Ever since I got to Utah he’s been very helpful for me learning the plays. It’s just been a good experience for me to have him to coach me and do the things that he does. – Devontae Booker on coach Dennis Erickson

SALT LAKE CITY — Heisman Trophy candidate Devontae Booker and Utah running backs coach Dennis Erickson have formed a bond.

“He’s helping me out a lot and I just love him for it,” Booker said. “Because when I got up here he’s just been like another father, I guess you could say, for me.”

Booker credits Erickson for teaching him a lot — like how to block and run a route.

“He’s meant a lot. Ever since I got to Utah he’s been very helpful for me learning the plays,” Booker said. “It’s just been a good experience for me to have him to coach me and do the things that he does. He’s really just helpful in all parts of the game.”

In his first season at Utah, Booker rushed for 1,512 yards — earning first-team all-conference honors from the Pac-12.

The success led to weighing his options about entering the NFL draft. During the process, Booker told Erickson that he would come back to Utah and stay if the 67-year-old coach would as well.

“We just stayed together,” Booker said.

Erickson downplayed any sort of package deal, though, saying that’s not really how things went down.

““We talked about it a lot, about his future. It was about him. He decided to come back,” Erickson said. “A lot of people talked to him. He got a lot of information — him and his family decided to come back. It didn’t have anything to do with me, believe me, it was just best for him.”

Booker sought feedback from the NFL and received a “stay in school” grade. However, it didn’t matter.

“I really didn’t make my decision on that at all,” Booker said. “I just really wanted to come back and get my degree. That was real important.”

The first-team academic all-conference honoree will receive a bachelor’s degree in sociology in December.

Erickson, who is entering his 45th season as a coach, said Booker made the best choice.

“Without a question. I talked to a lot of guys in the league. They like him, but he hadn’t played enough. I mean he played 13 games,” Erickson said. “They liked him. I can’t give you rounds or anything like that, but if he has a year this year like he did a year ago it’s huge.”

Erickson added that Booker’s NFL value won’t go down and that his decision to play another college season is a plus.

“He’s one of the best college backs I’ve coached,” Erickson said. “The thing that he does is he does it all.”

Booker, he continued, is a strong runner that breaks tackles, has speed, is shifty and blocks well. Erickson also praised Booker’s lower body strength and hands.

“That’s something that people don’t know — that he can really catch it. So you’ve got to be aware. There are things that we can do with him,” said Erickson, who explained that Booker can be moved around to get the football in his hands — not just by running it. “He’s one of the best I’ve had in college football, without a question.”

The 5-foot-11, 212-pound Booker carried the 292 times last season — the third most in team history.

“I think he can carry 30 times a game, maybe more. It kind of depends on how people play us,” Erickson said. “The thing with Devontae, obviously, he’s the key to what we want to do. So everything that we do offensively is going to be off him to a point. So if they bring a bunch of people down in the box to stop him, obviously, we’ve got to be able to throw the football. I mean there’s no ifs or ands about that.”

As such, Erickson would like to see the ball in Booker’s hands 25-30 times per game — running or catching it.

“He’s really a good receiver,” Erickson continued. “You know, sometimes he might carry it 35 times. Sometimes he might carry it 20 depending on what the defense does.”

Erickson acknowledged that Booker is human and the Utes need a No. 2 back to spell him. Junior college transfer Joe Williams, who began his college career at Connecticut, is ticketed to be the guy. Erickson said Williams is looking good since joining the program.

Booker, though, is atop the depth chart.

“He’s not going to come out of the game very often. He’s a key,” Erickson said. “If we can run it with him and get downhill and do the things that he can do then people are going to have to come up. Then we’ve to be able to throw the football and we’ve got to get it downfield.”

Booker is ready for the challenges ahead.

“Now it’s time to go play ball,” he said.

Although Erickson added the title of assistant head coach over the offseason, he’s still the position coach for Booker and the other running backs.

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Utah coach Kyle Whittingham considers the relationship between Booker and Erickson to be excellent. He praised Erickson as a guy that has a strong rapport with his players.

“I think that’s why he was so successful all those years as a head coach,” Whittingham said. “He’s able to really connect with the players.”

Email: dirk@desnews.com

Twitter: @DirkFacer

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