For underclassmen across the country with NFL aspirations, it is decision time on whether to take the leap to the NFL (deadline to declare for the draft is Jan. 15) or return to school and hone their skills for one more season. In Utah, all eyes are on Utes running back Devontae Booker as he decides whether to return to The Hill and build on his successful 2014 season or try to parlay this season's success into a 2015 NFL Draft pick.
Currently, the word out of the Utah camp is Booker is leaning toward staying, but nothing definitive has been formally decided.
"We're optimistic that he'll come back for his senior year. We've heard nothing to the contrary, but it's never a done deal until it's a done deal," Utah head coach oach Kyle Wittingham said.
There is a strong argument to be made for Booker staying put in Salt Lake City for another year. This year's running back class is deep. Names like Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley, Ameer Abdullah, Duke Johnson, and T.J. Yeldon are among the list of tail backs eligible for the 2015 NFL Draft. Despite Booker's breakout success this season, he remains a relative unknown to the rest of the country. It wasn't until the fourth game against Washington State that Booker carried the ball over twenty times in a single game. That he was able to amass over 1,500 yards in only 10 games of carrying the full workload is impressive. Still, a full season of being "the guy" would help Booker's visibilty and name recognition among NFL circles.
Another reason he might consider staying is to work on ball security. Booker had five fumbles this year, which could hurt his draft stock with some NFL teams. Listed at 5-11, 203, Booker has the size and ability to be successful in the NFL; however, in a league where every player on defense is coached to strip the ball on every tackle, ball security is paramount. Another season with fewer fumbles would calm the fears of interested NFL teams.
It's no secret the value of the running back position in the NFL has decreased in recent years. This has been clearly evident in the past two drafts where no running backs were selected in the first round of the draft. In a class as deep as the 2015 class, Booker may find himself waiting until the third day to get drafted. Most experts have Booker rated somewhere between the 10th to 14th best running back if he were to declare. For reference, last year, 22 backs were drafted. Backs rated 10-14 were selected in the fourth round. In 2013, the same slot of backs all went in the fifth round. If Booker declares, he'll likely be drafted in the later rounds and compete for a roster spot as a backup. Coming back for one more year has the potential boost his stock in the eyes of NFL scouts.
On the flip side, there are plenty of reasons Booker should declare for the draft and turn pro. As enjoyable as the college experience can be for these players, most of them have an ultimate goal of playing for a paycheck in the NFL. If the opportunity is there, why not take it?
"He runs just like (Foster), same number, not a lot of [expletive] when he scores. He's good. It's weird how much he's like Arian Foster," one NFL scout was quoted as saying by NFL.com.
Daniel Jeremiah, a NFL media analyst commented, "Utah RB Devontae Booker reminds me of Tiki Barber. Slithery between the tackles, finishes every run, and great hands out of the backfield."
The NFL is a quarterback-driven, passing league, and to be a valuable back, you must be able to block and catch out of the backfield. Booker has the whole package and proved it as the season went on, specifically in the Oregon game, that he is just as valuable catching passes as he is pounding between the tackles. Both Arian Foster and Tiki Barber have had great careers in the NFL and being compared to either is quite a compliment. It is apparent when scouts watch Booker play, they see a player that can be successful at the NFL level.
Despite having just wrapped his junior season, Booker is 22 years old and will be 23 by the start of next season. Having sat out a year to finish up academic work at American River College in Sacramento, Booker is the same age as most fifth year seniors. There aren't too many running backs with the ability of Booker that come back to school for a fifth year.
The wear and tear on a running back is unlike any other position in football, and NFL teams have shown they don't like to award big contracts to running backs approaching the age of 30. If Booker chooses to come back for his senior season, he will be a 24-year-old rookie when he gets to the NFL. By the time Booker's rookie contract ends, his chances to procure a big NFL contract could be hindered by his age. He will still get paid, but at a position where the shelf life of a player is significantly shorter than at other postiions, every year counts.
That being said there is still much to accomplish at the college level should Booker choose to return.
"He's got a chance to be an All-American, has a chance to do a lot of things. He's got to take advantage of that. That's the message that I'd give him," said running backs coach Dennis Erickson.
Coach Erickson is correct. While Booker has the ability to go now, he should comeback for one more year. An All-American, first team All Pac-12-type season would do wonders not only for his draft stock, but for his overall game. Booker has a chance to be the greatest running back to ever wear a Utah jersey, and that's saying something for a school that produced the likes of Jamal Anderson, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Mike Anderson, John White IV, and Eddie Johnson. Another year under the tutelage of someone like Dennis Erickson, who has coached in the NFL, would mentally and physically prepare him that much more for the rigors of the NFL. The added experience in college will be of benefit not only to his football career, but also in life.
It comes down to what Booker's personal goals are. Does he want to make a run at the NFL at his earliest opportunity? Does he want to develop his game more before leaving? Does he want to build on his legacy at Utah?
In the end it's Devontae's decision. And while he decides, Utes Nation holds its breath.
"I'm not sure yet," Booker said recently. "I'm still thinking on it."