Forgive Budda Baker for being a bit fuzzy on the details. It’s been awhile since he was on the losing end of a football game.
Or much of anything, really.
He does remember his last loss on the football field came when he was in the seventh grade, when Bellevue Middle School defeated his Newport Middle School squad, and he does remember how he felt afterward.
“I was mad,” he said.
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Baker would, of course, go on to have a sensational high school career for Bellevue, which went 42-0 and won three Class 3A state championships in Baker’s three varsity seasons as a defensive back, running back and kick-return specialist.
In a major coup for Chris Petersen and the Huskies’ new coaching staff, Baker signed with Washington in February as one of the program’s most accomplished defensive recruits in recent memory. Saturday, he will wrap up his first week in his new No. 32 uniform as one of the favorites to start at free safety when UW kicks off its season Aug. 30 at Hawaii.
Baker, though, isn’t expecting anything to be handed to him. He knows he has to earn it. To win, again.
“My expectations are to go in there like a freshman would; I’m not any different than any of the other freshmen,” he said in an interview earlier this summer at a Factoria coffee shop. “I just want to go in there and learn the plays and gets some reps, and then later on hopefully compete for that spot. But I’m taking it slow.”
His first week suggests anything but.
They became fast friends, then locker-room neighbors.
If anyone can steer Baker through the potential pitfalls of being a freshman sensation, it’s Shaq Thompson.
“I know he has a lot of expectations for himself, being the hometown hero and coming here,” said Thompson, UW’s junior linebacker. “And he’s stepping up. He’s still learning the defense, but he’s the type of person who — he just gets it. He’s going to learn fast, and I see him being a big part of this defense.”
In a stop-sign thin secondary, Baker has already emerged as the free safety with UW’s No. 2 defense, with sophomore Brandon Beaver the front-runner to win the starting job. Baker won the Class 3A state title in the 100-meter dash last spring — helping Bellevue to a team championship in track and field, too — and his speed is the biggest asset to a UW team seeking three new starters in the secondary.
At a lithe 5 feet 10, 173 pounds, Baker realizes he’ll have to add bulk to hold up over the long haul against Pac-12 competition. Even so, he said, “I’m not scared to hit anyone. I just love to hit.”
Said Thompson: “He might be small, but he has a big heart and he won’t turn down any type of contact. He flies on the field. He’s a little big monster. That’s what I’m going to call him: Little Big Monster.”
Baker, like Thompson, hopes to bring an added dimension (or two) to the field. Thompson is likely to be used this season as a two-way player, and Baker said he would love the opportunity to return kicks and play some running back at some point for the Huskies. Petersen, in fact, introduced that idea during the harried recruitment of the state’s top athlete; Petersen showed Baker cutups of offensive plays from his time at Boise State that he thought would suit Baker.
“That,” Baker said, “was really nice.”
Baker still gets a chuckle out of the time someone asked him about his “twin brother,” Bishard.
Baker’s mom, Michelle, had given him his nickname when he was a young boy with a round belly who, to her, looked like a Buddhist.
“And it stuck,” he said. “To this day, people still don’t know my real name is Bishard.”
Family is important to Baker. His mom is a cancer survivor who has battled Crohn’s disease most of her life. His need to remain close to her is part of the reason he backed out of his verbal commitment to Oregon.
“I’ve never quit on anything, and I always try my best, and I owe that all to her,” he said.
Baker has been described as quiet, hardworking and humble. Baker insisted he’s never tried recreational drugs — “I haven’t touched anything” — and he’s stayed out of the trouble his older brother, Richard, didn’t. Richard is serving an eight-year prison sentence for first-degree robbery and possession of a firearm, and Baker looks forward to his brother’s scheduled release in 2016. They talk every couple weeks, the older brother always eager to relay newspaper reports he reads about his younger brother’s success.
“He’s real happy for me,” Baker said.
It’s a premature comparison, and probably an unfair one at that, but there’s another undersized free safety in Seattle who Baker looks up to.
When studying film, Baker often watches clips of the Seahawks’ Earl Thomas. Much like Baker, Thomas was, according to scouting profiles, about 5-10, 175 pounds coming out of high school, before emerging as an All-American at Texas, a Super Bowl champion and the highest-paid free safety in the NFL.
“I’m not close to being him yet,” Baker said, “but I’m working on it.”
While noting the usual caveats that come in the first week of fall camp — the Huskies haven’t even started tackling each other yet — defensive-backs coach Jimmy Lake said it’s “most likely” that Baker, as a true freshman, will play a significant role this season.
“But,” Lake added, “he’s got to go earn it.”
In other words, the starting job is not exactly Baker’s job to lose, but he will be given every chance to win again.