Baker's a doozy: Meet the N-G's football player of the year

Baker's a doozy: Meet the N-G's football player of the year

ROCHESTER — Derek Leonard has a message for all college football coaches: "You are missing out."

Specifically, he is talking about their unwillingness to recruit his star quarterback, Nic Baker.

"He is a winner," the Rochester coach said. "He has every tool you can have. Honestly, the kid doesn't have a major weakness. He can run. He's a leader. He's smart. He's got eyes in the back of his head. You name it, he can do it."

Baker's passing numbers are stunning: 52 touchdowns, two interceptions. And his win total is just as impressive. The Rockets are 13-0 going into Friday's Class 4A title game against Morris.

He was an easy choice as The News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year. With Baker running the show, the Rockets have scored 618 points.

"There's no other kid on any other team, I can promise you, who has been more valuable to their team." Leonard said. "And there's no other player who is more talented. I don't care if they are going to Notre Dame or Illinois. He's one of the most talented players I have ever been around."

Apparently, what worries the coaches about Baker are two other numbers: 5 and 10. His height.

Nonsense, says Ken Leonard, legendary coach at Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin. He saw Baker up close in a 35-28 loss to his son's team late in the regular season. Rochester led 35-6 before SH-G rallied.

"He might be the best quarterback we've ever faced," Leonard said.

"He's Doug Flutie. He's better than anybody Illinois has got right now. If Illinois had him, they could throw the ball."

There is a recent Rochester player to compare with Baker: former Illini quarterback Wes Lunt.

"The only thing he doesn't have is he's not 6-4," Ken Leonard said of Baker. "But he's got a 6-4 heart."

Or how about another ex-Illini, Jason Verduzco? On the smallish side, he stands fifth on the school's career passing chart.

The Californian was one of the last players picked up in John Mackovic's first Illinois recruiting class. The school brought in higher profile players and Verduzco kept beating them out. That's what Ken Leonard thinks will happen with Baker. Wherever he winds up.

Everyone wants a tall quarterback. A guy who can see over the linemen and won't get the ball batted back.

"They want to lose with a 6-5 kid that can't throw a lick," Ken Leonard said.

Arm strength is not an issue for Baker.

"His arm is a cannon," Leonard said. "He's got an NFL arm."

Modern-day offenses have made it easier for a quarterback on the shorter side.

Baker has heard from Division II schools. But the FCS programs have stayed away so far.

"I called Illinois State and some of these guys and told them, 'You guys are nuts man, have you seen this kid's arm?' He can make all the throws. I don't get it," Ken Leonard said.

Baker has hit 74 percent of his passes for 3,678 yards. He isn't throwing a bunch of screens and letting his talented backs and receivers pick up the yards.

The Rockets attack is vertical.

"It's not all these dinks and dunks," Ken Leonard said. "He throws it down the field."

Player advocate

No question, Derek Leonard is on his quarterback's side. In a big way.

"I never saw Drew Brees play in high school and I never saw Jimmy Garoppolo," the Rochester coach said. "It sounds crazy, but I don't know how anyone could be better."

Leonard is tired of hearing how difficult it was for his quarterback to throw over the linemen.

"In the pocket, he has one ball tipped all year," Leonard said. "I think it's so overblown and so overrated."

Time for a challenge. From a guy seeking his seventh state title in the last eight years.

"I think college recruiters are scared," Leonard said. "It's kind of a built-in excuse. They find more reasons why not to than why to."

Leonard sees taller quarterbacks get balls tipped all the time.

The younger Leonard agrees with his dad: Baker could play for Illinois right now. The team had just five first downs against Ohio State.

"That's nothing against those guys and nothing against their quarterbacks," Derek Leonard said. "I've seen a lot of MAC games. He'd be the best quarterback in the MAC right now."

Rising to the challenge

Baker is the youngest of three. He grew up with the Rockets.

Early on, Leonard noticed Baker's competitiveness.

"It doesn't matter if you're playing a pickup basketball game or pingpong," Derek Leonard said. "He's good at everything. It's crazy."

Baker was the only returning starter from last year's state title team.

"We thought offensively we were going to struggle," Leonard said. "We knew he was really good. From play one, he took off and everyone followed."

Over the years, Leonard has coached his share of FBS players. There was Lunt and current Wisconsin linebacker Garret Dooley and former Purdue quarterback Sean Robinson.

"I don't know if I've ever been so sure of something that could totally be successful at the highest level," Leonard said.

He hears it from the coaches the Rockets beat.

"They are like, 'Wow, that's one of the best high school players I've played against.' "

Baker's accuracy is a huge plus. Coaches like players who don't turn the ball over and the quarterback went deep into the season before throwing his first interception.

Leonard also likes Baker's athletic ability. He runs to keep the play alive. Then, fires the ball to an open receiver.

"His escapability, Doug Flutie was kind of the same way," Leonard said. "He could get out of trouble. And he is so intelligent. He's going to make the right decisions."

The deep out tests the arm strength of all quarterbacks. Mess it up and a giddy defensive back is going to take the ball the other way.

"It's accurate," Leonard said. "It's up there with Wes Lunt. This time his senior year, Wes could throw the ball like no other. This is the closest kid I've ever seen to him on that."

Leonard doesn't ask Baker to run a lot. He's gained 443 yards on the ground and scored 12 touchdowns.

"I run him when I need him," Leonard said. "He's a heck of an athlete and he could have run for another 500 to 800 yards. That's the type of kid he is."

Next step

For the first time, college football has a signing date, ahead of the traditional early February signfest.

"He's just kind of waiting to see who does what," Leonard said.

Whatever Baker decides, it will likely be without a lot of fanfare.

"Everyone likes him," Leonard said. "He's a good kid. He's always got a smile on his face. He is so nice to everybody."

His quarterback became more vocal this season. In a good way.

"That's one of his biggest improvements," Leonard said. "He's showing his leadership."

Back to the lack of offers. Derek Leonard, like his dad, doesn't understand.

"It's the craziest, most idiotic thing I have ever seen in my life," Leonard said. "He is that good. I know I'm not wrong. People tell me what he's not, when I know what he is."

If Leonard was hired by an FBS school as an assistant, he would want Baker to come with him.

Leonard is making calls, trying to get programs interested in his quarterback.

"Everyone is so afraid of their own shadow," Leonard said.

Going into Friday's title game against Morris, recruiting isn't a high priority for Baker. That will come later.

"I'm all about the team right now," Baker said.

But if coaches read this, Baker can assure them he is ready to help.

"I'd just like to tell coaches, 'I want it bad. I love the game and I love playing it.' "

Baker believes in himself as a Division I prospect. As he should.

"If somebody will give me a chance," Baker said, "I have full confidence I can compete at that level."

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