The 15th pick of the 2017 NFL Draft didn’t play in a high school All-America football game before riding off into the collegiate spotlight. Malik Hooker, a 3-star athlete from New Castle, Pa., didn’t get much hype.
Though he grew up about 200 miles from Columbus, the odds were never particularly high that Hooker would find his way to Ohio State.
Sure, Hooker was a dynamic athlete; anyone who saw him on the football field or a basketball court knew he was talented. He even found his way on to ESPN a few times as a high school junior because of his theatrics on the basketball court.
The younger Malik Hooker was most comfortable on the basketball court. It was his love of basketball — and not knowing if he’d give up the game — that may have prevented him from “blowing up” as a football prospect.
In an interview with BTN’s The Journey last October, former Buckeyes defensive coordinator Luke Fickell recalled some early meetings with the high school version of the 6-foot-2, 205-pound soon-to-be NFL rookie.
“The question I asked him every single time I talked to him was, ‘What do you want to play? What do you really love? Where’s your passion? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?’ ” Fickell said. “Until he started to change that mentality to say, ‘I love this game of football,’ I wasn’t sure.”
Hooker’s reluctance to commit to football was understandable. He’d only played the sport for two years in high school, and though he was more physically gifted than most of his competition, the game can be grueling compared to the fluidity and less physical nature of basketball.
“The Freak” finally settled on football. He may not have burst onto the national scene until his ridiculous pair of interceptions against Bowling Green in the 2016 Ohio State season opener, but flashes were there well before those highlights.
Hooker was the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Athlete of the Year for his work in 2013-14, on both playing fields.
From Mike White of the Post-Gazette, in June 2014:
This should tell you enough about Hooker’s marvelous athletic ability: He made the Post-Gazette Fabulous 22 in football and the Post-Gazette Fabulous 5 in basketball. He also was the PG Player of the Year in basketball.
Despite leaning toward the hardwood, Hooker found college football programs interested. He fielded offers from Penn State, West Virginia and Michigan before Ohio State felt confident enough that he’d play football to offer. Apparently, Urban Meyer saw what he needed to see.
Again from White and the Post-Gazette:
“He had so many of those ‘splash’ plays,” said New Castle basketball coach Ralph Blundo. “You never could throw the ball over his head. I remember [Ohio State football coach] Urban Meyer came to a basketball game and there was a sideline pass and Malik just exploded and snatched it out of the air. It was a simple play, but people who understand sports know there was no one else in the WPIAL who could make that play.”
The Buckeyes director of player personnel, Mark Pantoni, discovered Hooker and – along with Fickell – saw the potential for something great. He fit the mold that Pantoni looks for: long athletes who can run. This long athlete could also jump out of the gym. As noted, though, Fickell had to keep working to make sure the ultra-talented Hooker would want to be a football player at Ohio State.
“Coach Fickell came to see me a lot, calling me a lot, talking to my mom and just making sure I was doing good in school,” Hooker told Land of 10 in September when asked about his recruitment. “When I saw he was interested, it made me want to visit (Ohio State) more, and I visited a few times and fell in love with the environment.
“I felt like he saw that even though I didn’t play a lot of football in high school I was very athletic and I could be very good if I just trained and worked at it.”
Once Ohio State offered, the drama around Hooker’s recruitment was all but over. He seriously contemplated an offer from Pittsburgh, but in the end the opportunity in Columbus was too great to pass up.
Hooker had more than two dozen scholarship offers and chose the Buckeyes over Pitt, said New Castle football coach Joe Cowart.
The 6-foot-2 senior has played just one season of varsity football, but his leaping ability and athleticism drew the attention of college coaches during a recruiting process that intensified just recently.
Ohio State assistant Luke Fickell recruited Hooker to play defensive back.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Cowart said. “I think it’s a good decision for him. … Nothing against Pitt, but he’s been leaning Ohio State’s way.”
After nearly quitting football following his redshirt freshman year, Hooker emerged as the country’s most exciting safety prospect. He has drawn comparisons to NFL Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed, thanks to his remarkable ability to score when he gets the ball in his hands.
He’s now representing Nike’s Jordan Brand and is off to the NFL as a top-15 pick. If there were any doubts that football was his best option, they have been put to rest — permanently.