- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Baker's grab in the first quarter was an assertion of competitive will, savvy awareness and fantastic athleticism. Those elements had been too often lacking as a cohesive whole as the Huskies struggled to move from the middle to the top of the Pac-12's North Division since emerging from the program's worst period from 2003-08.
”We were in zone coverage," Baker recalled. "The guy was going to run a post. I saw him stem to the post, so I let him go inside of me. I was baiting it. The quarterback launched it and I got underneath it, caught it. Tried to take it back. Got caught.”
Baker embodies so much that second-year coach Chris Petersen and the Huskies need to move up in the Pac-12 pecking order. Not only is he a local product -- he starred for powerhouse Bellevue High School -- he flipped to Washington after originally committing to Oregon.
That flip was a huge moment for Washington, both in terms of gaining a touted player and gaining some psychological respite. Huskies fans will tell you there have been too many lost recruiting battles with the Ducks in recent years. Lost recruiting battles and too many lopsided losses in a bitter rivalry that a decade ago favored the Huskies.
Baker is the type of athlete Oregon's surge was built upon. He's the type of athlete the Huskies need to accumulate in significant numbers to again challenge the Ducks.
The present challenge, however, is that Baker, a true freshman starter who earned recognition as a freshman All-Ameican, already rates as a veteran on a rebuilding Huskies defense. Washington is replacing five of its top six tacklers, with Baker's 80 stops ranking fourth on the team last fall. Six members of a talented front seven, including three first-team All-Pac-12 performers, must be replaced.
A year ago, Baker was in high school. Now he's expected to be the face of the Huskies defense.
"Just be himself and take another step in his leadership," defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said about what the Huskies need from Baker. "He's a positive guy, but he needs to be more vocal. He's going to lead by example every day. Nobody is going to outwork him.
"He's got that... he's like the Energizer Bunny. He goes, goes, goes. In practice. In games. He's got a tremendous amount of talent. His demeanor and his attitude, it rubs off on other guys. He was a highly recruited guy who doesn't have that superstar mentality. A very humble guy."
Yet Baker is not the boisterous sort. While defensive backs tend to be mouthy, Baker's theme music is all cannon fire, rhythmic subwoofer blasts and shrieking guitars with no lyrics.
“I’m going to be a leader, but I don’t really like talking," he said.
While Baker is talented, his freshman campaign wasn't all a celebration. As good as the veteran front seven was with Danny Shelton, Hau'oli Kikaha and Shaq Thompson, the secondary was young and thin, particularly after star cornerback Marcus Peters was kicked off the team. Baker and company yielded 26 touchdown passes and ranked eighth in the conference in pass efficiency defense.
“I didn’t want to let the upperclassmen down," Baker said. "When I messed up on a play, I’d get down on myself. Now I know you that when make mistakes you’ve got to get on to the next play and have fun.”
Baker said he was often "thinking too much" early last season and opponents exploited that. The interception in the bowl game showed a football mind now syncing well for a gifted athlete. You could say this Budda became mindful and awakened.
Now he and the Huskies young secondary expect to lead instead of follow.
Said Baker, “I think we’re going to be the strength now."
Baker had a solid first season as a true freshman, but he's one of the few returners on the Washington Huskies defense.