VANCOUVER — Ryan Baker came to UBC four years ago with a football resume seemingly as vast as the geographic dimensions of the school’s sprawling Point Grey campus.
Now, five seasons into a gridiron career punctuated by not only the pandemic, but by a switch from one side of the ball to the other, the prowess and the promise that the 6-foot-2, 220 pound Baker displayed during a gold-plated high school career with North Vancouver’s Windsor Dukes is being realized again, this time at the top end of the Canada West university ranks.
“Baker could be… no, he should be an all-Canadian and probably our best defensive player,” said ‘Birds head coach Blake Bill in the aftermath of the team’s come-from-behind 30-21 conference-opening win over the Alberta Golden Bears this past Saturday in front of a sell-out crowd at Thunderbird Stadium in which the quarterback-turned-linebacker turned in a game- and career-high 13 tackle performance.
In the U SPORTS national poll released earlier this week, the ‘Birds jumped into the national Top 10 at No. 9.
Of course, if you’ve followed his football career to this point, you may remember that as a budding engineering major coming out of Windsor following the 2017 high school football campaign, he was dubbed ‘Baker, Baker, the Touchdown Maker’, and crowned B.C. AA football’s Player of the Year after combining for 21 passing and rushing touchdowns as the Dukes’ starting quarterback led his team to a perfect season and a Subway Bowl provincial title.
But what you may not remember is that he also supplied a tier-high 62 tackles as the Dukes’ knock-out middle linebacker.
Joining the Thunderbirds in 2018, where he overlapped for one season with Vanier Cup-winning pivot Michael O’Connor, Baker squeezed himself into UBC’s crowded quarterback room but never got the chance to throw a live pass in the two seasons which led into the COVID-cancelled 2020 campaign.
Over the 2019 season, the likes of Tommy Yanchuk and Gabe Olivares shared starting duties, all in advance of the arrival of current starter and rising star Garrett Rooker.
The other side of that story, however, has been in all the ways in which Baker has persevered to emerge on the other side of the ball as a key member of a Thunderbirds’ defence intent on taking its place among the conference’s elite.
In Saturday’s opener, one complete with an overflow of fans seated along the stadium’s grass berm, it was impossible to miss a most special story of transformation unfolding before our eyes.
“That COVID year, the coaches came up to me and we talked about my future,” Baker said in the post-game. “I was so tired of sitting on the sidelines. So now, I am out here playing (on defence) and I am loving it.”
What wasn’t to like about a performance which included not only seven unassisted tackles and a key pass break-up, but also a highlighted snap which showed Baker’s athletic versatility and his read-and-react skills in a sack of Golden Bears’ quarterback Eli Hetlinger?
On the final play of the first quarter, Baker moved up from his spot in the linebacking core to an edge-rushing spot alongside teammate Lake Korte-Moore.
Coming off the snap in a two-point stance, Baker looked to have bit on hand-off to Bears’ running back Ope Oshinubi, but instantly re-diagnosed the play and in one fell swoop, lunged forward to record the sack of Hetlinger.
What’s made Baker’s transition from quarterback to linebacker such a success when it’s an experiment that more often times than not is met by failure?
“He’s intelligent and he has motivation,” said Nill. “And, he wants to win.”
The timing could not be better.
UBC’s defence came into the new season wanting to find the same level of identity currently being carved by its Rooker-led offence, one which features top chips like running backs Isaiah Knight and Dane Kapler, and enviable receiver depth including newcomer Shemar McBean.
On Saturday, players like Baker and fourth-year transfer Zac Herzog at free safety helped serve notice that the process is well underway.
And if the waiting was indeed the hardest part, Baker’s time as a university QB-in-waiting was not all wasted.
“Playing offence helped a lot, you have that recognition of what offences do,” continued Baker. “I’ve done my best to recognize some offences, and so if anything, it’s really helped my game.”
Yet the pressure does not let up this week.
In fact it goes up at least another few notches when UBC (2-0 overall, 1-0 Canada West) heads to Saskatoon this Friday (6 p.m. Pacific) to face the defending Hardy Cup champion and No. 2 nationally-ranked Saskatchewan Huskies (2-0, 1-0).
“This is what we’ve talked about all year,” began Nill of facing the Huskies. “We’re going to see if we are up to the task. We’ll see. It’s a short week, and we’re travelling. So there’s not too many more scenarios which will be this difficult, but it’s the luck of the draw and we are going in there prepared to win. I am just hoping we are going to match their physicality.”
That won’t be an issue for Ryan Baker.
His dues paying now over, he is experiencing everything he had hoped for when he first set foot on campus back in the fall of 2018.
“Before I came in, I had talked to some (other) schools, and even this school, and I don’t think it was 100 per cent that I was going to play quarterback,” Baker admits.
“But for me, it’s always just been that I love playing, and that is whether it’s offence or defence or special teams. I just love being out there.”
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