This will be a spring of running for Dorian Baker.
Maybe some players would see that as a form of punishment. But it’s just fine with the Kentucky senior wide receiver.
“When you’re not able to run, you never get tired of running,” he said.
Cone drills, sprinting, running up hills, running down hills, running sideways, it’s all joy for Baker.
Only six months ago, Baker was looking at doctors begging to run. The 6-foot-3 senior from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, was just two weeks away from what he thought would be the start of his final season at Kentucky.
“I’d been preparing my whole college career for this and it was taken away in the matter of a play,” Baker said of the play in the final scrimmage of the preseason on Aug. 19 when a defender wrapped up his leg.
“It was a screen play like any other screen,” Baker explained. “Just bad luck.”
Bad luck in the form of a broken ankle and twisted ligaments that cost him all of last season.
There were definite moments of self pity.
“Everybody goes through that stage: A why me?” Baker recalled of the moments following the ankle snap. “It’s an unbelievable feeling.
“It was like, damn, why is this me? This is unbelievable. There was just so much going through my mind.”
Then reality set in. Not only was Baker not going to be a star receiver at Kentucky in 2017, he wasn’t going to be mobile.
“I wasn’t able to walk at one point and I’m like, ‘Damn, when can I walk?’” Baker recalled.
“When I got to walking it was, ‘When can I jog?’ and when I could jog, it was ‘When can I run?’ I’m just happy now. Not being able to walk, having that privilege taken away from me.”
So now everything feels like a privilege.
As Kentucky started spring practice on Monday, Baker was all smiles. When he met with the media Tuesday, he was carrying around a football like it was glued to his hand.
Even a mundane activity like stretching with teammates filled him with glee.
“Just to line up and stretch and be back in that stretching line,” he said, “I was just very excited to be back out with the team because I hadn’t done it in a while.”
Having to wait to walk, to run, to jog taught Baker patience.
So the senior, who has 88 career catches for 1,015 yards and six touchdowns, didn’t mind when it was suggested that he should be limited this spring. No spring game, little contact.
“We’re going to take it slow because we think he’s going to be an instrumental part of our offense come the fall,” new wide receivers coach Michael Smith said of Baker.
Even as he’s raced to get back, the senior is happy to wait.
“There’s no need to rush, especially with my last season here,” Baker said. “I don’t have another redshirt available, so if I do get hurt, it’s over with. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Baker’s thoughts echoed what head coach Mark Stoops said a day earlier: “It’s just not worth the risk at this point,” he said of Baker, who was limited considerably the season before last with a hamstring injury.
“He’s going to continue to rehab and get stronger and get better, and he looks good.”
For now, coaches are leaning on the Cats’ lone senior wide receiver to help bring along a young, relatively inexperienced group of wideouts.
“Really trying to have him be a leader and he’s doing it,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said of Baker. “Trying to do it off the field, too. That’s something we’re holding him accountable to. He’s out there doing some drills. He’s just not in the thick of it. He’s in every meeting and he’s trying to coach them.”
Coaches have been giving Baker assignments, pairing him with a younger wide receiver or two to serve as a mentor.
“It keeps him involved, lets him coach and lets him stay on top of his game so he’s always refreshed with what we have going,” Smith said.
And Baker will keep running until it’s his turn to run on the field for his final season in a Kentucky jersey. “I’m just grateful to be back in motion.”
UK football spring practice
When: Through April 12 (Three practices per week)
Where: Joe Craft Football Training Center
Notable: All practices closed to public
Key dates: March 23, Pro Day; April 13, Blue-White Spring Game
Off dates: No practices during spring break March 10-19