COLUMBUS, Ohio — Dante Booker finished preseason camp last year as a first-team linebacker at Ohio State.
He went through spring practice in that role and is again establishing himself as a linchpin for the Buckeyes defense.
But the redshirt junior has started only one game in his college career, and that didn’t last a full half before a knee injury knocked him out for the rest of the season in 2016. So while he may be a veteran with a reputation as one of the most talented defenders on the practice field, he’s the first to admit there’s plenty for him to prove.
“I feel like I’m a veteran,” Booker said. “But I need to prove what I can do, so I [also] feel like a first-year starter.
“I felt kind of like I was robbed a little bit [last season]. It was definitely frustrating. You know, you earn a starting spot, all the work you put in, but injuries happen. It’s a sacrifice you’ve got to make when you play football. And I feel like I’m more passionate now, because I don’t have as many swings as I would have had before I left.
“It’s igniting this fire inside me.”
Booker’s engine always has run hot, so if there’s another gear for a tackler with a rare combination of size and speed, the Buckeyes aren’t going to complain.
The Buckeyes have made no secret about Booker’s production on the practice field, where he won the opening-day starting job in 2016. After being sidelined in the first half against Bowling Green, he took a redshirt.
With Booker on the shelf, Jerome Baker blossomed into a star, in some ways turning the expected starter into an afterthought. But a healthy Booker had earned the nod ahead of Baker last August. And now that he’s back to full strength with those same impressive physical skills, he’s primed to form a dynamic partnership with Baker and converted middle linebacker Chris Worley.
“It’s exciting to watch Dante run around out there,” linebackers coach Billy Davis said. “He’s 235 pounds, he’s fast, he’s explosive, we’ve got him in what we feel is a good spot, so we’re excited. And 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 a receiver, it’s a long day to get that perimeter run going because he’s such a big guy.
“That combination of size and speed like he has, we can take advantage of that. He’s had a good camp so far, and we’ve got a lot left. So, if he keeps coming, hopefully we’ll be as pleased at the end of the season as we are right now.”
That’s certainly a long way off, and Booker has first-hand knowledge of how quickly things can go wrong.
The reviews from the way he attacked his rehabilitation and offseason workouts were overwhelmingly positive. He’s once again established himself as a frontline option for a talented corps of linebackers.
“He is so driven, I mean, he wants it so bad,” Davis said. “As long as I’ve known him, I don’t think there’s anything extra because he is full throttle and wants it as bad as anybody I’ve been around.”
Booker has had that starting job in his hands before. Now he’s looking forward to the chance to hold on to it for more than a game.
“I’m a new starter,” Booker said. “I haven’t been out there. I missed the whole season. I went through camp as a starter, spring ball, but all that matters is being in that stadium.
“[That first game] is going to probably feel like it did last year. It’s going to be exciting, but I’m probably going to be even a little more juiced up just because of missing the whole year. It’s going to be juicy.”
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