When Ohio State then-redshirt sophomore linebacker Dante Booker exited in the second quarter of the Buckeyes’ season-opening 77-10 blowout against Bowling Green last season, no one suspected it would be the end of his season.
Two days after the game, coach Urban Meyer said Booker suffered a sprained MCL and would be questionable for his team’s next game. A month later, prior to Ohio State’s game against Wisconsin, Meyer said Booker suffered a sprained PCL, in addition to his sprained MCL, and once again listed the linebacker as questionable.
Despite the optimism of a potential in-season return, it wasn’t until the final week of the regular season that Booker said he was finally feeling like he could play at full speed, again. By that time, his replacement at weakside linebacker, junior Jerome Baker, was flying around the field making plays.
Even if Baker wasn’t performing well, Booker said he wasn’t ready to return due to a lack of confidence in his game at that late stage in the season.
“The way Jerome was playing, that would’ve been a dumb decision,” Booker said. “And I wasn’t even ready to play. So, that wasn’t a decision that should’ve been made.”
Heading into this season, Booker has both his health and confidence, along with a feeling of unfinished business.
“I feel like it’s kind of just like getting another chance at it,” Booker said. “After last year, missing that year, I feel like it kind of created a greater fire in me that I’ve always had, but I feel like it’s burning even brighter now.”
Though the St. Vincent St. Mary product senses that extra motivation, linebackers coach Bill Davis doesn’t believe it’s possible.
“With Dante, I don’t think there’s any such word as ‘extra.’ He is so driven. He wants it so bad. As long as I’ve known him, he’s that driven,” Davis said. “He is full throttle, wants it as bad as anyone I’ve been around.”
Though Booker has totaled only 121 snaps on defense in four years at Ohio State, his talent is not in question. Just a year ago, he beat Baker out for the starting weakside linebacker position. In his stead, Baker finished second on the team in tackles and was selected as an honorable mention All-Big Ten honoree.
Davis believes Booker and Baker are very similar in their raw abilities. The position coach used the word “explosion” to describe Booker on three occasions in less than three minutes.
“He’s out in space, so if you want to go ahead and put a receiver on him, he can run good enough to cover. If you want to try to block him with one of the receivers, it’s going to be a long day if you want to get the perimeter run going because Dante’s such a big guy, Davis said. “When you have the combination of size and speed that he has, we can take advantage of it.”
So, what is Booker’s next step? Davis said the challenge now is to translate his production from practice to games this fall.
“There’s potential and then there’s getting it done and I love the way Dante’s going right now,” Davis said.
Booker said he’s excited to get to Aug. 31, Ohio State’s opening game against Indiana, and admitted he’d be a little more “juiced up” than last year due to his injury, which he felt robbed him of a season.
The linebacker, who feels like a new starter even though he began the 2016 season as one, said he is hungry to contribute because he feel like he hasn’t done much since arriving at Ohio State.
“If anybody knows how quick it can be taken away through circumstances out of your control, it’s Dante,” Davis said. “So, every day, he comes to work. He doesn’t complain, he just works. Because he knows. He knows he got all the way to this point last year and it got taken away.”