Ohio State junior linebacker Jerome Baker first came on the scene as a sophomore in the 2016 annual spring game where he lept and intercepted a ball, fully extended, with one hand. That was just a glimpse of Baker’s potential.
In 2016, after now-redshirt junior linebacker Dante Booker went down with a sprained MCL in the first game of the season, Baker’s true talent showed in his ascension to becoming an integral part of the Buckeyes’ defense.
Playing alongside eventual 2017 NFL Draft pick Raekwon McMillan, it’s not hard to see how Baker flew under the radar as a playmaker on the defense. But when considering Baker finished second on the team in tackles (83) and tackles for loss (9.5), and had 3.5 sacks, a fumble recovery and two interceptions, including a touchdown, Baker is perhaps the most talented returning player on the defense.
“I just took advantage of the opportunity I was given,” Baker said. “It’s funny how it worked out, but, like coach (Urban) Meyer said, there’s so many examples of guys who went down, and guys came up and got their shot and took advantage of it. I’m just happy I was one of those guys. This year is definitely the same: Just take advantage of the opportunity I’ve given, and make the best out of it.”
After his upstart sophomore campaign, Baker is guaranteed a spot in the starting 11. Last year, he was competing with Booker for the SAM (strong side) linebacker position. In spring practice ahead of the 2017 season, he said his approach remains the same.
“Same thing. Get the whole linebacker room better,” Baker said. “I still play (like) I’m not a starter or anything like that. It’s the same mindset. It’s go hard, make everyone better and help our team win.”
The OSU defense is undergoing a transition from 2016 to 2017. Defensive backs Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Malik Hooker are off to the NFL, along with the aforementioned McMillan. Coming in is a new group of cornerbacks and a new safety who are responsible for replacing the production that led OSU to its No. 6 ranking in total defense.
Another change is in the defensive coaching staff. Bill Davis has assumed the duties of linebackers coach from Luke Fickell, who is the head coach at the University of Cincinnati.
Davis currently has Booker practicing at the SAM linebacker position, while Baker has moved over to the WILL (weak side) and redshirt senior linebacker Chris Worley — the other returning starter at linebacker — will play Mike (middle) linebacker. Baker said that Davis is making sure all the linebackers know how to play each position. To have that knowledge of each position takes playing experience and potential, both of which Davis values in Baker.
“Jerome’s a very talented young man and I think he’s got a big upside,” Davis said. “But again, he’s got a lot of work in front of him too. The potential is there, but potential is a very dangerous word. It’s got to be backed up by work, and he’s working hard right now.”
As a first-year starter and a sophomore last season, Baker was lucky enough to play with players who already had significant playing experience in Worley and McMillan. Baker said that even Booker was a big influence on him from the sidelines.
“Even when Book was out, he still helped me out. He still helped the guys out,” he said. “Nothing really changed as far as his mind. It’s Book.”
With the amount of players returning, the linebackers and the defensive line are expected to be the stronghold of the Silver Bullets. Nonetheless, Baker’s role as a leader on the gridiron and in the locker room is expected to expand into becoming the teacher instead of the disciple.
“Last year, in the beginning, I was a young guy, learning from Raekwon, learning from Worley, learning from Book,” Baker said. “And this year, it’s only Worley and Book. As far as looking up to, I have to try and lead by example for the younger guys. That’s the one thing that really changed. You gotta lead by example. And just try to continue to do the right thing.”