Note: This story appears in the Wednesday, Aug. 28 newspaper on Page A6.
A few years ago, and a half-country away, Cole Baker was doing his best to stay away from the limelight.
But if the Bobcats’ 2019 defense is to be everything it can be this fall, then Baker is going to come through with a starring role.
That sounds like a tough sell for any interior defensive lineman, the cinder blocks of the defense who try to hold off waves of offensive linemen so other defenders can make plays. And it’s doubly true for Baker, who was already caught on the fringes of more notoriety than he desired as a junior college player at East Mississippi Community College.
Yes, that East Mississippi. It is the junior college featured in seasons one and two of Netflix’s streaming hit ‘Last Chance U.’ Baker was there for the 2017 season when the camera and microphones showed up to chronicle the triumphs and tragedies of a program far from the bright lights and big dollars of top-notch FBS programs.
He’s been asked about that experience plenty since he came to Ohio in 2018. No, it’s not 100 percent accurate. Yes, you do kind of forget sometimes there’s cameras around.
And yeah, he’s glad he moved north.
“You can always kind of see out of the corner of your eye someone is filming,” Baker said. “You have to be on your game and watch what you say.
“Some of the struggles, as they say, are a little bit exaggerated. Certain things are played up. But what it is, it was pretty on point.
“If you ask me if I’d do it again, I probably would. It was fun. It worked out for me,” Baker continued. “But I’m glad to be at Ohio. I was a low-key guy and this suits me fine.”
Baker is a 6-foot-2, 280-pound senior. He’s from Pinson, Alabama, and made two junior college stops before landing in Athens.
Baker helped East Mississippi win the NJCAA National Championship in 2017 when he posted 42 tackles, four sacks and nine tackles for loss. The year before he was a starter on the DL at Delta State. He had 12.5 sacks as a senior at Clay-Chalkville HS in Alabama.
But Baker, whose long hair will be visible on game days streaming out the back of the helmet, has been honed by the experiences. East Mississippi had just eight roster spots for out of state players; Baker earned and kept one of those spots.
“I was fighting for that eight spot, like every day,” Baker said. “It’s real competitive. They get after it. It’s a big program at that level.
“I got better there.”
As a member of Ohio’s 2018 recruiting class, Baker — now 21 years old — made the Bobcats better immediately last season. He served as depth on the interior of the defensive line at both tackles spots. Baker appeared in all 13 games behind starters Kent Berger and Andrew Payne, and finished with 20 tackles and half-a-sack.
Baker’s competitive spirit, and work ethic, helped him acclimate right away to the FBS level, said Ohio defensive tackles coach Tremayne Scott.
“Hard worker, No. 1. Loves to do all the things well, does everything right,” Scott said. “It doesn’t take much to motivate him. He’s a really good one for us.
“Some guys are wired that way. Maybe he has a really great ‘why’ as a reason he’s going about his business the right way,” the coach continued. “He wants to be great.”
Ohio is hoping Baker can make the jump from good to great in 2019. Berger and Payne are gone, and Baker will head up a DT contingent that features first-time starters in himself and fifth-year senior Brian Arp, and sophomores Kai Caesar and Marcus Coleman.
Berger exploded onto the scene last year as a first time starter. The hope is Baker can issue a sequel inside this fall.
“Our coaching staff believes so,” Scott said.
It all means that Baker will need to be front-and-center as both a player who can eat up double teams inside, but also provide some impact plays.
He’s shied away from the limelight before. Now the Bobcats would like him to create some highlights on the DL.
“It’s a blue-collar job. You got six or seven hundred pounds on you at a time. Freeing up a linebacker to make a play,” Baker said. “If that’s us doing our job, we’re getting the win. That’s what we have to do.”
Baker will make his debut as the starting 3-technique tackle in Ohio’s 4-3 front on Saturday when the Bobcats face Rhode Island in the 2019 season opener at 2 p.m. inside Peden Stadium.
It’s a long way from Pinson, or Scooba, Miss. for that matter, but right now it’s home.
“I’m happy here. It’s been nice not being under that kind of microscope.”