Jaylen Thao-Booth almost gave up football.
The 2022 Merced High School graduate wanted to focus on his academics.
Merced College head coach Justin Pinasco, however, thought Thao-Booth had more football left in him and convinced the defensive end to give junior college football a shot.
All Thao-Booth did was dominate as a freshman, leading the California Community College Athletic Association with 17.5 sacks last season en route to earning All-America honors.
Thao-Booth has since gotten bigger and stronger.
Having added 25 pounds this offseason, the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Thao-Booth might be a more imposing force for opposing offense to deal with this year. Merced College opens its season at 1 p.m. Saturday against College of the Redwoods in Eureka.
“Booth is genuinely such a good person,” said Pinasco, who led the Blue Devils to an 8-3 record in his first season as head coach last year. “He’s kind of goofy, but that’s what makes it fun. Everyone loves Booth.
“Once he got on the football field, you can just tell he’s special. He just gets football, he’s really smart.”
It didn’t take much convincing from Pinasco to get Thao-Booth to play.
The Blue Devils star said the opportunity to play with so many players he grew up playing with and against was too much to pass up.
“It’s fun competing against them every day and see what drives them day to day,” Thao-Booth said.
The state’s reigning sack leader will help anchor a talented defense that also includes All-State defensive back Jeremiah Robinson, who finished second in the state with seven interceptions last year.
Joining Thao-Booth on the defensive line will be sophomore defensive tackle Samari Russo.
“I think we have some monsters up front,” Pinasco said. “Booth is a returning All-American, we have another All-State returner in Robinson. Samari Russo could be the best out of all of them. We’ve got a lot to be excited about.“
Sophomore Luke Anderson is making the change from fullback to the defensive line and Arnold Djanie returns after spending last year at Wagner College in New York.
The secondary should be strong with Robinson, Alfonso Gary and safety Eleazar Garza, who makes the move from quarterback at Golden Valley High School.
“I like the pressure we’re going to be able to apply on teams,” Pinasco said.
The Blue Devils offense relied on a heavy run game last year, led by Justin Incaprera. Pinasco feels the offense will be more balanced this season with receivers like Escalon’s Owen Nash and Golden Valley’s Delbert Davis.
Hudson Wyatt (Manteca High) opens up the season as the starter. The Blue Devils have depth at running back with players like Jabari Phillips (Golden Valley) and sophomores Gemini Lopez (Le Grand) and Malachy Hearts (El Capitan).
The Blue Devils will have a lot of new faces on the offensive line and will count on sophomore Damian Sainz (Los Banos) for leadership.
“I don’t see us doing what we did last year with just the ground and pound,” Pinasco said. “We have some speed and athleticism at the skill positions.”
After putting in so many days on the practice field and hours in the weight room the season is finally here for the players.
They can’t wait to get started.
“I’m excited to see some of these guys get their first taste of college football,” Thao-Booth said.
Merced College Schedule
Sept. 2 at Redwoods
Sept. 9 vs Foothill
Sept. 16 at Los Medanos
Sept. 30 at Hartnell
Oct. 7 vs Cabrillo
Oct. 14 at San Jose
Oct. 21 vs De Anza
Nov. 4 vs Gavilan
Nov. 11 at West Hills (Coalinga)
Nov. 18 vs Monterey