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Road to the NFL Combine: Utah sleeper may be quite the find at running back

The News will profile prospects leading up to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

By Tyler Dunne

News Sports Reporter

So you’ve seen Derrick Henry barrel through tacklers en route to a Heisman Trophy and a national title. You’ve seen Ezekiel Elliott high-step his way to a title.

Both could defy 2016 NFL wisdom and go in the first round. But maybe this duo should have company at the top.

There’s one other name you probably haven’t heard: Devontae Booker. The 5-foot-10, 208-pounder out of Utah may be the more complete alternative. That’s how his coach in college sees it, someone who’s been around the game since 1969, won two championships at Miami (Fla.) and coached the likes of Ricky Watters and Chris Warren in the pros.

“I think he’s the sleeper of sleepers,” said Dennis Erickson, Utah’s assistant head coach/running backs. “Somebody’s going to get a guy who plays for a long time.”

A strong week at the NFL scouting combine, back from injury, could vault Booker into the discussion.

He’s no stranger to slipping through the cracks. Out of high school, plans to sign with Washington State deteriorated due to a low SAT score. Fresno State was willing to add Booker if his ACT score qualified and he accomplished that with a score of 28. Yet one day before he was set to drive to campus, Booker was told he missed the NCAA Clearinghouse deadline and was an academic nonqualifier.

So the kid who torched defenses for 2,884 yards and 45 touchdowns as a high school senior went to junior college and then, eventually, Utah. In 23 games, Booker rushed for 2,773 yards on 560 attempts (5.0 avg.) with 21 touchdowns even though defenses routinely loaded the box with eight defenders. He also caught 80 passes for 624 yards.

There’s no one specific back Erickson can compare him to.

“He’s kind of his own guy,” Erickson said. “He’s kind of in the middle size-wise but really powerful. He reminds me a little bit like Frank Gore with how he runs. But he’s really the most overall guy I’ve had in terms of catching and running. He’s not huge but he really breaks tackles. He plays all the time. ... He got yards all by himself because there are unblocked guys down there.”

Thus, Booker is a throwback workhorse, carrying the ball 30-plus times in four of his 10 games last fall.

Defenses dared the Utes to throw and they usually could not. So Booker got the call again, again and again even though everyone in the stadium knew it.

“Everything he got,” Erickson said, “he earned.”

One concern teams may have is that Booker’s season ended prematurely with a torn MCL – every drill will be important next week. Everything Erickson hears is that Booker is back to full speed, training in Arizona.

And the receiving ability, the hands could truly separate him.

Erickson said Booker has the best hands in a back he’s seen “in many years.” He runs sharp routes, “catches everything,” is capable of splitting out at receiver vs. linebackers and, in time, improved as a pass protector. While Henry and Elliott are both bigger, Erickson believes Booker is on their level.

“I think he might be the best overall back in the draft,” he said.

Of course, running back wasn’t supposed to be a need at all for the Buffalo Bills. While they’ve taken only four quarterbacks since Jim Kelly retired in 1997, they’ve drafted an astounding 14 running backs ... even as most of the league devalued the position. Four of those 14 were first-rounders, too. One would think this is the year Buffalo looks to build from the inside-out in the draft, but LeSean McCoy’s pending legal case could throw a curveball at a team devoted to the run-first operation.

Erickson definitely understands why so many NFL teams wait at running back these days. The game has changed since he was head coach of the Seattle Seahawks (1995-98) and San Francisco 49ers (2003- ‘04).

But to him – and the NFL teams he’s spoken to – Booker bucks the trend and is absolutely worth a pick in the first two rounds.

“The life of a running back in the NFL is not very long,” Erickson said. “If you can get a guy who does it all and can last nine, 10 years in the NFL, you get your money’s worth and I think he’s that type of guy.

“I know if I was a head coach in the draft, I’d take him early. It depends who you have on your team. How long can you wait to get him? Can you take somebody in the second round and wait for him in the third round? You can’t do that. You’re going to have to take him before the third round to get him in my opinion.”

Five other running backs worth tracking next week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis:

• Ezekiel Elliott (Ohio State): The 6-foot, 225-pounder pounded away at defenses with his rare combination of vision and devastating power. Finishes every run with an exclamation point. Eclipsed 1,800 yards in back-to-back seasons with every right to question coaches for not giving him the ball more in Ohio State’s lone defeat last season.

• Derrick Henry (Alabama): A huge man at 6-3, 242 – just look at him standing next to Mark Ingram. A downhill back who only got better as the game progressed and was responsible for 60 missed tackles. Scouts are worried about his workload. Carried the ball 395 times in 2015 for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns.

• Jordan Howard (Indiana): UAB transfer finished second in the Big Ten with 134.8 rushing yards per game. A potential second-round talent, Howard battled various injuries in college. Had 238 yards against Michigan’s Top 5 defense.

•Kenneth Dixon (Louisiana Tech): Was the FBS touchdown leader (87) before Navy’s Keenan Reynolds broke his mark a few days later. Despite missing two games with an ankle injury, Dixon still had 1,070 rush yards, 467 receiving yards and 26 total scores. Averaged 3.3 yards after first contact, per Decisive, hungry, determined finisher fumbled 13 times his last three seasons.

• Alex Collins (Arkansas): Collins was only the third player in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards in three straight seasons (Herschel Walker and Darren McFadden). Decided to go pro after rushing for 1,577 yards and 20 touchdowns as a junior. Can make defenders miss in the hole and welcomes contact downfield.


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