BELLEVUE — Bishard “Budda” Baker never solved a game of “Wheel of Fortune” so easily.
The talented Bellevue High School junior recently tore open an envelope addressed from UCLA. Except this had a different recruiting approach – not the usual what-would-make-this-football-marriage-work pitch.
The only item inside the envelope was a picture of the game show “Wheel of Fortune” – with an unsolved phrase listed in the center frame and a category named at the bottom.
The category: “UCLA All-American.”
The phrase: “BUDD_ B_KER.”
Baker looked at the picture and laughed. Then he carried it into his bedroom and placed it on top of the 4-foot stack of recruiting letters piled on a pair of shoe boxes against a wall.
“But that one was the most (unusual),” Baker said. “I thought it was pretty funny.”
Recruiting messages and friend requests on his Facebook account have been equally numerous and dealing with them is time-consuming. He has saved one message in particular, from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.
Baker, a defensive back and running back for the Bellevue Wolverines, estimates he has fielded more than 30 college offers. Most are from Pacific-12 Conference programs, but schools such as Boise State, Purdue and national championship contender Notre Dame have reached out as well.
Even reigning national champion Alabama is showing interest.
“There is no doubt in my mind he will be the top recruit in the Northwest,” said Mason Kelley, a writer for ESPN’s HuskyNation recruiting blog. “That’s not even debatable. He is just that good.”
“We already have him as one of the top-ranked players on the West Coast,” said Brandon Huffman, a national recruiting analyst for Scout.com, which ranks Baker as the ninth-best cornerback prospect in the 2014 class – and the 40th-ranked recruit overall. “That includes states such as California, Colorado and as far as Hawaii. I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns into a blue-chip prospect by this time next year.”
Analysts compare Baker to Oregon running back De’Anthony Thomas for his ability to make clutch game-changing plays.
Baker first burst onto the recruiting scene his sophomore season when he returned a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown in Bellevue’s victory over O’Dea in the 2011 Class 3A state championship game.
In his finale as a junior in November, Baker ran for 71 yards and one touchdown, scored on a 61-yard punt return and snagged an interception in the Wolverines’ 35-3 win over Eastside Catholic for the 3A championship.
“When you see his explosion, his change of direction, the way he makes guys miss, then you see him on the other side of the field running guys down from free safety at the line of scrimmage – that’s not coaching,” Bellevue coach Butch Goncharoff said. “I’d love to sit here and tell you we’ve done a great job coaching the kid, but we haven’t. That is all instincts and God-given talent.
“But the thing is, he also has the work ethic to go with it. I think that is what makes him really, really special.”
Now Baker just has to apply that work ethic toward filling out his college applications. Goncharoff has been working with Baker through the recruiting process and has advised him to trim his college choices to 10-15 – harder than it sounds when hundreds of recruiters are asking to be on the list.
“I feel like some of them are kind of like used-car salesmen,” Baker said.
Baker is also working on finding a true position. He is all but a lock to be at least a return specialist in college, but also says he is trying to prove he can be a hard-hitting safety – sort of in the mold of Earl Thomas of the Seattle Seahawks,
“He just comes down and bangs (ballcarriers), and that’s what I do,” Baker said of Thomas. “I don’t really like being named a cornerback because the only reason people name me there is because I’m short (5-foot-10) and kind of small and they don’t think I’m a safety. That kind of gets me mad, but I know I’m a safety. Hopefully other people will recognize that sooner or later.”
No matter the position he wishes to play, Baker will have plenty of suitors. Goncharoff said he hasn’t had a player get this much attention as an underclassman since he coached Stephen Schilling (Chargers) and David DeCastro (Steelers), both NFL offensive linemen.
Players of that caliber get a lot of letters from schools. And, in Baker’s case, too many to fit in shoe boxes – or handle on his own.
“Sometimes I have to get Mary (Baker’s 8-year-old sister) to open them for me and throw away all the packaging,” Baker said. “She got all happy the first time I got letters, but now she’s like, ‘Ah, c’mon, Budda, do I have to?’ And I’m just like, ‘Yup.’ ”
“I imagine that by the time it hits spring, he will be able to grab a map and point to any spot he wants to go, and there will be a school with an offer for him,” Goncharoff said. “He has got a lot of work ahead of him in figuring out what he wants to do.”