ATHENS — The deadline for Deandre Baker to make perhaps the biggest decision of his life was whittling down. One more year at Georgia, or the NFL draft. The answer was due in a little more than an hour. As Baker’s mind churned, he watched ESPN.
Almost fortuitously, a certain painful highlight came on.
The last play of the National Championship Game. Second-and-26. A decision that Baker was already leaning toward making was finalized.
“That can’t happen again,” Baker recalled thinking. “I felt like I could help my team get back to the same game.”
So Baker tweeted on Jan. 15, one hour before the deadline to declare for the NFL draft, that he was coming back. Although if second-and-26 had gone differently, the tweet might have said something else.
“Probably,” he said, smiling.
Baker, a cornerback, was on the other side of the field when Alabama tore Georgia’s heart out, beating the other side of Georgia’s secondary in stunning fashion. It wasn’t just that play, Baker emphasized — there were others that led up to it. They wouldn’t have even needed the last play if other plays had been made.
Still, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what Baker could have done differently. Other than Roquan Smith, arguably no Georgia defensive player had a stronger individual season.
Georgia lost a lot of talent to the upcoming NFL draft, including two with remaining eligibility. But Baker not making it three could very well prove huge to the 2018 Bulldogs. He gives them their best defensive back from last season, a lock-down cornerback who didn’t allow a touchdown to his receiver all of last season.
“No sir. Not at all,” Baker said, smiling proudly.
During the national title game, when Baker defended star Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley on an end-zone pass, announcer Kirk Herbstreit marveled that those were two high-level NFL prospects going after each other. Ridley did go pro, and is expected to go in the first round.
Baker is spending this spring back at Georgia, honing his game and tutoring youngsters.
So why did Baker come back? How can he have a better year?
“Just get my secondary better,” Baker said. “The guys around me they made me better because we competed in practice. So once we get the young guys up to par and get focused on the plays, and they know their assignment, and the ability to play fast, so then the opposite quarterback, he won’t know where to throw the ball at.”
It’s been a meteoric rise for Baker, who was a mere 3-star prospect when Jeremy Pruitt plucked him out of Miami, in 2015. He played sparingly as a freshman, and only off the bench for the first five games of his sophomore season.
But during the Ole Miss game that year, Baker was inserted into the starting lineup, and he’s held his spot ever since.
“He’s a hard worker at all times,” said Georgia inside linebacker Juwan Taylor, a fellow south Florida native and fellow senior. “On and off the field, he’s a great person. I feel like he’s going to be at his best this year.”
If there is something to improve upon, it may be name recognition. Despite his strong season, Baker was only named second-team All-SEC by coaches.
But Baker insisted his return was less about his own stock and more about his team.
“It was all around, scattered between the first and the third round,” Baker said of his NFL draft projections. “I wanted to come back and do something great with my teammates.”
Last year was pretty great, though.
“But we fell short,” Baker said. “So I feel like I can help the team this year. We’ve got a lot of young guys, a lot of young talent, I can help mold them.”