PEELER: Baker is Ready to Roll
BY TIM PEELER
RALEIGH, N.C. Toney Baker is healthy, fast and ready to collide.
Baker, who has missed the last two NC State football seasons because of two knee surgeries, is itching for today’s start of spring practice at the Dail Practice Fields adjacent to Carter-Finley Stadium. And he has no worries about taking the first hit.
“Absolutely not I am ready to run full speed into somebody,” said the senior running back from Jamestown, N.C. “I am kind of looking forward to get smacked hard, because I haven’t been hit really hard yet.”
While that may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, taking a lick is really the final step in a recovery from an injury Baker suffered in the first half of the 2007 season-opener against Central Florida. His initial surgery wiped out the rest of that season.
He thought he was ready to return at the beginning of last season, but something didn’t feel quite right after the first week of practice. Team doctors determined Baker, who led the Wolfpack in rushing in 2005 and ’06 with a combined 1,234 rushing yards, needed another surgery to completely fix his knee. So he missed his second consecutive season, standing on the sidelines as the Wolfpack went 6-7 and made an appearance in the Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham, Ala.
Now, however, Baker believes he is 100 percent healed and ready to go.
“In the fall, I really wasn’t sure it was ready,” said Baker, who can apply to the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility after he completes the 2009 season. “The way I feel running now and the way I felt then is completely different. In my mind, I felt like it was time, but maybe it was just a little too early. But sitting out and waiting last season, I can really feel the difference.”
Head coach Tom O’Brien is certainly encouraged by Baker’s progress since he was cleared to resume workouts near the end of last season.
“He has done very well in strength and conditioning,” O’Brien said. “Starting about the end of November, he really made great strides in his rehab. You could see as we went through that the doctors felt good about giving him a full go.
“He is working very hard to get himself back to this point. We all hope that he succeeds.”
With senior tailback Jamelle Eugene out of spring practice because of shoulder surgery, Baker should get plenty of repetitions in the spring. He’ll split time with redshirt freshman Brandon Barnes and true freshman James Washington III, who enrolled at NC State in January after graduating early from Orlando’s Boone High School.
Baker says he is concentrating on sharpening the skills that have been dulled by missing the last two years of action, such as blocking and regaining his timing with a twice-revamped offensive line.
Two things that have encouraged Baker are his recent timings in the 40-yard dash and the stop-and-start shuttle run. After nearly a two-year break, Baker matched the best 40 time of his career with a high 4.4-second run not long ago. And improved on his best shuttle run ever, lowering it from 4.1 seconds to 3.9 seconds.
“The 40 time didn’t matter that much to me, but I really wanted to see how fast I could stop and start and cut on the shuttle run,” Baker said. “That was the important thing to me.”
While Baker didn’t particularly enjoy sitting out the last two seasons, he does believe he has matured as a player and has a better understanding of what is expected of him.
“It’s helped me a lot actually, to be able to sit back and see the big picture of what we are trying to accomplish on offense and looking at the blocking schemes of the offensive line,” Baker said. “Of course, we have developed a really good quarterback [Russell Wilson] as well since I first got hurt. The time I spent watching is going to help my overall game, especially in being able to read defenses.”
Wilson’s emergence as a first-team All-ACC quarterback as a redshirt freshman will ensure that the Wolfpack’s offense is not one-dimensional.
“It has changed a lot having him as quarterback,” Baker said. “There is somebody on defense who will have to account for Russell Wilson on every play, and that will open up the running game. The fact that he can throw the football will open it up even more.”
For Baker, that means there should be more wide-open places to run and fewer opposing players to smash into.
You may contact Tim Peeler at firstname.lastname@example.org.