As the Washington Huskies’ starting free safety for the entire 2014 season — and as a key special-teams player — Budda Baker has as much responsibility as anyone on the UW team.
There is empirical evidence to support that claim: In mid-November, defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said the true freshman from Bellevue High School was leading the team in total snaps played.
On Saturday, Baker added yet another duty to his repertoire: speaking to the press.
Like many coaches, the Huskies’ Chris Petersen restricts freshmen from speaking with reporters until they at least play a significant role on the team. Baker, who started every game as a true freshman and ranks third on the team with 76 tackles, was finally permitted to participate in media interviews after UW’s late-morning practice.
It’s been an up-and-down season for Baker, though a mostly encouraging one. He was named UW’s co-freshman of the year along with cornerback Sidney Jones, and drew frequent praise from coaches all season as one of the Huskies’ hardest workers.
His name has also appeared on a couple of freshman All-America teams. The websites Sports On Earth and Scout.com each included him among their all-freshman selections.
But he admitted to some growing pains early in the season, particularly in UW’s 59-52 victory over Eastern Washington in which Eagles quarterback Vernon Adams passed for 475 yards and seven touchdowns.
“They had a great QB,” said Baker, who was a four-star recruit and the gem of Petersen’s first signing class. “I don’t know how he’s at Eastern — no (offense) to Eastern. He’s a great QB and their receivers had great chemistry. That was probably the starting point. We just got a lot of deep balls caught on us, Coach Lake getting at us. But we won the game, and that’s all that matters.”
Baker said he was “a little startled” in the early going, despite winning the starting free safety job in fall camp.
“Back then, I knew all the calls but I wasn’t really yelling them,” he said. “I was being indecisive. Now it’s just playing. I’m just playing. I get the call, I relay it to the linebackers and the corner(back), and then I just play. So it’s a lot better.”
The highlight of his season, Baker said, was UW’s performance in its last game against Washington State, a 31-13 victory in which the Huskies kept the Cougars out of the end zone until the fourth quarter. WSU quarterback Luke Falk completed 27 of 49 passes for 355 yards but threw two interceptions and was sacked four times.
Baker finished that game with seven tackles and a key forced fumble that led to a touchdown.
“It’s crazy,” Baker said, comparing that game with others earlier in the year. “I feel like back then, we wouldn’t have done (any) of the stuff we did at Wazzu. I feel like we’re just getting way better and it’s a matter of this last game, the offseason, how hard we work for the next year.”
John Ross, who snagged his first interception after switching from receiver to cornerback for the regular-season finale, said he felt the Apple Cup was the best he’s played as a defender.
“Playing alongside those guys in the back, it’s just really fun,” he said. “I really had fun. It wasn’t just about, ‘This is what I need to do.’ It was more fun than anything, and I really had a good time.”
Baker is the only member of UW’s starting secondary without an interception this season – Ross and Kevin King each got on the board in the Apple Cup – and that’s something Lake still teases him about.
He does, however, rank third on the team in pass breakups with six, and is tied for third with six passes defended.
And he hinted that he might be willing to expand his role in 2015.
Asked if the two-way talents of Ross and Shaq Thompson, this season’s Paul Hornung Award winner for the nation’s most versatile player, made him want to play some offense, Baker replied: “Most definitely. We’ll see about it next year.”