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Stretch Run Defines Utah RB Devontae Booker’s Heisman Hopes

(David Dennis/Icon Sportswire)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Utah head coach Kyle Whittinham unabashedly touted running back Devontae Booker for the Heisman Trophy throughout the spring and summer.

Whittingham has recently relented on tacitly campaigning for Booker — not because the talented back hasn’t played a level deserving of consideration for the award, mind you. Rather, Booker’s campaign now is predicated on results over rhetoric.

“In the offseason, I spent a lot of time trying to get him some attention because I felt he was under the radar and under-appreciated as far as the national media,” Whittingham said. “Now that the season’s here, I don’t say a word about it unless I’m asked. It’s just his job to play his way into that conversation now.”

Booker’s certainly done that. Through six games, he ranks 10th in the nation in rushing yards per game at 130.5, and fifth in yards from scrimmage at 165.2. When the spotlight has shone brightest, as it did Utah’s last two games against Cal and Arizona State, Booker delivered with 267 total yards and two scores against the Golden Bears and a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns against the Sun Devils.

Heading into the final month of the season, Booker has an opportunity to play his way into an invitation to New York City with games against USC, Arizona, UCLA and—if all goes according to plan— the Pac-12 Championship Game.

That Utah, the Pac-12’s only undefeated team, can aspire for a conference title game appearance and potential College Football Playoff berth is largely contingent on Booker.

“He’s the focal point of our offense,” Whittingham said. “He’s a back who can do it all. He can catch the ball out of the backfield, he can obviously run the ball and he’s a great blocker. He has no real deficiencies. That’s what makes him so good.”

When Whittingham says Booker can do it all, he means it. The running back showed off his arm with a passing touchdown in Utah’s rout of Oregon last month.

Fellow Heisman-chasing running backs Leonard Fournette, Derrick Henry and Ezekiel Elliott don’t have a play like that in their highlight reels. And indeed, that trio are just three of the players to whom Booker will be compared as he stakes his claim to the award.

“I don’t really pay attention to the other candidates out there, so I don’t really know where he stacks up,” Whittingham said. “I just know what he does for us is invaluable.”

This season is Booker’s second as the cornerstone of the Utah offense. In 2014, he rushed for 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns, with another 311 and two as a receiver. His impressive junior campaign spurred Whittingham in the coach’s offseason campaign, but Booker has elevated his game further as a senior.

He’s on pace to easily surpass his totals for rushing yards and touchdowns, as well as receiving yards and touchdowns. But according to Whittingham, the area in which Booker’s made the greatest improvement won’t show up in the box score.

“He’s always been a terrific guy when the ball’s in his hands, running the football. Our running backs coach, Dennis Erickson — he’s been a bunch of places — says [Booker]’s the best receiving back he’s ever been around,” the coach said, illuminating Booker’s ballyhooed play-making qualities, but added that blocking for quarterback Travis Wilson has improved measurably.

The Utes went from No. 52 in scoring offense a season ago, to No. 27 in 2015.

The results speak volumes. Should Booker continue producing at such a pace in the back-half of the schedule, it’s all the talk anyone within Utah football needs to make the running back’s case for the Heisman.

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