Coaches tend to be guarded in their public declarations of expectations, particularly this time of year. So when Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said on Thursday’s Pac-12 teleconference call that running back Devontae Booker can contend for the 2015 Heisman Trophy, he commanded attention.
“He can have a better year than last year,” Whittingham said. “He’s in the Heisman conversation if he does the things we hope he’s able to do.”
Whittingham having that kind of faith in Devontae Booker is a testament to the back’s importance to the Utah offense. The head coach touted some of Booker’s improved qualities, most notably pass-protection.
And Booker being in that conversation for college football’s most prestigious award speaks to just how far Utah has come as a Pac-12 member.
Last season was Utah’s breakout in its new home conference, finishing 9-4 and ranked in the final Top 25. It was a return to the status quo for what was one of the more successful programs of the 2000s.
The Utes were the original flag-bearers for the non-BCS conferences, becoming the first such team to make one of the BCS bowls in 2004, then finishing a perfect 2008 season that became instrumental in reshaping college football’s postseason.
Utah’s first few Pac-12 campaigns came with growing pains. The Utes finished below .500 against conference competition every year from 2011 through 2013, and missed the postseason in 2012 — the first time in Whittingham’s tenure — and again in 2013, marking the first back-to-back seasons Utah finished out of the bowl picture since 1997 and 1998.
Winning nine last season — including games against Michigan, Stanford, UCLA and USC — reinvigorated the program. And Devontae Booker was instrumental to that, rushing for 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns, and catching 43 passes for 306 yards and two scores.
Booker did all that without the benefit of a consistent passing attack to balance the offense — Utah finished No. 95 in the nation in passing offense at just 198 yards per game — and while starting the season second on the depth chart.
Devontae Booker was initially behind Bubba Poole, but scoring two touchdowns in the season opener against Idaho State, then rolling off 178 yards in the Pac-12 opener against Washington State put him firmly in control of the No. 1 running back role.
As meteoric as Booker’s rise to stardom was, his descent back to Earth could be equally so, as ESPN.com’s David Hale notes.
James Conner, Ezekiel Elliott & Devontae Booker all had workhorse seasons in 2014. Odds are, 2 won’t do it this year: http://t.co/lR23WJYE7q
— David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) April 17, 2015
One need look no further than Utah’s last star running back, John White, to see the decline a high-volume ball-carrier can have in Year 2. “Wolfman” White rushed 316 times for 1,512 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011. His workload took a toll, and in 2012, White carried nearly 100 times less, gained almost 500 fewer yards and his touchdown production was trimmed nearly in half, to eight.
Like White, Devontae Booker is slightly smaller than the prototypical, high-volume running back such as recently drafted USC product Buck Allen, who weighed in over 220 pounds. Booker is a training table meal north of 200 pounds.
“He’s got to stay healthy,” Whittingham said. To that end, White missed a game in 2012, and was limited below his usual output in a critical, three-game stretch to open conference play against Arizona State, UCLA and USC.
“We’ve got to do a good job with our front, blocking for him,” Whittingham added.
Utah also needs more consistent play from the quarterback — no matter who is manning the position. Travis Wilson’s promising but injury-plagued career has yet to take off, while Kendal Thompson — the Oklahoma transfer with whom Wilson shared snaps in 2014 — suffered a knee injury.
A more effective passing attack is essential for Utah to draw defenders out of the box and not simply focused on limiting Booker.
That’s the missing piece separating Utah from turning its breakout Pac-12 year into a potential Pac-12 championship season. And, should the Utes enter the conference title fray, Devontae Booker’s Heisman candidacy will be a lot more than offseason rhetoric.