The list of great Ohio State linebackers in the Urban Meyer era isn’t short: Ryan Shazier, Darron Lee, Joshua Perry, and Raekwon McMillan were all selected within the first four rounds of the NFL draft. Through two seasons it’s safe to say Jerome Baker is well on his way to joining them.
A consensus four-star recruit out of Benedictine high school in Cleveland, Baker made up for his smaller stature (6’1” 215 pounds) with rare athleticism and play-making ability. He was named a U.S. Army All-American and joined the Buckeyes after flipping from the Florida Gators.
Baker didn’t redshirt as a freshman and competed for a starting position as a sophomore. After a knee injury sidelined Dante Booker early in the season, Baker wasted no time making a difference on defense. He wasn’t exactly unknown (you remember when Baker channeled his inner ODB), but it was still somewhat surprising to see Baker emerge on a defense with — at least — three future first round picks.
Even more surprising than Baker’s emergence as a difference maker was the multitude of ways in which he made plays. He’s arguably the most-versatile defender Ohio State has had since Darron Lee. Baker proved capable of running sideline-to-sideline to make plays against both the run and the pass; all the while saving his finest performances for Ohio State’s toughest competition.
“I saw someone that’s not scared to put their nose in there because the box can get tricky sometimes ... We all knew Jerome could play; that wasn’t a problem. We’ve got a tremendous amount of talent on this team. That was the biggest thing, just seeing him take on all those blocks and having fun out there playing.”
— Ohio State linebacker Chris Worley
One way that offenses attempt to target undersized linebackers is by running the ball directly at them. It might seem counterproductive to run the ball at an elite defensive player, but smaller and more athletic defenders often make the bulk of their plays in pursuit when they can utilize their speed. Forcing those types of linebackers to play downhill and deal with lead blockers is one way to potentially neutralize their athleticism.
Jalyn Holmes’ walk-off sack against Wisconsin was great. You know what was also great? Baker knifing through the Badgers’ blockers to tackle Corey Clement for a loss a play earlier to force a fourth-and-goal from the five-yard line:
Baker made big plays like this all season. He’s stout enough to fill an A-gap and take on an ISO, but his ability to disrupt and finish any run to either side of the field is what makes him special.
“Very gifted guy ... Can really run, hit and cover, and do all the things you need to do. I think as a young guy, there are first-time experiences, and sometimes until you go through it, you don’t really know what it feels like. So, I think he’s going to get better and better.”
— Ohio State Defensive Coordinator Greg Schiano
Baker is a bit undersized, but valuing athleticism over size on defense usually pays dividends in one way or another. One special attribute about Baker is his ability to make plays in pass coverage — and to do something once he gets the ball in his hands:
This wasn’t the only time we saw what Baker could do with the rock. It’s not surprising to find out he had 3,065 career rushing yards in high school. In big games, Baker has made big plays.
“(Baker) has gotten better and better every week ... He’s a very talented guy.”
— Ohio State Defensive Coordinator Greg Schiano
Baker proved to be at his most disruptive when spying the quarterback. He provided a spark in Ohio State’s nickel defense during the Buckeyes’ beatdown of Oklahoma. Baker was the lynchpin of this scheme, often lining up directly behind the nose guard. Sometimes he’d blitz, but he was most effective as a quarterback spy.
Ohio State’s defensive ends are typically more than capable of containing quarterbacks on their own, but Baker was sure to clean up any situation where a quarterback was lucky enough to temporarily escape the pocket:
This type of closing speed is rare from middle linebackers and it’s one of the reasons why Baker’s name is being listed in the first round of many way-too-early 2018 mock drafts.
“To win a national championship ... That would be the best gift I could ever receive.”
Baker didn’t win a national championship his first time around, but his career-high 15 tackles against Michigan were a pretty great substitute. Ohio State was in a heated defensive battle against the Wolverines midway through the second quarter of the 2016 edition of The Game. After a Jabrill Peppers quarterback run went nowhere, Jim Harbaugh called upon his “trains” (basically a 10-man centipede) formation. It’s not so much a trick play, but more so some pre-snap movement to potentially confuse the defense.
Against Illinois, and even Wisconsin, the concept worked. Against Ohio State? Not so much:
Baker stepped up into the A-gap while the Wolverines were still stacked, but afterwards he calmly set the defense and took his position behind the nose guard. A well-executed blitz helped create confusion along the Michigan offensive line and Baker was all over Wilton Speight before he could even look downfield.
It’s not a stretch to call Baker the best player from Ohio State’s 2015 recruiting class to this point. The Buckeyes’ secondary rightfully received a ton of praise last season, and a loaded defensive line has already been dubbed as the team’s best unit this season. Don’t forget about Jerome Baker, the guy in the middle of the defense consistently making plays his team needs him the most.