It had been 364 days since Dorian Baker had been tackled.
And that last tackle a year ago had ended his senior season before it could even get started.
It was that tackle in the final scrimmage of preseason a year ago that sent Baker to the hospital for ankle surgery.
So when linebacker DeAndre Square tackled Kentucky’s senior wide receiver to the ground recently, Baker waited and worried. He’d had “jitters, butterflies in his stomach” thinking about that first full-contact hit.
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But Baker popped up off the turf at Kroger Field and patted down his arms, his chest, his thighs, his knees and his ankles just to be sure.
He sighed with relief inside his helmet.
“I was like, ‘I’m good. I’m straight. I’m solid,’” Baker said of that first tackle. “I shook it off and then I got tackled again. And it was like, ‘Damn, I’m back. I’m back in action.’”
Mark Stoops has seen a different Dorian Baker since that scrimmage.
“Getting that rust off, I think that was very helpful for him and a big confidence builder for him getting through it,” the head coach said.
On Saturday against Central Michigan, the senior wide-out from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, will compete in his first season opener since 2015, the season that was a breakout one for him with 608 yards and three touchdowns on 55 catches.
He missed last season with the ankle and was limited for most of 2016 with a nagging hamstring issue.
So to say Baker is excited to be back is a bit of an understatement.
“I dream about it. I have visions about it,” he said recently. “It’s going to be real big for me.”
Kentucky’s coaches think 2018 could be big for Baker both on the field and off as the Cats search for more explosive plays in the new season, more down-field opportunities.
Baker, who has 1,015 yards and six touchdowns in his Cats career, was a missing component a season ago.
And now that the haunting injury is behind him, coaches are expecting him to be big off the field, too.
“In that group, he’s kind of like Benny (Snell) in my group,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “He brings physicality, a guy who’s a senior and those guys look up to him. And I just love the way he is full speed all the time and that’s going to help us. I don’t think there’s any question.”
Baker leads with his work ethic, every once in a while “he chirps at them and makes sure they’re doing what they need to do,” Gran said.
The senior said he wants to grow into a bigger leadership role now that he knows he’s good to go.
“I’ve got to step up and do a better job of leading the young guys,” Baker said. “I can definitely be better at that. It’s a process right now, me coming back and still working on myself and getting them together.”
‘It’ll keep me up tonight’
There’s been much talk this season about the depth and experience back at nearly every position group.
But there is a glaring deficiency in the experience portion at each of UK’s backup linebacker spots. Only senior Kengera Daniel, penciled in behind Josh Allen, has played in a game. Behind them is Alex King.
The backup for Boogie Watson, who will be making his first start, at the other outside linebacker spot is redshirt freshman Jordan Wright.
At the inside linebacker spots, two true freshmen are backing up senior Jordan Jones in DeAndre Square and Chris Oats. And Jamin Davis, a redshirt freshman, is behind junior Kash Daniel at middle linebacker.
When asked about it, Mark Stoops had a slightly nervous laugh.
“It’ll keep me up tonight, but I was talking to those three with Jamin, DeAndre and Chris and I was teasing them a little bit about some of that,” Stoops said. “But they’ll be ready. Those guys are football players. They’re going to make mistakes but that’s OK. They have great intentions and they’ve been practicing well. I’m excited to watch them.”
Getting to know the Chips
The name to keep an eye on for Central Michigan is running back Jonathan Ward, who is the Mid-American Conference’s top returning rusher with 1,019 yards and 10 touchdowns on 214 carries.
The 6-foot, 202-pound junior also was the Chippewas’ second-leading receiver with 48 catches for 470 yards and three touchdowns.
Ward will be playing on Sundays in the NFL one day, Mark Stoops said on his radio show this week. “He’s a big-time player. He really is,” Stoops said. “He’s dynamic. He’ll play football for a long time. He’s got great vision, great patience, he’s strong. He’s explosive. He’s a very good football player.”
Ward will be taking the handoffs and catching the passes from quarterback Tony Poljan, who will be a load to bring down at 6-foot-7, 235 pounds. Playing behind star QB Shane Morris (3,237 yards, 27 touchdowns last year), Poljan played some wide-out while also throwing a few passes.
As a freshman, he completed 13 of his 21 attempts for 78 yards while also getting 98 yards on five catches.
▪ Central Michigan has racked up four wins over Power Five teams since 2012, all of them on the road, including wins over Iowa, Purdue, Oklahoma State in 2016 and Kansas last year.
Since 2006, the Chips have lost five games to Power Five opponents by seven points or fewer.
“They’re a good football team that’s well coached,” Stoops said. “That’s probably what stands out to me as you watch them and watch a lot of MACs. They do a very good job of not beating themselves and kind of sticking to what they do and play it well.”
Honoring a coach and friend
There will be constant reminders for Kentucky’s players and coaches that some are battling an opponent much more important than whatever team they’re facing that week.
A decal with the initials of offensive line coach John Schlarman and defensive lineman Josh Paschal will be on the Cats’ helmets all season, Stoops announced Thursday. Both the coach and player have undergone cancer treatments this preseason.
“We’ll have their initials on a small patch on the back of our helmet and also we have these wrist bands we made for the team,” Stoops said, showing a blue and white band around his left wrist.
The band says: “Schlarman Strong and JP on three.”
The second part is a reference to what the team says each time it breaks huddles this season: “JP on three; JP on me.”
After being diagnosed with cancer in recent weeks, Schlarman is going through chemotherapy treatments while still coaching the Cats.
Paschal, who played linebacker a season ago before moving inside to help on the line, had a malignant melanoma removed from the bottom of his foot this summer and is going through treatments as well. There’s no time line for Paschal’s return.