Listed as a starting safety for Ohio State on Saturday and donning a scarlet No. 24 jersey, redshirt sophomore safety Malik Hooker made his first impression in front of a crowd of 107,193 in Ohio Stadium.
OSU coach Urban Meyer called him a “freakish” athlete, which showed on Saturday, midway through the first half.
Hooker sprinted over to the opposing team’s sideline with redshirt freshman Damon Arnette defending Bowling Green senior wide receiver Ronnie Moore. Hooker jumped off of one foot, tipped the ball with his right hand and came down with the interception — which was one of the highlights of the first weekend of college football.
Hooker displayed his “ball hawk” mentality again when he snatched his second interception of the day.
But Hooker’s path to the centerfold of Meyer’s secondary was an unorthodox one filled with adversity, and he has his mom to thank for that.
Hooker was a basketball star at New Castle High School in Pennsylvania where he was named to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Fabulous Five basketball team in 2012-2013. Hooker’s team was 54-2 combined in his sophomore and junior seasons in high school.
He was a rising high school prospect sought by Division I schools, but when he entered his junior year, he returned to the game of football — one he had not played since suffering a shoulder injury in seventh grade.
Hooker’s talent on the hardwood translated almost immediately to the gridiron as he was rated as a four-star prospect and the No. 26 athlete overall by 247Sports. Meyer said when he was recruiting him, Hooker scored 35 points in a basketball game his junior season.
When Hooker arrived on campus in 2014, he had to take a redshirt and sit out a year. At the time, it wasn’t a situation Hooker was familiar with.
“There were a couple times where I thought this wasn’t for me.” Hooker said. “I just started doubting myself because I felt like I didn’t fit in.”
Hooker said he had several talks with his mom, Angela Dennis, while he was going through his redshirt season.
“I don’t know what you’re going to do, but you’re not coming home,” Hooker said Dennis told him.
Although Hooker said he was just blowing smoke at the time, in hindsight, he’s thankful for his mother’s advice.
“My mom, she’s like my everything. Growing up, that’s all I had,” he said. “I learned a lot from my mom. Being a single parent, she taught me that no matter what you’re going through, just fight through what you’re doing, because there is going to be adversity.”
Meyer estimates that between 95 and 99 percent of freshmen in college football experience what Hooker went through when redshirting. He said that Dennis is someone he should thank for encouraging Hooker to stay with the Buckeyes.
Now, Meyer is reaping the rewards.
Hooker said he gained his confidence when he saw results in the weight room. He said he began to see his body transform into the role he was expected to fill. He said he studied more film, learned the playbook and earned the trust of his teammates and his coaching staff.
Hooker’s performance against the Falcons might have been the peak of a grind that started with doubt and culminated with his first two interceptions for the Scarlet and Gray.
“I feel like my redshirt year definitely helped me fit into the environment more,” he said. “It definitely helped me bulk my body up and play out there with the Big Ten conference.”
Hooker believes that a redshirt year can be taken one of two ways. The player can take it and get frustrated, or he can put the work into fine-tuning his game and benefit from a full year of development.
Hooker will be asked to do more on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at the ‘Shoe against a prolific passing team in Tulsa. However, Meyer believes in Hooker’s basketball and athletic background to lead the OSU defense.
“He can do whatever he trains to do. He’s talented. He’s fast. He has great ball skills,” Meyer said following the team’s 77-10 victory over Bowling Green. “His commitment to our program now is over the top.”