Buckeye Nation was formally introduced to linebacker Jerome Baker on September 17 of last year when Ohio State took on the Sooners in Norman, Oklahoma.
On a University television show the previous week, OU backup quarterback Austin Kendall proclaimed that starting quarterback Baker Mayfield would “light up” the “basic” Buckeye defense. Jerome Baker, like the rest of the Silver Bullets, took those comments personally.
In the first quarter, with OSU already up 7-0, Mayfield had a pass tipped at the line of scrimmage by defensive end Jalyn Holmes. It was intercepted by Jerome Baker and returned for a pick six.
That game was just the beginning for Baker. A sophomore at the time, he was one of Ohio State’s breakout stars during the 2016 season. He started 12 games, compiling 83 tackles, with 9.5 tackles-for-loss, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions, and one fumble recovery.
While he proved to be battled tested last season, he also had tremendous help from All-Big Ten linebacker Raekwon McMillan. McMillan is off to the NFL, so now all eyes are on Baker to step up and help lead the Buckeye linebackers.
“Jerome is a very talented young man and he has a lot of upside, but again he’s got a lot of work in front of him too,” linebackers coach Billy Davis said back in the spring. “The potential is there, but potential is a very dangerous word. It’s got to be backed up by work, and he’s working very hard right now, so we’re excited about him.”
Davis knows how to analyze and coach talent. He’s been in the NFL since 1992, coaching under the likes of Tom Coughlin, Mike McCarthy, Bill Cowher, Dick LeBeau, and Don Shula. If Baker is going to learn from anyone, what better coach than Davis, who sees the potential in Baker and is excited to coach him throughout the 2017 season.
“I think Baker has got a huge upside,” Davis reiterated. “I think he had a great year last year. He’s a very knowledgeable football player. He’s got a high football IQ. You tell him once and he gets it, and he asks really deep questions about it. I’m very encouraged with where Jerome can go and his athleticism. He’s got a lot of position versatility. I really think I can play him at any of the positions and he’d be fine.”
Not only has Baker lost a mentor in McMillan, he also lost his coach. Former defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell left the Buckeyes at the end of last season to take the Cincinnati job, so Baker has had to adapt and learn from a new style of coaching. And while that coaching has changed, so has Baker’s role.
“Last year in the beginning I was a young guy learning from Raekwon, learning from Worley, learning from (Dante Booker),” Baker said. “This year, it’s only Worley and Book as far as who I’m looking up to. I have to try and lead by example for the young guys. That’s the one thing that really changed. You’ve got to lead by example and try to continue to do the right thing.”
Last year, working alongside McMillan and under Fickell was a tremendous learning experience. Baker and fellow linebackers — like Chris Worley — will have to take on the role of a leader on and off the field. That was a role that McMillan excelled in last year. Baker didn’t expect to become a starter last year, but he always prepared for it. This year, he expects to be a leader, and the preparation will meet the opportunity at full speed.
“I just took advantage of the opportunity I was given,” he said. “It’s funny how it worked out. Like Coach Meyer says, there’s so many examples of guys going down and guys came up and got their shot and took advantage of it. I’m just happy that I was one of those guys. This year is definitely the same. I’m going to take advantage of the opportunity I’m given and make the best out of it.”