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Throughout his football career, going back to high school, Baker has heard whispers about his lack of ideal size and persevered — even thrived — despite all the chatter.
He arrives as a 6-foot-1, 225-pound linebacker prospect hoping to make the same kind of impact in the NFL as 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers first-round pick Ryan Shazier, who’s listed at 6-1, 230.
“When he came out of college, they were saying the same thing that he was too small,” Baker said of the two-time Pro Bowl selection. “He just performed every Sunday. That’s what I try to do.”
When the Dolphins picked Baker in the third round of the 2018 round, he became the 15th Ohio State linebacker selected in the past 13 drafts and the eighth to go in one of the first three rounds.
Along with Baker, McMillan and Shazier, the list includes names like A.J. Hawk, Darron Lee and James Laurinaitis.
It is indeed quite a tradition that Ohio State has built over the past decade-plus.
“It’s a standard,” Baker said. “Our linebackers are known to be great linebackers, so I just wanted to uphold that standard. Now the real task is here. I’m definitely excited.”
Baker, who is from Cleveland, ended up at Ohio State after first committing to the University of Florida before changing his mind because of the firing of Gators head coach Will Muschamp, as well as LeBron James’ decision in the summer of 2014 to leave the Miami Heat and rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers.
At Ohio State, Baker seemingly saved his best for the biggest games.
He returned an interception 68 yards for a touchdown to give the Buckeyes a 14-0 lead at No. 14 Oklahoma in 2016. He had 13 tackles in an overtime win at No. 8 Wisconsin in 2016. He had a then-career-high 15 tackles against No. 3 Michigan, plus a critical interception late in the third quarter with Ohio State down by 10, in the 2016 win over Michigan. And he had a career-high 16 tackles in the 2017 Big Ten championship game win over Wisconsin.
“I don’t know about you guys, but I was taught that the best players shine in the biggest games,” Baker said. “I just try to do my best and it just so happens that the big games is where I perform my best.”
If Baker was maybe smaller than ideal, he certainly was fast enough to make plays all over the field.
In the 2017 edition of Sports Illustrated’s Freaks List, which ranks the top 40 workout warriors in college football, Baker came in at number 17, which happened to be his jersey number at Ohio State. Baker was clocked at Ohio State in the 40-yard dash at 4.37.
Baker went to the combine in Indianapolis with his sights set on beating the record for linebackers, but turned in a 4.53 — which was disappointing for him but still the fourth-fastest among players at his position.
“(Ohio State Assistant Athletic Director, Football Sport Performance) Mickey Marotti, one of the top strength coaches in the nation talked about, ‘This guy is as fast as Ryan Shazier,’ ” Dolphins General Manager Chris Grier said. “And they were shocked he ran 4.53 at the combine. They’re like, ‘This guy is much faster than that,’ and you see that on film — whether he was tired that day or whatever. They just constantly raved about how fast this player was.”
Baker’s speed, without question, will be an asset for the Dolphins defense, however they decide to wind up using him.
“Obviously, the skill set for Jerome Baker, as an athlete, we like his speed,” defensive coordinator Matt Burke said. “That was obviously the first thing that stood out. He ran well in Indy, but even talking to a lot of guys up at Ohio State, they even felt like he’s even faster than what he tested at in some things. Put him in the category of some of those guys that have come through there in terms of the Lees and the Shaziers and those type of athletes. That was obviously a strong point for us in terms of a starting point for a skill set. We want to add speed to that room and he was one of the faster linebackers in the draft and we felt good about getting him where we did.”
Scouting reports have suggested Baker’s ideal role in the NFL would be a passing-downs specialists, but he refuses to limit himself in that manner.
“Just watch me every game,” he said. “I just go out there and do what I do. That’s pretty much it for me. There is a lot of talking and all of that, but when it’s time to play, that’s what I do. Just play.”
Baker doesn’t flinch when talk of his lack of prototypical size comes up. He’s heard it before and is well aware he just might keep hearing it.
In the end, what matters is how he performs on the field.
“It’s been like that my whole life,” he said. “I’m cool with it. I just know when the time is on the line, the game is on the line, I can make the play.
“If you ask anybody that plays against me, they don’t mention my size at all. It’s hard looking from the outside in. On the field, I do my job. That’s all I can do.”