A year ago, Jerome Baker was on the outside looking in for a starting linebacker spot for Ohio State.
Now, even after a season in which he made some spectacular, game-changing plays and was one of 12 semifinalists for the Butkus Award, Baker approaches the 2017 season with the same attitude.
“Same thing,” the junior said of his mindset on Tuesday after the third day of spring practice. “Get the whole linebacker room better. I still play as (if) I’m not a starter.”
The Buckeyes have more depth at linebacker than ever before in Urban Meyer’s tenure, but Baker figures to be pretty secure at the strong-side spot. Chris Worley has moved to middle linebacker, succeeding Raekwon McMillan, and Dante Booker is penciled in on the weak side.
Baker was behind Booker at the start of the 2016 season, but Booker injured his knee in the opener. Baker replaced him and played so well that when Booker became available after a longer-than-expected recovery, the Buckeyes decided to have Booker take a medical redshirt.
It’s not as if Baker’s emergence was a revelation. The Cleveland native was a highly prized recruit who flipped from Florida. In last year’s spring game, he made a leaping, one-handed interception that heralded him as a potential star.
Baker came up big in some of Ohio State’s biggest games. He returned an interception for a touchdown against Oklahoma. Against Michigan, he had a pivotal interception.
Baker finished with 83 tackles last year, second behind McMillan. Now he knows more is expected, on and off the field.
“Last year in the beginning I was a young guy, learning from Raekwon, learning from Worley, learning from (Booker),” he said. “This year it’s only Worley and Book as far as looking up to. I have to lead by example for the younger guys.”
Baker’s 2016 season mirrored his team’s. Being named one of the nation’s 12 best linebackers as a first-year starter is undeniably impressive. The Buckeyes reaching the College Football Playoff with 15 other first-year starters was also a remarkable achievement.
But the 31-0 loss to Clemson lingers in Baker’s mind, as it does with all the Buckeyes.
“I got a good taste of college football with the playoff and didn’t feel I performed as well (then),” he said. “My goal is to get back there and definitely win both games.”
This year, Baker and his fellow linebackers are working with a new position coach. Longtime NFL assistant Bill Davis replaces Luke Fickell, now the coach at Cincinnati.
Given that the Buckeyes have practiced only once in pads, Davis isn’t willing to make any sweeping judgments about any players.
“Jerome is a very talented young man,” Davis said. “I think he’s got a big upside, but he’s got a lot of work in front of him, too.
“The potential is there, but potential is a very dangerous word. It has to be backed up by work, and he’s working very hard right now, so we’re excited about him.”