Life without Booker is a reality that a lot of Utah fans never wanted to confront. A lot of us in the media didn’t want to think about it either. But here we are, wondering if this Utah football team can create any beauty without the Beast.
Sources told me today that Devontae was weighing his options and deciding on whether he was going to try and gut in out and play, or have surgery and potentially end his run (pun intended) as a Ute. After making some calls and sending some emails, I became the bearer of bad news. Devontae looks like he is out, at least until the bowl game. My understanding is that the surgery is a minor procedure, a little scope to clean things up and get him back on his feet, maybe not even for the Utah bowl game, but in time to be fully rehabbed and healthy for things like the senior bowl, combine and other important steps in the NFL draft process. Another source actually suggested to me that NFL teams have reached out to Devontae’s camp to suggest that he not rush back to action for more college football, and instead focus on his NFL future. Those rumors are impossible to confirm, but they make sense from a business perspective. Still, let’s focus on what Devontae’s absence means to Utah football.
Short term, and the immediate concern, is that UCLA suddenly became a much more difficult outing for the Utes this coming Saturday. While the Bruins have RB health concerns of their own, and a depleted defensive front 7, they have managed to make adjustments and play well enough against the run to win games and be in control of their own destiny in the Pac-12 south race. We haven’t talked much about RB depth for the Utes this year because we haven’t needed to. I actually believe that Joe Williams is a capable back, and he is faster than Booker for what that is worth. I expect Bubba Poole to shift back into the backfield for the next couple of weeks and get touches as a ball carrier and outlet pass receiver. This is crucial because Travis Wilson NEEDS that option. Booker has been a mistake-eraser and safety valve for players and coaches alike all year. In order to beat UCLA, every part of the Ute offense is going to need to execute at a higher level. The offensive line in particular needs to get push. Devontae has made them look much better this year than their performance sometimes warrants, his yards-after-contact stats reflect positively on him as a back, but watching film tells you that oftentimes that contact happens at or near the line of scrimmage, and he makes lemonade out of lemons with great leg drive, elusiveness, forward lean, and the occasional leap. UCLA is still a beatable team with their own injury issues, but Utah’s “next man up” mentality faces the ultimate test this week. If the offense can be productive without Devontae Booker, this team is likely better than we’ve been giving them credit for since the USC loss.
Long term, Devontae’s absence was an inevitability. Instead of coming at the end of the season, we see it 3 (maybe 4) weeks early. It is probably in his personal best interest to go ahead and turn the page, move on to NFL preparation and set his sights on a Senior Bowl return rather than whatever Bowl Game the Utes find themselves in. Booker is old school though. He loves this team and wants to do right by the Utes the same way they did him on his circuitous route to Pac-12 stardom. It would be easy to make a case that he’s already made good, but he is a rare breed that might want just one last ride with his teammates in a bowl game. The program itself will be just fine. We worried when Darrel Mack left, when John White IV left, and we will worry now that Booker is gone. But the team has survived, even improved. Dennis Erickson is a savvy recruiter and great coach. He’s not going to let the RB corps suffer. Nobody can promise that this transition will be the next Brett Elliot to Alex Smith move, but we can hope. Maybe Joe Williams is the guy. If he isn’t, I trust that this staff will find a competent replacement. It might be difficult to find a single guy with all of Devontae’s skills, but the Utes will be fine at the position in the long run. Devontae’s injury is an unfortunate development, but hopefully not too much more than that in what has been a really good season for Kyle Whittingham’s team. Spitting clichés about rising to the occasion and the ubiquitous “next man up” does very little good in the grand scheme of things. Actually putting those principles into play is something we’ve seen Utah do, and even excel at, in the past. The team needs to compensate for this loss, we as fans and media can only lament it.