In the uncertain and ever-changing world of football recruiting, some prospects take longer than others to develop and draw the attention of major programs. At Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, for example, highly touted running back Parris Campbell didn't show up on the radar of Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer until the final game of his junior season.
His teammate and friend Dante Booker – the reason that Meyer was present for the OHSAA Division III state title game – has a different story.
Seventh-year Irish head coach Dan Boarman didn't need much time to see that one of his newcomers in the fall of 2010 had the potential to earn scholarship offers from the best programs in the country.
"When he came in as a freshman, that's when I knew," Boarman told BSB. "He was about 6-3 and 200 pounds."
Booker's early growth and superior athleticism led to plenty of attention on the recruiting circuit. The linebacker began receiving attention from BCS schools during his sophomore season, and Ohio State gave him his first scholarship offer in the spring of 2012 as he wound down his sophomore year of high school.
"His sophomore to junior year is when he really began to get attention," Scout.com recruiting analyst Derek Young told BSB. "He grew and filled out more physically earlier than others in his class, and as a result he got the attention and recognition from college programs a little earlier than some of the other 2014 prospects that are rated just as highly now."
His father, Dante Booker Sr., played at Auburn, and there was early speculation that the Tigers could be in the mix for the younger Booker's services. The call of the SEC never really materialized, however. Booker, a self-described Ohio State fan, never received an offer from his father's alma mater, and his recruitment was dominated by Big Ten programs – with one notable exception.
With Campbell already committed to Ohio State in the spring of 2013, Booker paid a visit to Notre Dame for the program's spring game. The Fighting Irish made enough of an impact on Booker for his teammate to notice, so Campbell pushed for Booker to join him in Columbus. According to Booker, though, those efforts may not have been necessary.
"He was in my ear at first, but we kind of all knew that we'd continue this relationship at the next level," said Booker, who ended up verbally committing to Ohio State in May.
On Oct. 25, Booker helped lead the undefeated Irish to their ninth win of the season, this time at the expense of a fellow early bloomer. Facing Massillon (Ohio) Washington freshman quarterback Danny Clark, a 6-3 prospect who has already made two unofficial visits to Ohio Stadium, Booker delivered a game-changing play that helped St. V-M snap the Tigers' 18-game home winning streak. Late in the second quarter, he scooped up a fumble and retuned it 71 yards for a touchdown, outracing a couple of Massillon receivers and backs to give St. V-M what would prove to be an insurmountable 21-3 advantage.
"I was thinking, ‘Who the heck is chasing me?' " he said as he listened to postgame fireworks go off. "That's what I was thinking. I was looking to my right, but I didn't see to my left. I have to give a shout-out to Vince Lockett, who made an awesome block. I probably wouldn't have scored without him. That was all him."
Just a few players earlier, he had fought his way through blockers to make a tackle for loss that slowed down a Massillon drive. His ability to mix it up and shake off opposing blockers is a work in progress, but he said he's improving in that regard.
"That's something I'm trying to work on, and I'm always trying to get better," he said.
He re-emphasized that point when asked about his goals for the rest of his senior season. In addition to his plan to help St. V-M win a second consecutive state title, Booker is working on and off the field to continue to refine his raw talent.
"I'm always trying to improve," he said. "I look in the film room, evaluate all that. My coaches are teaching me what to do, and I just listen to them. I do whatever I can to keep getting better."
That includes playing both ways when needed. Although Campbell is more of a two-way player, regularly seeing time at both running back and defensive back, Booker has primarily played defense for the Irish. Against the Tigers, however, he went from shedding blocks to making them at several key junctures. He was lined up on offense for both of St. V-M's first two rushing touchdowns of the game, helping pave the way for teammate Newman Williams.
"He's a heck of a football player," Boarman said. "He's a leader on our defense. (Against Massillon), he played a lot of offense at tight end, so he did a great job for us."
Perhaps most impressive about his showing is that he was playing with a cold. He struggled to talk over the band and fireworks in postgame interviews, and his sickness kept him from attending the Ohio State game against Penn State the following night.
Even so, he insisted that he didn't need another trip to Ohio Stadium to reassure himself about his college choice.
"Everything kind of affirms it," he said. "I'm a fan. It's where I always wanted to go."