Louisiana Tech redshirt junior outside linebacker Willie Baker describes what it’s been like changing positions in the defense.
Cory Diaz, email@example.com
RUSTON – There’s star power throughout Louisiana Tech’s defense with the likes of junior cornerback Amik Robertson, senior safety L’Jarius Sneed, linebacker duo Collin Scott and Connor Taylor roaming the field. Rising redshirt junior Willie Baker no doubt played his way into that category, especially after his standout performance in the Hawaii Bowl last December.
But this offseason, no other star on the Bulldogs defense has seen their role increase as much as Baker, tilting the hand that he arguably could be the most important player on that side of the ball.
“Willie is an energy, he’s a leader,” Tech head football coach Skip Holtz said. “He’s a junior, but I’d say he’s one of the more vocal leaders we have on this football team.
“I think the role he’s going to play on the field is going to be bigger with the team than it’s going to be as an individual.”
In new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s new 3-4 base scheme, Baker has shifted from the textbook defensive end position to an outside Jack linebacker/defensive end hybrid position where he’ll move all over the formation, lining up in his natural three-down technique on the line but also playing off the line, increasing responsibilities in pass coverage. Louisiana Tech based out of a 4-3 the last couple of seasons under former DC Blake Baker, now at Miami.
Before the shift in the spring when Diaco came in and began installing the three-man front, Baker said the last time he covered either tight ends or backs in the flats was his sophomore year at Livonia High School and he did it for one game.
While there’s been a learning curve, defensive coaches have raved about Baker’s performance in fall camp and for him, the switch has been the ideal move.
“Honestly, I really think it was the best thing for me,” Baker said. “It’s made me a lot more versatile as far as coverage and also pass rushing. You never know what’s coming. I’ll line up, look like I’m rushing and I’ll drop. Then it’ll look like I’m dropping and I’m rushing from deep. I think it was the best thing for me.”
Baker, who’s listed at the same weight as he played at in 2018 at 251, worked over the offseason to get leaner so he’d be better prepared for the role.
“I really had to. I weigh the same, I just got a lot more leaner. I had to lean myself out,” Baker said. “Covering guys, it’s different when you’re covering somebody that’s real short and faster than you. I got to stay low, maintain the same speed and play a little faster. I had to put a lot of extra work in to make myself fit this position.”
“He’s done a great job of accepting his role,” Holtz added. “It’s much more involved than it’s been in the past where it’s just put your hand down and come off the edge.”
In obvious passing situations and in disguise, Tech will continue to utilize Baker’s strength of rushing the quarterback. Facing a mobile signal caller in Texas’ Sam Ehlinger in the opener as well as plethora of other solid quarterbacks in Conference USA, his ability to do so will be a key component for the defense.
But this season, Diaco wants to tap into Baker versatility.
“He’s going to play a lot of same position he played last year, coming off the edge. One of his strengths is the way he can rush the passer. We’re going to continue to utilize that. But I think he gives us some versatility to do a lot of different things in coach Diaco’s defense,” Holtz said. “He’s that versatile, do everything Superman, rush the passer, drop and play coverage. He wears a lot of different hats. More importantly, the role of Willie Baker is as a leader of the defensive football team and a real energy bunny to keep things going.”
Seeing a role increase at defensive end last season, Baker had 33 total tackles including 11.5 tackles-for-loss and seven sacks, four of those coming in Tech’s 31-14 victory over Hawaii in the bowl game to close out 2018, a coming out party for him. Playing behind NCAA career sack leader Jaylon Ferguson, there was no greater teacher for the evolution of the redshirt junior’s game.
“That was a big game for me. It was so hyped up behind Jaylon, breaking the sack record and he did that. Every day, I tried to compete with him,” Baker said. “I’m playing right there behind him, watching what he’s doing. I’m trying to perfect my craft and watching him perfect his at the same time every day helped me out a lot.”
Baker is expected to be the next big-time player for Louisiana Tech’s star-studded defense, especially at his new position. But the key, Holtz said, is him not trying to be the next Ferguson, the guy who taught him so much over the past couple of seasons.
Tech just wants Baker to be Baker.
“We got to make sure Willie plays within the defense and himself. If he does that, I think great things are on the horizon for Willie Baker,” Holtz said. “I think he’ll be one of the difference makers we have on defense as long as he doesn’t try to be a difference maker.
“We’re not asking Willie Baker to become ‘Sack Daddy,’ we’re not asking him to play that role. We’re not asking him to be the next Jaylon Ferguson. We’re asking him to be the best Willie Baker he can be. And we think that can be pretty good.”
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