Meet Malik Hooker: Ohio State's Star Who Almost Never Was

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Malik Hooker sat at a table in the Ohio Stadium interview room adjacent to the Buckeyes locker room, surrounded by a throng of reporters in what’s become the new normal for his postgame press conferences.

The iPhone in front of him was lighting up, notifications from a steady stream of Silicone Valley-based apps draining its battery.

“I mean, it’s alright,” Hooker answered with a smile when asked by Bleacher Report if he’s getting recognized more often around campus. “A lot of people saying, ‘What’s up Malik?’ and stuff like that.”

As he fielded questions about Ohio State’s 48-3 win over Tulsa, he soon found himself squinting thanks to a portable LED light from a local camera crew that had just rushed over to capture Hooker’s thoughts. After a couple of blinks, he quickly adjusted, continuing his answer despite the unexpected interruption.

For the Buckeyes sophomore safety, being the center of attention isn’t new—it’s just taking some getting used to again.


With known quantities on his roster few and far between, Urban Meyer often reminded his young team that “careers are made” and “legends are born” at Ohio State as it entered the 2016 season. He didn’t have to look back far for examples either.

Walk into any sports memorable shop in Central Ohio, and the likenesses of recent ex-Buckeyes shouldn’t be hard to find—bobblehead dolls, jerseys and framed 8-by-10-inch photos of Ezekiel Elliott, Cardale Jones, Darron Lee, Michael Thomas and Eli Apple stocking the shelves. Two years ago at this time, they were relative unknowns in the college football world, before each etched his name into Ohio State lore throughout the Buckeyes’ run to the national title.

None of them—each now in the NFL—seemed to solidify their star status as quickly as Hooker has in these past few weeks.

As third-ranked Ohio State heads to Norman for its prime-time showdown with No. 14 Oklahoma, it does so as a field-goal favorite (via Odds Shark), thanks in large part to a defense that has yet to surrender a touchdown to an opposing offense. The star of the show for the Silver Bullets thus far has been Hooker, a first-year starter at safety who, with three interceptions, is tied with two other players for the most in college football through the first two weeks of the season.

For the past year, Buckeyes starters raved about Hooker’s playmaking ability in practice, although his actual action on Saturdays was limited to special teams at the time. In just two short games, his full arsenal as a safety has already been put on display at a rate that even his head coach didn’t anticipate.

“Did I think Malik Hooker would be playing at the level he’s at?” Meyer asked rhetorically. “I wouldn’t be telling you the truth—at this level, I thought he’d be a very good player for us and grow into that position.

“He’s growing real fast.”

With just two games as a starter under his belt, Hooker still has room to grow. And while Ohio State fans are now well aware who the 6’2″, 205-pounder with shortened dreadlocks flowing out of his helmet is, this Saturday will give Hooker a chance to make his name known on a national level.

It’s an opportunity he may not have ever had, if not for the tough love he received when the lights weren’t shining so bright.


A week before he was briefly blinded in front of the camera, an even larger crowd of media members gathered around Hooker at a podium following his two-interception debut as a starter against Bowling Green.

Three or four reporters deep, to the point it was nearly impossible to get a recorder close enough to capture the soft-spoken safety, the gathering only dispersed when it was announced Hooker’s mother, Angela Dennis, was present at the back of the interview room.

Moments earlier, Meyer credited Dennis for keeping Hooker from leaving Ohio State “about seven times” as he took a redshirt as a freshman two years ago. That happened to be the same season the now-star Buckeyes of yesteryear—which included then-first-year starting safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell—had first burst onto the scene.

“Mom, I hate it,” Hooker would tell Dennis, sometimes through tears. “Mom, I can’t.”

When it came to her son’s pleas, Dennis wasn’t having any of it.

“Her exact words were: ‘I don’t know what you’re going to do. But you’re not coming back home,'” Hooker remembers precisely.

A college football player contemplating quitting isn’t particularly uncommon, especially at a place such as Ohio State, where competition runs rampant. Recently, star quarterback J.T. Barrett and defensive end Tyquan Lewis echoed similar memories about the early days of their college careers.

