COLUMBUS, Ohio — It didn’t take long to realize Ohio State had something special in Jerome Baker.
In the second start of his college career, the then-sophomore linebacker made one of the biggest plays on one of college football’s biggest stages, intercepting Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and returning the ball 68 yards for a score in the Buckeyes’ 45-24 victory over the Sooners last September.
“I remember standing on the sideline,” Baker recalled. “Raekwon [McMillan] and [Chris] Worley, I looked at them and I was like, ‘Wait, I just caught an interception.’ That was pretty good.”
Pretty good would be an understatement.
Baker’s pick-6 vs. Oklahoma would prove to be just the start of an impressive breakout campaign, in which he totaled 83 tackles — 9.5 of which came for a loss — 3.5 sacks and 2 interceptions on Ohio State’s No. 6 nationally ranked defense. In just one year, the Cleveland native transformed from sophomore surprise to one of the nation’s most highly touted defenders, with multiple draft prognosticators pegging him as a future first-round pick in 2018.
“He’s not a traditional linebacker,” ESPN.com’s Mel Kiper Jr. wrote of Baker last week. “But he’s fast, can cover pass-catchers, rush the passer and is always in the middle of the action.”
To a degree, Kiper’s right. At 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, Baker doesn’t quite possess the hulking presence you’d expect from a player with his pedigree. At some schools, he might fit in some schemes better as a safety instead of playing near the line of scrimmage.
But in Columbus, the Buckeyes have done their best to rewrite the book on what they expect from their linebackers. Long gone are the days of Andy Katzenmoyer and A.J. Hawk, instead replaced by more versatile, more athletic linebackers.
It started five years ago, with the emergence of Ryan Shazier. In 2014, the skill set of Darron Lee helped Ohio State revitalize its defense, with then-defensive coordinator Chris Ash inventing a “walkout linebacker” position to best utilize his most athletic players.
Like Baker, both Shazier and Lee were perceived to be undersized, yet consistently made play after play. Both also went on to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft — and in that regard, Baker might not be far behind, with Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller describing the junior as a “Ryan Shazier-like prospect at linebacker.”
Baker, for his part, isn’t ready to buy into his own hype.
“Get the whole linebacker room better,” he answered when asked of his opinion. “I still play [like] I’m not a starter or anything like that. It’s the same mindset. Just go hard, make everyone better and help our team win.”
But while he preaches a humble approach, there’s no avoiding Baker’s emerging star status. His versatility already is paying dividends, as Ohio State has shifted him from the Sam spot to the Will position to get its best three linebackers on the field.
After serving as an analyst for the Buckeyes in 2016, new OSU linebackers coach Bill Davis is plenty familiar with his new star player. But even as the preseason praise begins to pour in, Davis also insists there’s another level to Baker’s game.
“Jerome’s a very talented young man, and I think he’s got a big upside,” Davis said this 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 hard right now.”
With three months to go until fall camp, all indications are Baker is doing just that.
“I’m just a guy getting his job done,” he says.
If he can continue do that, it will likely lead him to another job — one that Ohio State linebackers have become accustomed to in recent years.