FILE - In this Oct. 25, 2014, file photo, Utah running back Devontae Booker (23) carries the ball in the second half of their NCAA college football game against Southern California, in Salt Lake City. Booker passed up the NFL to return for his senior seas
Rick Bowmer, File
April 16, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Devontae Booker's football career could have easily ended years ago - on more than one occasion.

Now he's the centerpiece of the Utah offense and a year away from a possible selection in the NFL draft.

The Utes running back was eight yards shy of setting the school's single-season rushing record in his first year with the program. That after sitting out all of 2013 due to an academic issue following two years at American River College.

The 2013 season was the second time academics forced him to miss an entire season. Booker signed with Washington State out of high school but sat out in 2010 before playing for American River in 2011. He's played three years and missed two in the last five years - not an ideal scenario.

''It was frustrating,'' Booker said. ''I thought I was going to come up in 2013, but things didn't go out how it was supposed to.''

Booker could be chasing the NFL right now after rushing for 1,512 yards in the Pac-12 last season. But the sociology major wanted to finish his education and NFL types wanted to see more. Booker was a relative unknown when he went to Utah and had to beat out Bubba Poole in the fall for the starting job.

''I didn't know much about him when he first got here, but he definitely changed my view on him,'' quarterback Travis Wilson said. ''He really stunned a lot of people and made us better throughout the whole season.''

Booker won't sneak up on anyone in 2015 after missing out on the Pac-12 rushing title by just 64 yards in 2014. Teams were stacking the box by the end of the season and the Utes will continue to see more of the same.

Co-offensive coordinator Jim Harding said the coaching staff has to be more creative with different formations, motions, using the quarterback in the run game and using Booker more in the pass game after he had 43 receptions for 306 yards last season. The goal is to avoid being predictable and allowing defenses to consistently outnumber the offense in the box.

The next major step for Booker is becoming a better pass blocker.

''Not saying there's a lot he has to work on, but you can always become a better pass blocker, little bit better route-runner,'' coach Kyle Whittingham said. ''When you put the ball in his hands on a running play, that's natural. He's got it. There's not much coaching involved there. But the other part of it is where he can polish.''

Running backs coach Dennis Erickson called Booker one of the best backs he's ever coached. And this is from a man who won two national titles as the coach of Miami, coached two NFL teams and was named Pac-10 Coach of the Year with three different programs.

He said Booker has the unique combination of vision and strength with being able to catch the ball and still run away from defenders.

Erickson said his NFL contacts advised that Booker return to school after just one year of success.

''He'll do it two years in a row,'' Erickson said. ''They'll figure out how good he is, because he is good. If he keeps getting better, he's got a chance to help us win championships and he's got a chance to always go into the National Football League. I think he can be as good as anybody in football next year.''

Meantime, Booker quietly goes about his business as a team leader. The player who lost two years of football because of academics is scheduled to get his sociology degree in May. He had a son in 2013 and spent most of the time away from football being a father.

Teammates now look up to him as he constantly preaches patience - something Booker knows plenty about.

''Last year nobody knew about me and I went out there every day with a chip on my shoulder to show them that I'm the real deal,'' Booker said. ''Not to be cocky or anything, but that's just how it was. Went out there and fought my butt off every day. ... This year, it's different. Everybody (will have) me on the top of the scouting list. I just continue to stay humble. Week 1 against Michigan, better watch out.''

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