But whereas Barrett hails from Texas and Lewis calls North Carolina home, Hooker’s case of homesickness felt curable.

Each weekend in the offseason, he’d make the three-hour trip back to New Castle, Pennsylvania, sometimes arranging rides from his older sister. There, he’d wallow in self-pity over not playing and contemplate transferring closer to home, where he could see his close-knit family on a more regular basis.

“He would go for long walks and not come back when he was supposed to, and we would have to go looking for him,” Dennis recalls. “There were times when he didn’t want to come back.”

For those looking from the outside, Hooker’s lack of production in his first two years on campus was expected. A redshirt season seemed all but guaranteed when he committed to Ohio State’s 2014 class as a 3-star athlete with just two years of high school football experience to his credit.

Hooker, however, believed he could make plays with his raw athleticism alone—such as his second interception against Bowling Green, where he raced from one half of the field to the other, tipping the ball to himself with one hand before catching it with the other as he landed.

After all, even before he ever arrived in Columbus, Hooker had a habit of adding to his highlight reel.


The first time Dennis ever realized Malik had a future in football came in seventh grade. Not even yet a teenager, he scored nine touchdowns in a single game, doing so in every way imaginable.

“Defense, offense, it didn’t matter,” Dennis says. “He was going after the ball.”

Yet as he grew older, Hooker fell more in love with basketball, which he had been playing since he was two years old alongside his older sister, Jazelle. By the time he got to high school, Hooker decided to hang up his cleats, in favor of focusing on his career on the hardwood.

“It was my first love,” Hooker says of basketball. “I still love watching it to this day.”

In high school, Hooker skipped freshman and junior varsity ball, jumping straight to varsity, where he served as a starter as a sophomore and averaged 10.1 points per game on a New Castle squad that won the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League championship in 2012. “Out of a 10, he was a 12,” Dennis says of her son’s basketball skills.

As word of Hooker’s freakish ability and SportsCenter-worthy dunks spread across school, New Castle football coach Joe Cowart, who also serves as the school’s video teacher, took notice.

“He’d talk to me every day and just ask me to come out and play,” Hooker says. “I just finally said I’ll come out and play.”

Hooker says it took him until the end of his junior season to finally feel like a football player, but when he did, it was for good reason. With just one season of high school ball under his belt, Hooker had shown enough promise as a receiver and defensive back that he was racking up offers from big-time Division I programs across the country, including Ohio State.

Even as he averaged 21.8 points per game as a senior, adding another pair of WPIAL titles to his basketball resume—and even more rim-rocking dunks to YouTubeit was becoming clear that Hooker’s future was in football.

“I gave up on basketball the end of my junior year,” Hooker says. “My uncle, he’s a father figure in my life, he was telling me football was going to work out because, by that time, I was getting offers. At that time, I was just like, ‘Man, I’m just gonna go with football.'”


As a prospect, Hooker was described as a “project,” the type of player Ohio State could take with the intent of developing in hopes the investment would pay off in the long run. He wasn’t a 5-star player or even a 4-star All-American but rather an exception in a third-ranked 2014 Buckeyes class filled with such blue-chippers.

“He committed early,” Meyer says. “I kind of had no idea really who he was.”

Perhaps fittingly, the first time Hooker’s future head coach would see him in action wasn’t on the gridiron but rather the place he first received athletic acclaim. During a routine recruiting trip a week before signing day to check in on his signees, Meyer, along with Hooker’s area recruiter and Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, stopped by New Castle to watch the Red Hurricane take on Pine-Richland.

Watching his future players play basketball on such trips was nothing new to Meyer.

Watching a player of Hooker’s quality was.

“Sometimes you watch basketball—like a legendary one is Zeke Elliottwhere you walk away like, ‘Well that was awful,'” Meyer said with a smile. “This one you walked away saying, ‘This kid could be a college basketball player.'”

The final stat line: a career-high 36 points and 10 rebounds on 14-of-16 shooting, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“He’s one of the best athletes I’ve seen,” Meyer said. “I mean that was a real 36-point game.”

Hooker has a different recollection of his now-infamous performance with Meyer in attendance.

