Considering how often he wasn’t starting from the right place, Jerome Baker still seemed to arrive at the right time last season, occasionally with spectacular flair.
That’s why the Ohio State junior linebacker has racked up preseason honors, including being named this week to the Sports Illustrated preseason All-America team along with center Billy Price.
Baker knows he can be better than last year because he knows more about what he’s doing at the weak-side linebacker spot.
“I made a lot of mistakes last year, and a lot of it I just made up for it with my speed and everything,” Baker said. “I got into the playbook, got into really learning the Will position.”
Here’s the kicker about last year, though.
“I lined up wrong most of the time,” Baker said, smiling. “People who watch it on TV don’t notice it, but watching the film, I lined up wrong pretty much all the time.”
He didn’t mean facing backward or being on the wrong side of the formation. Instead, he was positioning himself a yard or so off where he was supposed to be to cover a gap on a run play or to drop into the right spot in pass coverage.
Baker first gained notice in the 2016 spring game when he made a one-handed interception. During the season, he usually flashed to the point of attack, finishing second on the team in tackles. He had 9.5 for a loss and 3.5 sacks. He intercepted a tipped pass and returned it for a touchdown at Oklahoma and made a leaping interception that thwarted a Michigan drive when Ohio State was trailing by 10 before rallying to win.
But linebackers coach Bill Davis noticed the mistakes while serving as a quality control coach for the defense last season. One of Davis’ missions is fixing what often was wrong with Baker before the snap.
“He wasn’t sure, so he’d get right in between the two alignments he was supposed to have and hedge the bet,” Davis said.
Such antics betrayed one of Baker’s strengths, according to Davis, reinforced by Baker’s play in preseason camp this month.
“He’s in a whole different place now; he has one of the highest football IQs I’ve been around,” Davis said. “You tell him once, he gets it. He understands. He plays multiple positions in base, nickel and all the packages we have.”
All of which has Baker pondering the immediate future.
“It kind of just pushes me (to think) that I can do better than what I did last year," he said. "I think I had a pretty good year last year.”