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Not in a Rush : Booker Breaks In Slowly but Spectacularly

September 10, 1987|CURT HOLBREICH | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Tommy Booker, San Diego State's hotshot freshman tailback, stood in the textbook blocking poise.

Elbows wide.

Forearms up.

Legs spread.

Knees bent.

It looked great . . . for about a second and a half. That's how long it took the rushing defensive lineman to blow past Booker as if he were a statue and sack quarterback Todd Santos for a big loss.

"It was like 'Uh, oh,' " Booker said. "I was waiting for the wrath to come down."

It did, hard and firm, but fair.

"The coaches really want to explain what happened," Booker said. "They want to teach you so it doesn't happen again. It was part of my learning experience. I was thinking it was a different defense. They told me what the defense was, and that cleared that up right away.

"If someone comes zooming past me like that again, I don't let them go."

Luckily for Booker, this sack happened in the last preseason intrasquad scrimmage. It didn't cost the Aztecs a yard or their record-breaking quarterback for the season. But it did teach Booker that the difference between playing for the Aztecs and playing for Vista High School is more than the 45-mile drive from his North County hometown.

"Everyone is so much bigger, so much faster in college," Booker said. "Everything is so much more complicated."

But much about the game still comes easily and naturally for Booker. Like running the football. One look at the highlights from the Aztecs' season-opening 47-14 loss at UCLA showed that.

Exactly one week after his breakdown in the scrimmage, Booker took a routine handoff from Santos, cut left, slipped through a hole and raced up the sideline with much of the UCLA secondary in tow. He crossed the goal line in a burst, apparently with his first collegiate touchdown and a vision of what the Aztecs' offense will feature for the next four seasons.

The celebration was brief because of a holding penalty that nullified the touchdown. But the penalty did not change the impact.

"I can't even describe the feeling," Booker said. "It's hard to say. It was like a sigh of relief: 'I can do it on this level.' That's basically what it was. It told me I could play at the college level."

Such a conclusion might have seemed obvious for a running back as naturally talented as Booker, who stands 6-feet 1-inch and weighs 195 pounds. Lasts season at Vista, he gained 2,144 yards (a San Diego Section record) and scored 26 touchdowns. He was named to the Parade All-American team and was recruited by such football powers as Arizona State, Nebraska, Oklahoma, USC and Washington. He came to San Diego State as possibly its most celebrated recruit ever.

Booker would seem to be a sure thing in college football. Yet he was unsure. After an early fumble-plagued scrimmage, he even wondered if maybe he should redshirt this season.

"Everyone has their doubts," Booker said. "Making that step up to college is a lot different than high school.

"At first it was hard for me to adjust to the passing game. Now it's getting to be second nature. I'm getting used to blocking and catching the ball. I didn't do too much of either in high school. That last game helped me. In the last few practices, I've started to feel more comfortable. It's not like, 'Oh, no. I'm going to mess up.' Just to get in and play against UCLA was a real plus for me."

Paul Hewitt, a junior transfer from Citrus College in Glendora, started at tailback, leaving Booker to fidget on the sideline. He did not make his college debut until the Aztecs' first possession of the second half, and his first carry resulted in a three-yard loss. It was not until SDSU's next possession, with the Aztecs trailing, 41-7, that Booker broke loose for his long-but-negated run. He finished with 28 yards on 10 carries.

"I had butterflies, a whole bunch of them, as a matter of fact," Booker said. "Right when he (Coach Denny Stolz) told me I might get a chance to play, I started freezing up a bit. I didn't used to get nervous in high school, except for the really big games. But this time it was like the whole time I was in there I felt (butterflies). It was a long wait. I wanted to go in badly. But after I broke that run, it felt pretty good.

"I was watching the guard pull. When I saw the play developing, my eyes widened. As soon as I saw the receivers blocking downfield, I knew it was going to be a big run. It felt so good to go all the way. It wasn't until I was going back to the sideline that I heard one of the receivers say they called it back. That's when like a big old rock came down on me."

Controlling those temporary moments of disappointment and doubt are part of what the coaches have worked to teach Booker.

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