“I still played bad,” he says, smiling as he shakes his head. “I missed a lot of free throws.”

Hooker remained a work in progress upon arriving on campus, with the reigning All-Pennsylvania player in two different sports taking an expected redshirt in his freshman season. Lowered expectations didn’t help quench Hooker’s thirst for making plays, however, nor did the playing time he received on special teams in 2015 as Bell and Powell returned as the Buckeyes’ starting safeties.

The calls to back home started up again.

“I just started doubting myself, thinking this wasn’t the place for me,” Hooker says. “I felt like I didn’t fit in, and I wasn’t playing a lot, just special teams and stuff like that.”

Dennis stood firm in her stance.

“Don’t answer the phone when he calls,” Ralph Blundo, Hooker’s basketball coach at New Castle, suggested to her.

Hooker stuck it out, and by the time he returned to Ohio State for spring football in his sophomore season, he had been viewed in bowl practice as one of the Buckeyes’ up-and-coming players. With Bell and Powell headed to the NFL, two starting safety spots were up for grabs, giving Hooker the opportunity he had been waiting for and an outlook for the upcoming season he had yet to enjoy.

“When he got back, he was a different person,” Dennis says. “He interacted with a lot more people. He was a lot more social. He was just ready to come back to school. He knew what he needed to do.”


Talk to Hooker long enough, and basketball will inevitably come up. Ask him what feels better, a dunk or an interception, and he’ll answer your question with a question of his own.

“Is the interception a touchdown? I mean, what’s going on?” Hooker responded to such inquiry from Bleacher Report in August. “There ain’t no feeling like that. I mean, a dunk is good, but once you’re running and you see the fans just applauding you and your teammates coming up and hugging you, there’s no better feeling.”

Hooker knows because even before his first start against Bowling Green, he had already experienced it.

Albeit just an exhibition, Hooker’s breakout performance for diehard Buckeyes fans came not against the Falcons but rather in Ohio State’s spring game five months ago. Starring for the Gray team, the redshirt sophomore recorded two interceptions against Barrett, the Buckeyes starting quarterback, one of which he weaved his way back 80 yards for a score.

“I loved it in the spring game,” Hooker said. “It was probably the best feeling in the world.”

It wouldn’t take long for him to top it.

After tallying two interceptions against Bowling Green in Ohio State’s opener, Hooker found himself back in the end zone the following week, returning an errant pass from Tulsa quarterback Dane Evans 26 yards the other way for the first official touchdown of his college career. For the former basketball star from New Castle, it was a long time coming.

“It definitely seems silly,” Hooker says, looking back on the early struggles in his college career. “It’s just something to laugh at. Once you get out there and start playing and start making plays, you’re able to go out there and have fun with the game you love.” 

As for the other game he loves, Hooker remains active in pickup games with his teammates, teaming up with fellow uber-athletic Ohio State secondary member Gareon Conley to form an unstoppable twosome. “We’re like Shaq and Kobe,” Hooker says.

“He can dunk it easier than I can,” 6’5″ Buckeyes defensive end Sam Hubbard says. “He’s a freak athlete.”

“He could play on the basketball team here,” middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan says. “He could start.”

That, however, is now Hooker’s former life, his stardom on the hardwood left behind in favor of his sudden emergence on the gridiron. He may only have two starts to his credit, but Hooker looks like a potential NFL star in the making, an idea that’s been cosigned by new Buckeyes defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, who possesses a plethora of experience at the pro level.

“Just going through winter conditioning and seeing some things, you said, ‘Oh, this guy could be special,'” Schiano says. “I was hopeful he could do some special things, and so far, he’s doing well.”

And while it may appear that, like a ball thrown up for grabs as he sits in coverage, Hooker is adjusting to his new life in the spotlight quickly, just know that the bright lights might not even be here if not for a mom who knew best.

“She just did all she could,” Hooker says, “to make sure I could do what I was supposed to do.”

                

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report’s Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod.

Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Recruiting and class ratings courtesy of 247Sports‘ composite rankings.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com


Source: Bleacher Report-CFB News

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