belying his surname to a T. His 1,472 yards and 15 touchdowns at American River in 2012--the last time he played organized football--tell you the boy can run. But Booker can run his mouth, too--not always a good thing when you're facing USC and Oregon in a few weeks.

“My expectation is to be the starting guy,” Booker told Deseret News beat reporter Dirk Facer in an interview on Sat. Aug. 9. As you can plainly see from his highlight reel, Booker is not shy. As he reached the end zone at about the 1:05 mark of his video package from American River, he slowed up after dusting past the opposing secondary, taunting them as he stutter stepped in past the pylon.

Booker's only problem is that he's got three other running backs at Utah who want to do the same things as him--and none of them are running their mouth like this guy. All early accounts out of fall camp say that Booker is the real deal though. Wearing No. 23, Booker is the closest thing to White--and to that Superman cape everyone thought White wore when he was at Utah.

Booker can run, he can catch and he can even return punts and kicks. He may have more upside to his game than even White had, and some are even comparing Booker to Mike Anderson and Jamal Anderson, two Utah greats who went on to have storybook NFL careers.

Booker's competition isn't saying what Booker is, either. Junior Bubba Poole is back--but he's not talking about me, he talks about we when referring to the Utes. Speedy redshirt freshman Troy McCormick is a game-breaker who doesn't care that he's 172 pounds soaking wet because he can run like White.

White was only 185--did that necessarily affect his game? Not in his first season. Booker is bigger and stronger than White was, and in his mind he left Poole and McCormick on the sideline, along with humility, a long time ago.

In the spring game Booker ran for 103 yards on just 19 carries and scored two touchdowns. Even then, he was looking to talk to anyone who would listen. "Every game I'm playing, I'm looking forward to making a statement. Running hard each play and doing the things I do on the field," he told reporters afterwards.

Of course Booker would have already been on the field last season at Utah--had he not reportedly forged a transcript in 2013 with the assistance of a former American River College employee. That story has been well-documented by American River College's student newspaper, the Current. According to the Current, Booker needed one math class to qualify to attend Utah--so he enlisted the help of someone else at the college to reportedly doctor the transcripts, and they were caught red-handed by school personnel.

If the story is true, Booker should be lucky he's even playing football at a Division I level. Yet it's clear he really isn't grateful for this opportunity to play Pac-12 football--based on his actions off the field. Has Booker learned life's lessons to stay on the field for good? Or, will the empty promises of being great at one thing derail yet another talented athlete? Only Booker will be able to answer that question with how he does on, and off, the field of battle from here on out.

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