Budda Baker cannot say it enough.
“I’m a defensive player, all the way,” UW’s star junior safety said on Tuesday.
“At the end of the day, I’m a defensive player,” he said again.
“I need to get all of my defensive stuff correct before even thinking about doing any type of offensive stuff,” he says one more time.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Bellingham Herald
So there is little question about which side of the ball Baker’s heart desires. He’s in his third season as UW’s full-time starting free safety — though he can play anywhere in the secondary — and will soon be paid to play the position by an NFL team. A first-team all-Pac-12 selection last season, Baker is arguably the most important player on UW’s defense.
But he was also a standout running back at Bellevue High School, and UW coach Chris Petersen describes him as “one of the best athletes you’ve ever been around,” and so the temptation to try Baker on offense is understandable.
He did it for the first time in his career on Sept. 3 against Rutgers, taking a fly-sweep handoff for a loss of one yard. On Saturday against Portland State, he played receiver for the first time. It could have gone better. UW quarterback Jake Browning targeted him twice. The first was a 10-yard throw to the sticks that Baker couldn’t catch, the second a deep ball down the middle of the field that sailed over Baker’s head after he was rerouted by a defensive back. Those two misfires, Petersen said, are evidence of just how difficult it can be for even an athlete of Baker’s caliber to step into another position and pick it up right away.
“There is a lot of detail, and it is different,” Petersen said. “You can’t just throw a guy over there. We’re trying to build depth at that receiver position and anybody that can help us on either side of the ball, we always pay attention to that. That’s the point: you can’t just in one week just throw somebody out there. The thousands of reps those other guys have taken compared to what Budda’s had at receiver, it’s night and day. It’s hard.”
Baker’s most effective offensive snap was his first, and he didn’t even touch the ball. Instead, he ran a route into the flat, perhaps drawing the attention of the defense, and Browning eventually found senior tight end Darrell Daniels for an 11-yard touchdown.
“I think that’s kind of part of the whole thing,” Petersen said of Baker serving a purpose, even as a decoy. “But is it much different than when Chico (McClatcher) does that? I don’t know, because we get Chico the ball on that stuff too. Again, it’s about creating a package that the defense has to see and worry about different personnel and be able to defend it all.”
Currently, Baker said, he might spend “a couple periods” of practice with the offense, taking repetitions at receiver. Unlike when former Huskies linebacker Shaq Thompson moonlighted at running back in 2014, Baker is learning an entirely new position; he played halfback at Bellevue, he said, in a wing-T offense that rarely threw the ball.
“It’s pretty different,” he said, “especially at the college level.”
Petersen said “it’s hard to say” how Baker’s offensive responsibilities might evolve. The Huskies lack receivers with much experience, though McClatcher, junior Dante Pettis and junior John Ross have each impressed in UW’s first three games, and younger players like redshirt freshman Andre Baccellia and freshman Aaron Fuller have shown promise too. The Huskies could also regain junior Brayden Lenius this week after he sat out UW’s first three games while suspended.
“What I don’t want to have happen is, we’re a month into it and we get thin and you try to throw a guy over there,” Petersen said. “It just doesn’t … it sounds great, but just like all of our receivers, we’re still trying to develop those guys and get better.”