NEW CASTLE —
Talk about a whirlwind year.
Just 12 months ago, Malik Hooker was an unknown junior suiting up in a New Castle High football uniform for the first time. Today, his unlikely, meteoric rise finds him, not only as one of the state’s premier prospects, but perhaps one of the top in the nation.
Hooker woke up following last football season to find schools like Pitt, Michigan and Penn State and Ohio State beating down his door. He brought the intense recruiting process to an end in July when he gave a verbal commitment to play for the Buckeyes and coach Urban Meyer.
Now, the 6-foot-3, 190-pounder is focused on enjoying his final season with the Red Hurricane. And he wants to help the team make the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs after it fell short of the postseason by one game last year.
“Going into my senior year, I feel very good about myself and my team also. We put a lot of hard work in after what happened last season. That pushed us every day to go harder and harder, so I feel very good,” he said. “Last year, we were all young guys. We know we definitely can do it.”
Hooker, a rising basketball star, played football in junior high. Once he got to the high school level, he just decided to focus on hoops. It’s tough to criticize that choice as he helped New Castle go 56-2 and win WPIAL championships the past two seasons. This winter, he will be among the WPIAL’s top players again.
After years of “friendly” urging from his classmates and fellow basketball teammates Drew Allen, Stew Allen, Jake McPhatter and Levar Ware, among others, he finally gave in and decided to play football last season. It turned out to be one of the biggest decisions he’s made in his young life.
“Every day they’d just bug me over and over to play and I thought, ‘Why not?’ I was kind of nervous because I hadn’t been on the field in so long,” Hooker said. “After the first game, I thought, ‘Maybe I can get used to doing this?’ I am always going to love basketball. It has always been my first love. But, football is kind of the thing for me right now. It’s making my future right now.”
New Castle head coach Joe Cowart always tried to convince Hooker to give football a try.
“I am like that with a lot of kids that are walking our hallways,” he said. “I have conversations all the time about trying to get guys to get here and put the work in. It’s easy to say they’ll come do it, but to put in the work and being a taskmaster and getting better at your technique and all those things, Malik has done that. He’s put the work in to correspond to all the ability he has.”
Hooker did not shatter any records with his statistics. He had 13 catches for 333 yards and carried the ball 27 times for 257 yards. However, it was his display of athleticism, agility and breakaway speed that sent recruiters to New Castle in droves.
“Malik Hooker has played nine varsity football games. He’s signed a letter of intent to play at Ohio State, which is one of the best programs in the country. There’s no accident to that. They don’t swing and miss at Ohio State,” Cowart said. “He received so much attention in the spring that there were times where I wondered if maybe some of these coaches were wrong. But his summer and his winter and all the work he has put in have verified all the attention he’s received. He’s proven they were correct. He’s been able to be humble and he continues to get better at his craft.”
Hooker admits he was surprised to realize his potential in football.
“I was just another original kid playing football. I didn’t know too much,” he said. “It’s actually crazy, to be honest. There are not a lot of kids who play football for a year and get a lot of the big-time offers I got. It makes me feel real good going to Ohio State. They went undefeated last year. I am coming from a little city like New Castle and going to a program where they compete for championships year in and year out. It’s just a great thing. I just picked what I thought was best for me and my family.”
Hooker used his natural ability to wow people last year. Now, he has developed a “feel” for the game.
“I learned a lot of little things that’ll make me 20 times better,” he said. “Coming into this year, it’s going to be different. Last year, I really didn’t know what I was doing so I just did what the coaches told me to do. This year, I am coming out here and can lead the guys in what the coaches want us to do. I can go out there and know what to expect. It’s like you’ve been there and done that over and over already. You just go out there and pretty much do your thing.”
Cowart is thrilled with Hooker’s ascension up the recruiting charts. He knows his senior is not satisfied, though.
“His rise has been meteoric. He has All-American tools. He has a skill set that is unlike that of any kid you see all the time. That was evident in the winter and the spring when the recruiters came in,” Cowart said. “He’s the total package. He’s humble and he works his tail off in the classroom and he has a unique skill set to warrant all the attention he’s received. It’s appropriate attention because he has the tools and he continues to work at it because he is a raw talent. He could get better, which is scary.
“As good as he was as a junior, he was so wet behind the ears. Now, he is more comfortable with the ball in his hands; he is more comfortable without the ball in his hands. He’s definitely gotten better from last year to now.”
Hooker is happy with his progression.
“I can’t complain. There’s always time to make yourself better, regardless of how good you are,” he said. “Coming into the season, I am expecting my teammates to give me their all and I am going to give them my all. There’s nothing less than that.”
Hooker is listed as a wide receiver and free safety. However, you might be able to list him as “everywhere” on the field. He can do it all.
“I am going to be all over the place,” he said with a smile. “It’s a hard decision what I like best because I like scoring touchdowns, but I like getting an interception for a touchdown.”
Cowart just wants Hooker to be near the ball on both offense and defense as much as possible.
“He is pretty good at both of them. A guy with that type of talent, which I have no reference point to because I never had that type of talent, he is really special when the football is in his hands,” he said. “But he has also been a really good student of the game on the defensive side. He has the tools to do them both. For us, we are going to try to figure out ways to keep him near the ball on defense and get the ball into his hands a bunch on offense and special teams.”
Hooker will face increasing pressure from opponents this fall. He won’t take any teams by surprise.
Regardless, Cowart believes Hooker will thrive since the ’Canes have a bevy of talent and speed all over the field, which makes it tough for teams to focus on just one player.
“Historically, at least from the small amount of game time I have been around him, when the competition rises, he is the type of kid who steps his game up to the competition,” Cowart said. “He will be the focal point of everybody’s game plan. We know that as a staff and we have to figure out ways to get him the ball even though people are keying in on him. Then, also find ways to use him as a decoy and get the group around him, which is tremendous, involved. Take Malik away from our team and we still have a great group of skill guys. So, finding ways to get everybody the ball, while using him as a decoy — it’s a fun problem to have.”
Hooker’s goal for this year is making the playoffs after New Castle could do no better than 3-5 in the conference and 4-5 overall last fall. He is not concerned about personal statistics.
“After coming off what our record was last year, you just want to take it step by step. You want to win your section and then make the playoffs and win the WPIAL and a state championship. But, right now, we’re just worried about Central Valley and nothing else,” he said. “This year is going to be my last time playing at Taggart Stadium, so I want to make the best of it. You can never get these times back.”
Cowart is excited to see how much progress his team has made.
“Can we get better and compete at a high level? Because we aren’t yet. Our record is what it is. We were a 4-5 team with basically the same crowd,” he said. “How much better did we get with a great offseason? How much better are we going to be from that junior year to senior year because it’s always a big step? We’ll see come the first game against a really good football team.”
NEW CASTLE —
Talk about a whirlwind year.
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