COLUMBUS, Ohio — All things considered, Jerome Baker has quite a busy Sunday ahead of him.
Not only is he celebrating Christmas and preparing for a trip to Arizona for the College Football Playoff, but the Ohio State linebacker is also celebrating a birthday.
So what does Baker want as he turns 20?
“To win a national championship,” he said with a smile. “That would be the best gift I could ever receive.”
It’s one the true sophomore will have to help give to himself.
The Buckeyes defense will have its hands full on New Year’s Eve as third-ranked Ohio State takes on No. 2 Clemson in a Fiesta Bowl semifinal showdown. The Tigers offense not only features Heisman Trophy runner-up Deshaun Watson, but a plethora of NFL prospects in Mike Williams, Wayne Gallman and Jordan Leggett.
Fortunately for the Buckeyes, they themselves lay claim to the nation’s third-ranked scoring defense and fourth-ranked defense overall. Baker’s been a big part of that, tallying 79 tackles — 8.5 of which have come for a loss — 3.5 sacks, a fumble recovery and 2 interceptions. And he returned one of those interceptions for a touchdown.
“He’s gotten better and better every week,” Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “He’s a very talented guy.”
Those talents, however, weren’t a part of the Buckeyes’ plans at the start of the season. On the first depth chart of the season, the Cleveland native was merely the next man up.
When Ohio State took the field for its season opener against Bowling Green, juniors Chris Worley and Dante Booker flanked junior Raekwon McMillan at linebacker.
“Just to get Raekwon, Book and Worley, all the guys in the linebacker room better — that was my role,” Baker said. “If I was needed anywhere on special teams, do it. That is all I was expecting: To help the team.”
But when Booker went down with a knee injury against the Falcons, Baker’s responsibilities grew as he slid into the Buckeyes’ starting Will linebacker spot. Two weeks later, he’d get his first true “welcome to college football” moment, intercepting Heisman Trophy finalist Baker Mayfield and returning the ball 68 yards for a touchdown in Ohio State’s 45-24 win at Oklahoma.
In the same game, he also posted the first sack of his college career.
“I remember standing on the sideline,” Baker recalls now. “Raekwon and Worley, I looked at them. I was like, ‘Wait, I just caught an interception.’”
At Wisconsin — another eye-opening road trip for the 19-year-old — he recorded 13 tackles. Alongside McMillan, he was selected a semifinalist for the Butkus Award.
As the weeks carried on and Baker’s play progressed, it became clear: He wasn’t losing his starting spot anytime soon. In fact, despite being seemingly healthy enough to play by midseason, Booker wound up taking a medical redshirt on the year.
“I didn’t expect any of this, honestly,” Baker said. “It is really a blessing just to be here, doing what I love. The chance to show off my skills. Just a blessing.”
In the regular season, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound linebacker saved his best for last. In a double-overtime victory against then-No. 3 Michigan, he recorded a season-high 15 tackles, including a sack, and made his second interception of the season.
With at least one more year in his college career ahead of him, Baker’s future is as bright as any player’s on the Buckeyes defense. In 2017, he’ll resume his role as Ohio State’s starting Will linebacker.
His present isn’t too shabby, either.
As the Buckeyes prepare to face an offense chock-full of NFL talent — and perhaps No. 1 Alabama after that — they’ll once again need Baker to be at his best.
But for now, he has at least a day to relax and enjoy both his holiday and his birthday.
“I just want to be around my family and just do what I love,” he insisted. “I am not a gift person.”
In the coming weeks, however, he’s willing to make an exception. After all, 2016 has been a surprise kind of year for Ohio State’s emerging star of a linebacker.