After long road, Devontae Booker finds home at Utah; inside W. Kentucky's offense
Devontae Booker is still amazed by the sparkling academic progress reports that he sends back home to his mother, Francis. It reminds the Utah star running back of all he has overcome in the last six years. First it was his low SAT score. Next his qualifying ACT score came too late. And then there was the English professor who refused to grade his paper in time.
All of it made Booker wonder if he would ever play major college football. Yet after the senior's sensational debut last season, he is an All-Pac-12 tailback and also made the league's academic honor roll.
Booker is coming off a stellar 3.5 GPA last semester and is a Heisman Trophy candidate entering the No. 24 Utes' home game Friday night against Utah State. He stayed for this season not because of the disappointing grade he received from the NFL Draft Advisory Committee last winter, but to give his mother another piece of paper: his sociology degree in December.
"I never thought I would do stuff like this," Booker told The Inside Read.
Five years ago, it wasn't promising for the 5' 11", 212-pound Booker. After rushing for 2,884 yards with 45 touchdowns as a senior at Grant Union High in Sacramento, he committed to Washington State, but had his scholarship offer pulled when his SAT score wasn't high enough.
Fresno State was still willing to sign Booker if could get a qualifying test score. So, instead of waiting to take the SAT again, Booker tried the ACT. This time he studied for the test, which he found easier than the SAT, and got a 28. He signed with Fresno State, but the day before he was set to arrive, he was informed a deadline had been missed with the NCAA Clearinghouse, meaning he was a non-qualifier.
Booker is still suspicious of what really happened. He says the Bulldogs didn't specifically address why the deadline was missed and instead urged him to go to junior college.
In retrospect, Booker suspects Fresno State got tired of waiting and that he was a victim of a scholarship numbers game. He did find it interesting that one of the program's holdover assistants apologized to him last season about how his situation was handled prior to the Utes' 59-27 rout of the Bulldogs.
"I'm here now," Booker replied to the assistant. "It's just over."
But Booker's path to get to Utah was winding. He sat out the 2010 season at home before enrolling at American River College, a junior college in Sacramento, where he starred for two seasons. In late '12, Booker committed to Utah, but failed to qualify again. This time, the problem was an online English class in which the professor didn't grade one of his papers in time for him to be eligible for the Utes in '13.
"Everything seemed like I wasn't supposed to play Division I at all," Booker said.
So Booker sat out the 2013 season, too. It ended up being a blessing in disguise with the birth of his now two-year-old son son, Deashon. Booker stayed busy changing diapers, pushing his son in a stroller to Hagginwood Park and letting him fall asleep on his chest. "He was my rock," Booker said.
Since Booker arrived at Utah in early 2014, he has made sure he wouldn't have academic issues again. With tutors available for the first time in his academic career, he has taken full advantage. Now, Booker is more confident in his classes. His real breakthrough came when he was working on a nine-page sociology paper early last season.
Back then, Booker dreaded writing papers and didn't want to do the assignment. One day after practice he started typing, but progress was slow. Finally with the help of a tutor, Booker realized he writes best when making bullet points first. Using that technique, suddenly writing papers wasn't nearly as difficult. Booker ended up making an A on the assignment. "It was kind of a turning point for me," he said.
So was Booker's revenge in his fourth game last season against Washington State, the first team that gave up on him. He ran for 178 yards with a touchdown in a 28-27 loss, setting off a string of five straight games in which he cracked the 100-yard rushing barrier.
Booker finished the season with 1,512 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. He also had 43 catches for 306 yards with two touchdowns, prompting NFL scouts to liken him to Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, not the fan favorite comparison of Marshawn Lynch.
"I feel like I'm a complete back," Booker said. "I do consider myself the best back in the country."
But when Booker explored his dream of playing in the NFL after last season, he was told by the league's draft advisory committee that he should stay for his senior year. The revelation angered Booker, but also gave him perspective on the importance of getting his sociology degree, which he someday hopes to use to counsel children. "I'm this close," Booker said. "Why not wait?"
It all motivated Booker further in the classroom and on the field. He spent this summer focused on not lunging in his pass blocking, a weakness last season, and becoming a better receiver.
