Ohio State linebacker Jerome Baker was simply too productive last year for his season to be considered anything other than a rousing success.
It could have been a lot better, however.
After all, players are graded as much on what they did wrong as what they did right, and if they made a tackle while doing something improperly, then they get dinged for it.
And doing things properly is really the essence of what we’re talking about here.
Jerome Baker began the 2016 season as Chris Worley’s backup at the Sam linebacker. By week two, however, he was the starter at Will because of Dante Booker’s knee injury.
From the outside looking in, Baker was outstanding. He finished second on the team in tackles (83) last season and showed in his second start against Oklahoma that he was a playmaker, returning an interception 68 yards for a touchdown.
But he could have been so much better.
“I made a lot of mistakes last year,” Baker said. “I think a lot of it I just made up for it with my speed and everything, but I’ve gotten into the playbook, gotten to really learn the Will position.”
All players are hard on themselves and they all make mistakes, so maybe Baker is just exaggerating about his mistakes?
Um, not quite.
“I line up wrong most of the time,” he said of his 2016 season. “People who watch it on TV don’t notice it, but watching film you see I line up wrong pretty much all the time. So this year I’m lined up correctly. I know my gap schemes, all that, so I’m just really focusing on what I have to do. It’s helped me grow a lot and also makes me realize that I can be way better than what I was last year. That kind of just pushes me, that I can do better than I did last year. I think I had a pretty good year last year.”
Baker isn’t just pushing himself to get better based on the mistakes he made last year. He’s also pushing his teammates to learn from those mistakes. He relied on his speed and athleticism to get him by, and it worked to an extent, but he could have been even more productive last year with a better understanding of the defense and his role in it.
Student Becomes the Teacher
Ohio State is arguably as deep as they’ve ever been at linebacker. Linebackers coach Billy Davis said the Buckeyes go nine deep. He’s not just talking about bodies — he’s talking about guys who could be relied upon to be productive starters at a moment’s notice. You know, just like Jerome Baker was a year ago.
And that’s where last year’s lessons become this year’s lessons. Players saw Baker go from a backup to a starter in an instant, and they know that the same thing can happen to them. Coaches always try to prepare players for this, but if they haven’t actually seen it happen, it’s a little harder for them to buy in.
Having witnessed it just one year ago, however, this group knows what can happen because they now see Jerome Baker as a budding superstar who wasn’t even supposed to start last season.
Baker is an example of what can happen, but he’s also an example of what he doesn’t want to see happen again.
“Oh, absolutely, Jerome got up and talked to [the other linebackers],” Davis said. “He talked to a lot of them and he said, ‘Look guys, this time last year I was in a backup mindset. And all of a sudden I became a starter and I got really nervous and every day I had a knot in my gut. And I didn’t do enough to prepare.’ And he really had a strong message for all of the guys. I think they saw it. ‘What happened to Jerome may happen to me. And I’m going to be more ready than he was.’”
For Baker, it’s ‘Do as I say, not as I did.’ He was a fantastic example of why players need to be ready to step in and step up, but for teaching purposes, he is almost a cautionary tale. Not everybody is going to have the same happy ending as Baker’s tale, which is why he doesn’t want his teammates making the same mistakes that he made.
He wants them to do better and to be better.
“I tell guys all the time the reason you came here is because you have instincts, that’s why they recruit you, but it’s not going to take you that far,” Baker explained. “You have to work at what you have to do. In the long run, [playing on instinct] is going to hurt you, so I tell them that I know we’re fast, that’s one thing that we have, but we’re not going to be fast forever. If you don’t adjust now, later on it’s going to hurt you.”