A year ago, Budda Baker and Sidney Jones were still high school seniors, attending classes and training for their upcoming football careers at the University of Washington.
Now, they’re two of the most experienced returning starters on a Huskies defense that must replace three All-Americans (Danny Shelton, Hau’oli Kikaha and Shaq Thompson) and another potential first-round NFL draft pick (Marcus Peters).
In fact, Baker, a sophomore free safety, and Jones, a sophomore cornerback, were the only two players working with UW’s No. 1 defense during Wednesday’s practice who started more than four games last season.
That’s partially because other more frequent starters, such as junior safety Kevin King and linebacker Travis Feeney, are limited due to injury. But the fact that Baker and Jones stand out as old-timers in any group speaks to just how different UW’s defense is going to look in 2015.
“We’re the veterans right now,” Jones said. “We have a couple injured guys, too, so we can’t wait to get them back as well.”
Six of the players who comprised UW’s starting front seven last season are gone. So too is star cornerback Peters, who was dismissed from the team before last season ended. And junior John Ross III, who started the final three games of the season at cornerback, is playing receiver again.
So Baker, who started all 14 games last season, and Jones, who started 12, don’t look much like rookies anymore.
They did last year, at least in the beginning. It took a while for UW’s young secondary, which featured a pair of freshmen and a sophomore, to adapt to full-time duty at the college level. There were growing pains, such as then-Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams’ 475-yard, seven-touchdown performance in the second game of the season.
But all that playing time is coming in handy now, especially for Baker and Jones, who typically line up on the same side of the field.
“It was real big for us, because now we’re the captains out there of the defense, practically, for the DBs,” Baker said. “Me and him, we’re on the same side, so we get on each other when we make mistakes, and we get on each other and have a great time when we do good. It’s just real fun working with Sid.”
Baker said that last season, “I was thinking too much. Being a freshman, you think too much, and you really don’t want to let the upperclassmen down.”
This year, he said, he’s trying to work on his vision, and said he’s up to 178 pounds after finishing last season at 168. The 5-foot-10 former Bellevue High star played more snaps than any Husky as a true freshman in 2014, starting at free safety from Day One, playing special teams and finishing the year with 80 tackles and an interception in 14 games. Those efforts led some outlets to select him as a freshman All-American.
Jones stepped into the starting lineup after redshirt freshman Jermaine Kelly suffered a season-ending ankle injury during practice prior to UW’s third game of the season. His breakout game came in UW’s 27-26 loss at Arizona, in which Jones snagged the first two interceptions of his collegiate career.
Both players have caught an interception during UW’s first two practices of the spring. On Wednesday, Jones picked off the first pass thrown by quarterback K.J. Carta-Samuels during a one-on-one drill, and nearly had another interception when he knocked away a Carta-Samuels pass that didn’t quite make it to its intended target on the far sideline.
For this reason, the soft-spoken Jones hedged when evaluating what was otherwise a strong practice.
“Wish I could have caught the ball,” he said. “Got to finish.”
Without King, safeties Trevor Walker and Brandon Beaver, and cornerback Jermaine Kelly — all of whom are limited by injury and not participating in practice — the Huskies’ first-string secondary has featured sophomore Darren Gardenhire at cornerback with Jones and fifth-year senior Brian Clay at safety with Baker.
“We’re all still young,” Baker said. “We’re all still learning. Right now, we’ve just got to come together as a team and as a defense.”