Highlights: Kennedy Catholic outshoots Todd Beamer in 4A NPSL Mountain tilt
Justin Baker had a breakout junior season for Kennedy Catholic High School. Playing as a slot receiver for the first time in his career, he tallied 1,034 receiving yards on 55 catches as a key target in the Lancers’ Air Raid offense.
A former longtime running back, he rushed for 287 more yards on 23 carries. And he scored 13 total touchdowns in helping pace Kennedy to the Class 4A district playoffs.
The speed he flashed while creating separation from defenders was eye-popping, and led to several breakaway scores. He even had a stellar one-handed catch down the sideline in a crucial division win over Todd Beamer.
But, as striking as last season’s film turned out — Baker opened his junior season without an FBS offer, but had eight by this spring — he is primed for an even bigger campaign as a senior.
“When you play running back, and you’re athletic and stuff, playing receiver is not too difficult,” Baker said. “But, when you play receiver in this type of offense, it’s difficult. It’s a lot to learn.
“That’s why I’m really excited about this season. Last year, I didn’t know anything yet. During the season, you don’t really teach technique and things like that, receiver-specific skills, you just game plan. … I’ve just learned a ton (in the offseason). I’m so much more confident.”
Baker, who recently committed to California primarily as a receiver, less than a year after trying out the position for the first time, was already one of the most dangerous weapons in a Lancers offense that averaged 49.7 points per game last season.
After spending an entire high school offseason, and 7-on-7 season refining his technique, he could be one of the bigger receiving threats in the state.
“He can do it all, and that’s what makes him a special player,” said junior quarterback Sam Huard, who is committed to Washington. “The work he put in to get his hands to where he wants them — he’s reliable. He catches pretty much everything.
“And, when he catches the ball, you know what he can do after that.”
Kennedy coach Sheldon Cross said swapping Baker, who is 5 feet, 10 inches and 175 pounds, from running back to receiver also made a big difference in attracting college attention. Arizona was the first Pac-12 school to offer in February, and more Power Five programs followed before Baker ultimately landed on Cal last month.
And, though Baker had to wait longer than some of his younger teammates for offers to roll in, he stayed patient, and trusted the work he was putting in, Cross said.
“Now he’s going to play for Cal, and that’s a big-time Pac-12 school, and it’s so well-deserved,” Huard said. “He didn’t get all of the attention early like some of us have, but he didn’t let that get to him.
“He stayed hungry, he kept working hard, he stayed invested in the grind and stayed true to the program. That’s his mindset, and now that he’s committed, he’s even hungrier to be better.”
Both on and off the football field. Cal was a university Baker said he was interested in before football was part of the equation, because of its prestigious business school. He’s interested in studying marketing, or perhaps accounting or finance.
“I wanted to go to a school that has really strong academics,” he said. “If I wasn’t playing football, this is where I would want to go.”
That he does get to continue his football career in Berkeley makes Baker’s next few years even more exciting.
“I got to sit down with Coach (Justin) Wilcox (when I visited),” Baker said. “For the short time I got to sit in his office and listen to him, and talk to him, he was just really sure of what he was trying to do with the program, and what they were building, and what we had the opportunity to do.”
But, before he jumps into a Cal offense looking to rise up in the coming years, Baker is set on taking Kennedy to new heights during his final high school season. The Lancers have never won a state title, but like many others, Baker believes the potential is there this season.
“I’m excited,” he said. “We’re about to do this.”