Defensive lineman Thomas Booker went to Stanford because he wanted a better understanding of the game and more versatility as a player, characteristics that could lead him to the National Football League.
The 6-foot-3, 303-pound Booker isn’t listed as one of the premier defensive linemen in college football alongside Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson, Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeau, Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson II or Georgia Jordan Davis, but is generally considered in the top 10 to 20 range at the position. It means the Gilman graduate is likely on an NFL roster by the end of the three-day draft, which begins Thursday night.
Will he get selected as an end or tackle? Booker doesn’t know and doesn’t care. The versatility is his strength.
“It’s good to have a guy who can play multiple roles at a high level, said Booker, an Ellicott City resident. “I didn’t play inside or outside occasionally at Stanford but did both evenly, especially in the last two years. You don’t have to take me off the field. You can put me inside on pass rush downs or outside on run downs. Use me like a Swiss Army knife.”
There was a time when defenses, especially the dominant ones, stayed in one basic look with only slight variations. But with offenses starting to pass more, defenses went into attack mode by changing alignments and trying to create mismatches. Booker has and can play nose guard, tackle or end in any scheme, regardless if it’s a 4-3 or a 3-4.
Even more importantly, he is hard to block.
“I can thrive in both those positions [tackle and end] and hopefully that versatility helps me to get into a rotation where I will be able to contribute,” Booker said. “Whatever franchise takes a chance on me, regardless if I’m a starter or on special teams, I want to contribute to winning football. Individually, I want to challenge for a starting spot.”
Booker started for three seasons at Stanford. The former two-time All-Metro first team player had a career high 59 tackles last year, including 28 solo and five for losses to go with 1 1/2 sacks. Some draft experts thought he might end up in the NFL as a free agent, but Booker likely solidified his draft worthiness with impressive performances in the East-West Shrine Bowl game in Las Vegas in February, the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis and at his pro day at Stanford.
Somebody had to take notice of him running that 40-yard dash in 4.94 seconds and bench pressing 225 pounds 31 times. Booker has an explosive first step, good lateral movement and can shoot gaps, but definitely needs to work more with his hands and getting offensive linemen off his body.
“Honestly, this entire process has been kind of a rush,” he said. “It’s been a lot of preparation for a couple of specific data points. For me, the Shrine Bowl, I wanted to show them [scouts] what I could do as a pass rusher and a run defender, show them I was a complete defensive lineman. I think I balled out and showed I could play against some of the best players in the country, regardless of conference.
“Then the combine, you train for months on about five to seven drills, and you are aware you only get a couple of shots in prime time. But I think I showed my athleticism, I was in the top five in every single drill and was No. 1 in agility drills. So, I think I performed at the maximum level, not just at the basic one.”
Almost nearly as impressive is the fact that Booker is a two-time captain at Stanford, a rare accomplishment for most college football teams. There, he was a first team selection for the Senior CLASS Award, which stands for Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School and is awarded to student-athletes with notable achievements in four areas: community, classroom, character and competition.
His excellence in the classroom made him a two-time pick for the College Sports Information Directors of America Academic All-America first team, and he was a finalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, also known as the Academic Heisman, which is awarded to the college player with the best combination of academics, community service and on-field performance.
He loves talking football with NFL scouts and assistant coaches. That’s part of the reason he went to Stanford.
“At Stanford, they are really big on understanding the why,” Booker said. “They want you to know why they had certain calls, why we play certain techniques. This process can be a grind and to engage in it is definitely humbling. Honestly, I enjoy the different philosophies and talking concepts, actually teaching yourself some new ones.”
That’s vintage Booker, according to his former Gilman coach Biff Poggi, now the assistant head coach at Michigan.
“Thomas is a very special person,” said Poggi. “I’ve known him since he was born. He is the full package, an excellent person, highly intelligent and a superb athlete. He is a culture changer for an organization. He is loyal, hard-working, honest and all about the team. He is a foundational player and person.”
Poggi almost had Booker and Mississippi linebacker Chance Campbell on the same playing field at Gilman, but Campbell later moved over to Calvert Hall. Booker and Campbell, though, are friends who grew up together in Ellicott City and attended the same middle school. If both get drafted this weekend, there might be some big parties in Howard County.
Booker has had virtual visits with Indianapolis, Tennessee and San Francisco and participated in local day with the Ravens.
“It will be a dream just to hear my name called,” Booker said. “I hooked up with Chance at the scouting combine after we both had pretty good days. Imagine, we were taking middle school math together and now we’re at the same stage, the same precipice, of doing something great.”
Thursday, 8 p.m.
Friday, 7 p.m.
TV: ESPN, NFL Network, Chs. 2, 7