Booker is hopeful that his hard work pays off this season so he can eventually better financially support his girlfriend, Destiny, and the couple son's, both of whom moved in with him this past summer. The trio lives off $925 monthly, a struggle when there are diapers to buy. "It's rough at times," Booker said.
But the arrival of Booker's girlfriend has helped him focus, especially academically. "She won't let me go to sleep without doing my homework," Booker said with a chuckle.
Booker also laughs about how sending his academic progress reports to his mother makes him feel like a high school student again. His family is just as of proud of his grades and all the adversity that he's overcome.
"My path, I wouldn't call it great, but I don't regret it either," Booker said. "It's been a journey."
One that has inspired Booker to perhaps do something else he never thought he would do—write a book about it. Before he does though, he has more bullet points he wants to make.
Robert Mayer/USA Today Sports
Coaching friendship fuels Western Kentucky's powerful offense
During the summer, Western Kentucky offensive coordinator Tyson Helton and Hilltoppers coach Jeff Brohm often take their families to the swimming pool together. They do so because while their wives and combined six children enjoy the water, they are hard at work talking and drawing offensive plays. They do it so much that they've been warned not to use their children for formations.
"Our wives have to tell us to quit talking ball," Helton told The Inside Read with a laugh.
But opposing defenses usually aren't laughing after facing Western Kentucky's high-flying offense, which broke 50 school and league records last season behind now-sixth-year senior quarterback Brandon Doughty. The Hilltoppers are a dark-horse contender for the Group of Five's New Year's Six berth entering Thursday's nationally televised game against Louisiana Tech.
Western Kentucky's explosive offensive attack centers on a multi-formational, no-huddle scheme with moderate tempo that mixes in quick-hitting plays and vertical downfield passes. "We like big plays," Helton said. "Big plays win games."
The offense operates under a unique arrangement between Brohm and Helton, the latter of whom also coaches the Hilltoppers' quarterbacks. Brohm calls the plays, but only after he receives a recommended play from Helton. "Sometimes he likes what I call and he calls it," Helton said. "Sometimes he likes what he wants and calls it. I treat it like I call it."
Helton is in charge of coming up with the offensive plan for each game and also oversees his unit's practice planning. That includes the motivational aspects like "butt-chewing."
"I don't hold the calling title, but I'm calling a lot of it," Helton said.
Helton and Brohm first met in 2012 when Garrick McGee was hired as Alabama-Birmingham's coach. Brohm was the Dragons' offensive coordinator and Helton moved to running backs coach after five seasons coaching quarterbacks.
The two quickly hit it off during an offensive meeting when Helton suggested adding perimeter screens to some of the run plays in McGee's pro-style, huddle offense that he learned from Bobby Petrino. Across the table, Brohm grinned widely.
He had wanted to add those options while working as an assistant under Petrino at Louisville. Afterward, Brohm told Helton he loved the run-pass possibilities and the two spent hours drawing up plays. "That's when we knew, man, we've got a lot of similarities," Helton said.
Both Brohm and Helton are expected to be in high demand after this season. Brohm is already a hot name for Power Five head-coaching jobs that will open this season, while Helton also figures to be coveted for offensive coordinator jobs.
The 38-year-old Helton had opportunities for more prominent jobs last season, but ultimately decided not to leave because of Doughty's return and his comfort with Brohm. "We've got something special here," Helton said.
If Brohm were to leave, Helton could also be a candidate to succeed him. Helton is from a family of coaches. His father, Kim, is a former college coach and NFL assistant. His brother, Clay, is USC's offensive coordinator.
Both Helton brothers played quarterback at Houston for their father, coach of the Cougars from 1993-99. Tyson Helton also coached with his father at Alabama-Birmingham from 2007-11, when they were quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, respectively.
They too had a similar arrangement to Helton and Brohm's offensive responsibilities. Helton was also an assistant at Hawaii, Memphis and Cincinnati before joining Brohm last season.
"I've always believed God puts you where he wants and good things happen to good people," Helton said. "I'm right where I need to be and he'll put me somewhere else if I need to be someplace else."
Helton enjoys working with Brohm because of their shared focuses on family and football. It's common to see the two's children at the Western Kentucky football offices.
Their kids are not to be used for offensive brainstorming there, either.
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