ATHENS – His return to Georgia for his senior season didn’t receive the same fanfare as when the “Big Four” announced they were coming back for 2017. But make no mistake about, getting Deandre Baker back to play cornerback this season is equally as significant for the Bulldogs.
To be clear, Baker would be in an NFL camp right now if he hadn’t opted to be in Georgia’s preseason camp instead. If you check the ridiculously-early mock drafts for next year right now, you’ll find Baker’s name listed among the expectant first-rounders there. Walterfootball.com has him as the 20th pick.
But all that is secondary to Baker’s primary concerns at the moment. His focus is firmly on what the Bulldogs are able to accomplish in 2018, and Baker will is a big part of determining that. Baker and safety J.R. Reed are the only regular starters back in Georgia’s defensive backfield. As such, they are being counted on not only to play at a level at and above what they did during last season’s national playoffs run, but also to get the young players who are coming up to understand what that level is and what it takes to play at it.
“The focus for him right now is to get better each and every day and work on the details, technique and fundamentals,” Mel Tucker, Georgia’s defensive coordinator and secondary coach, said of Baker. “He needs to do the things that got him to this point and then take it up a notch. That’s what we are going to do with him.”
That said, there’s no guarantee Baker’s status as a starting cornerback is guaranteed. Coach Kirby Smart has emphasized competition at every point throughout the first week of preseason camp. In fact, Smart spent a good bit time after Tuesday’s practice admonishing unnamed “established players” for not playing with the intensity and at the level expected of them.
In the open practice this past Saturday, Baker found himself on the short end of several deep passes, including one hauled in for a touchdown by new transfer wide receiver Demetris Robertson. Smart didn’t single out Baker or any other particular veteran as his cause for concern, but Smart did refer to regression among counted-upon leaders as “one of the scariest things that can happen to our team.”
“The biggest concern I’ve got is if the best players play the best; that probably hasn’t happened so far in camp,” Smart said. “We have some guys I consider to be really good players that aren’t playing up to their potential. But we’ve also got a lot of players who were 2s and 3s last year that are playing pretty well. So, we’ve got some good competition going on out there and I’m excited about that.”
Baker is definitely one of the Bulldogs’ best players in 2018, and they need him to play that way. Over the course of last season, he established himself as one of the best lock-down corners in the league. He led Georgia with 9 pass break-ups to go along with 3 interceptions, including a pick against Alabama in the national championship game.
Baker was on the opposite of side of the field when the Crimson Tide scored in overtime on the dreaded second-and-26 play that capitalized on a busted coverage by the Bulldogs. As much as Baker has dreamed about making that next step to playing pro ball, he has never been able to get past how close Georgia was to winning it all last year and desperately wants another crack at it.
“That can’t happen again,” Baker said of the ill-fated final play. “I felt like (coming back) I could help my team get back to the same game.”
That’s the unquestioned goal again, and Baker’s presence most definitely can help Georgia get there. In addition to playing as well or better than he did last year, that will require Baker’s assistance with getting a youth-dominated secondary up to speed.
Tucker said that’s a charge that doesn’t necessarily come naturally to Baker, but one he expects the senior from Miami to fulfill.
“He is more of a lead-by-example type,” Tucker said. “But those type of guys who don’t say a lot, when they do speak, everyone listens, and he is that type of guy. He has a really good feel for his teammates. If he needs to get on a guy in front of other guys, he will do that. He may need to pull a guy to the side and do a one-on-one and he will do that. That is the sign of a good leader.”
First and foremost, the Bulldogs need Baker to be the player they expect him to be. And Tucker said he has expected Baker to be an exceptional cornerback since the day in 2016 he first laid eyes on him.
“We were in the offseason program,” Tucker said. “I saw him doing some of the drills and I pulled him over to the side and said ‘hey, I think you could be a heck of a player. You are 6-feet tall, you are the fastest guy out here, you have good change of direction, you have great length.’ I said, ‘I really believe that you can do something here. All you have to do is listen, pay attention, do what I ask you to do.’ And that is what he did. So, that is a credit to him.”
Baker credits the older players around him for showing him how to be great. He plans to return the favor with Georgia’s latest crop of DBs.
“The guys around me, they made me better because we competed in practice,” he said last spring. “So, once we get the young guys up to par and get them focused on the plays and knowing their assignments and being able to play fast, then the opposite quarterback won’t know where to throw the ball at.”