Malik Hooker playing for late family members

Ohio State’s Malik Hooker speaks at a Fiesta Bowl press conference on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016, at the Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, Ariz. David Jablonski/Staff
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Ohio State’s Malik Hooker speaks at a Fiesta Bowl press conference on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016, at the Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, Ariz. David Jablonski/Staff

Ohio State Buckeyes safey honors cousins with his play

Malik Hooker has emerged as one of the many breakout stars for the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2016 — and probably the biggest — and the redshirt sophomore safety is playing for more than the opportunity to improve his NFL draft stock.

Hooker revealed Thursday on Fiesta Bowl Media Day tragedy has inspired him to lift his play. His cousin Victor Ward, 26, was shot and killed May 2 in New Castle, Pa. Another cousin, Delonte Searcy, died in a car accident on Jan. 2, 2009, at 18.

Hooker said he dedicates everything he does to them and thinks about them whenever he’s playing.

“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here,” Hooker said.

Hooker has done his late relatives and his whole family proud. He was one of Ohio State’s four unanimous All-Americans along with offensive linemen Pat Elflein and Billy Price and hybrid back Curtis Samuel.

Hooker broke a 43-year-old school record with three interceptions returned for a touchdown. Neal Colzie scored on two interception returns in 1973. Hooker’s three returns also gives him Ohio State’s career record. Nine players had returned two interceptions for scores in their careers.

“It’s just a humbling thing,” Hooker said. “Especially for me to be able to do it the way I’m doing. I just give credit to God mostly because I couldn’t I couldn’t do anything without him. I feel like (his late cousins) are out there with me, too.”

Hooker has paid tribute to his cousins on Instragram posts. On captions, he writes, “RIPVIC” and “RIPLONT.” Thousands of people know their names now because his followers have grown from 10,000 to 35,000 as his career has taken off this season.

Hooker could play a big part in the Fiesta Bowl when No. 3 Ohio State (11-1) plays No. 2 Clemson (12-1) at 7 p.m. Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson has thrown 15 interceptions this season. That should make Ohio State’s secondary salivate.

Ohio State ranks fourth in the nation with 19 interceptions. It has returned six of them for touchdowns.

“We haven’t really paid attention to how many turnovers he’s had this year,” Hooker said, “because we know he’s still a Heisman-candidate quarterback and one of the better players in college football. So really that doesn’t really mean too many things. At any given moment, he can go out and make a play for his team.”

After the season, Hooker faces a decision about the NFL. He has played well enough to put himself into consideration for the first round but has said he will return to Ohio State. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t change his mind.

“Honestly I haven’t been thinking about that,” Hooker said. “I said I was coming back, just simply so everybody knows that I’m not really looking at that decision right now. So I’ll probably sit down and talk with my family maybe after the season, sit down and talk to my coaches, and we’ll go from there.”