He was only a freshman last season, so Budda Baker’s role on the University of Washington football team was understandably limited — limited to a whole lot of defense and a whole lot of special teams, that is. So much so that he played more total snaps than anybody else on the team.
But now that Baker is older and has a more thorough grasp of his defensive responsibilities, the talented sophomore from Bellevue might see the field even more often — and in different ways — in 2015.
During Friday morning’s practice, Baker, who started every game at free safety last season, took a few early, light snaps with the offense, and he has been working closely with coach Chris Petersen on punt return drills the past couple practices, too.
Petersen seemed especially intrigued by Baker’s potential as a punt returner, which could spark an interesting competition. Dante Pettis, another sophomore, showed promise at the position last year, returning 28 punts for 288 yards and the Huskies’ first punt-return touchdown since 2003.
But Baker’s quickness and play-making ability seems too enticing to ignore.
“Oh, yeah. We knew that in high school,” Petersen said of Baker’s return skills. “So we’ll get him more involved in that whole thing. I think he’s a dynamic guy on both sides of the ball, so he will definitely be factored into our return game.”
And if he plays some offense, too, he’ll become the third Husky in two seasons under Petersen to play both ways. All-America linebacker Shaq Thompson did it most notably last year, filling in (quite well) at tailback after injuries depleted that position. John Ross III, now a junior receiver, shifted to cornerback toward the end of last season and started UW’s final four games there.
“Budda fits right in that category, as well. And I think a couple of guys that we signed are going to fit in that category,” said Huskies defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake, likely referencing Marysville-Pilchuck star Austin Joyner and Federal Way athlete Chico McClatcher. “So it’ll be interesting how many guys we rotate back and forth on both sides of the ball.”
Baker played offense and defense as a highly touted recruit at Bellevue High School, where he also returned kicks and punts. Lake said he’s fine with the double duty because Baker’s knowledge of UW’s defense has reached a point where he can handle it.
“Not that he knows the defense inside and out,” Lake said, “but he’s way ahead of where he was last year. So now, it’s like, ‘OK, Budda, you go down to the offense for a couple periods, learn a couple of plays, then you can come back.’
“We have to utilize the talent. We all know he’s a talented football player — very, very smart, so tough and competitive. And it’s going to be fun to watch him on that side of the ball. But, for sure, they’re not going to get him full time. I know that one.”
It all comes back to Petersen’s stated goal to simply “get our best guys on the field,” which he says is what led him to insert Thompson at running back last season. It’s no easy task; in addition to practicing often enough to feel comfortable at a new position, such a transition requires extra film study and at least a cursory understanding of the offensive playbook.
“There’s so much there mentally and fundamentally and all those things,” Petersen said. “But if a guy can handle it and makes us better, we’ll obviously do it.”
“I think he can,” Petersen said. “I know he can handle a portion. We’ll see how much.”