Starting for the second straight game in place of the injured Dante Booker against Oklahoma on Sept. 17, 2016, Ohio State then-sophomore linebacker Jerome Baker burst into the national spotlight.
His seven tackles, 1.5 sacks and interception returned for a touchdown against Heisman Trophy candidate Baker Mayfield was just the beginning of a season in which he finished second on the team in tackles and tackles for loss and legitimized himself as potentially Ohio State’s next great linebacker.
But Baker said he wasn’t where he was supposed to be positioned most of the time.
“I made a lot of mistakes last year,” Baker said. “A lot of it, I just made up for it with my speed and everything.”
Baker said he spent most of his offseason learning the defensive playbook from cover to cover. He added that actually understanding where he’s supposed to be will significantly help him better cover his assignments in a linebacker corps that’s capable of being one of the best in the country with Baker, redshirt junior Dante Booker and redshirt senior captain Chris Worley.
So after a season of 83 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, just how good can Baker be?
“It’s helped me grow a lot, and it also makes me realize I can be way better than I was last year,” Baker said. “That kind of just pushes me. I can do better than I did last year and I think I had a pretty good year last year.”
Speed is what made Baker a fearsome force at the weak-side linebacker position. In several third-down situations last season against opponents like Wisconsin and Michigan, Baker would stand right behind the nose guard and blitz through the A-gap or spy the quarterback. He showed sideline-to-sideline speed rarely seen in a college linebacker.
When watching film of Baker, the casual observer likely won’t recognize Baker was out of position, which is mostly due to the speed of the junior from Benedictine High School in Cleveland. Linebackers coach Bill Davis said Baker’s defensive IQ will put his play in a category of its own.
“He wasn’t sure (of his alignment), he got right in between the two alignments and they hedged their bet. He’s in a whole different place now,” Davis said. “He has one of the highest football IQs that I’ve been around and you tell him once, he understands it.”
As a second-year player thrusted into a starting role in Game 2, Baker wasn’t allotted time to dive into the playbook. He relied on instinct and his speed. Fortunately for Ohio State, the majority of the players it recruits have that instinct and speed out of high school, which makes them capable of contributing without specifically knowing the schematics.
“You can take a slower body that has a clear mind, it looks like it’s going faster because he’s going without wasting anything,” Davis said. “When you take a Jerome Baker speed, and you get him understanding, then you really have something.”
Baker, named a preseason first-team All-American by Sports Illustrated, has already been appearing on early NFL mock drafts and could be one more season like 2016 away from being a high-round NFL pick. With his increased IQ, Baker said last season wasn’t close to his full potential.
“Personally, I know that last year was just scratching the surface so it just drives me to do more,” he said. “It’s no pressure with me. You just have to do your job.”