C.J. Baker was on a road toward an uncertain destination.
As an East Ridge High School student-athlete, Baker’s academic standing was spiraling downward. Athletically, and his talents have made him one of the top players in Chattanooga prep football circles, he was being held back by a slack classroom attitude.
Then the light switch went on.
New coach Tracy Malone flipped it in December 2011 with a discipline built on encouraging his Pioneers.
“C.J. definitely was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” Malone said. “He hasn’t had the advantages of kids at other places. This summer I know he’s finally starting to understand his place in the world.
“His eyes have been opened. He’s now saying, ‘Hey, maybe it’s time for me to bear down and mature a little bit.”
Baker, a 6-foot-5-inch, 230-pound offensive and defensive lineman, didn’t have the same fire in his belly for academics as he did football.
“I didn’t think it was all that important until halfway through the second semester last year,” the senior standout said. “By the time I realized I was in bad shape it was almost too late. I had to take summer classes.”
Following the advice on one helpful college recruiter from Middle Tennessee State University and a suddenly discovered determination to right a sinking academic ship, Baker turned the corner to a more stable situation.
The directional shift could wind up paying dividends in the next phase of his life.
“The MTSU coach told me I had to take six core classes this year,” the personable, well-spoken Baker said. “He was the only coach to break it down for me like that. He said I had to do this, do this and take that class. I respected him a lot for doing that.”
Baker said he finished his last virtual class just before classes started and is on track to put his academic house in order prior to graduation in the spring.
“My main goal was to get all my credits so I can play with my boys on Friday night,” Baker said. “I feel better about my grades. I can breathe now. I don’t have to worry about recruiters coming in and just talking about my grades. We can talk some football.”
And that’s vital to his dream of playing college football.
Malone said Baker has interest from several colleges, including UT-Chattanooga, MTSU, Memphis, Austin Peay, Tusculum, East Tennessee State, Tennessee State, UT-Martin and Centre and Pike in Kentucky.
“If he had a 21 on the ACT and had a 3.0 grade-point average, he’d have 20 big-time offers right now,” Malone said. “But, academics are an issue. He dug himself a hole and sees that now. In his mind, it’s time to man up.”
To man up on the football field is not new for Baker.
As an impact defensive end last season, Baker was credited with 75 tackles and six sacks despite opposing offenses trying to avoid him at all costs.
Baker, a 2012 All-District 6-A selection, didn’t understand that opponents had a strategy to run plays away from him, daring other East Ridge defenders to make stops.
“I really didn’t know I was one of those key players that offenses concentrated on,” he said, “and it didn’t click in my head what teams were doing. I assumed it was the flow of the game.”
Malone challenged his stalwart defender to negate the offense’s stay-away strategy simply by prove to Baker he had a higher gear in his football motor.
The coach had a perfect example that would unlock Baker’s potential – an opposing player when Malone was at White County. It was Cody Warren of Warren County
Robinson, a 6-3, 285-pound defensive end, is a film study etched in Malone’s mind.
Malone said White County ran a right-side sweep away from Robinson, who was chasing the play when he saw the runner toss the ball to a receiver going in the opposite direction. Stopping at the right hash mark, Robinson retraced his steps and ran down the receiver for a paltry 4-yard gain.
“I’ve got to find that film because I want C.J. to see it,” Malone said. “Cody has as unreal a motor as I’ve ever seen. What we want from C.J. is to play with that type motor – play all-out on every snap – and it’s starting to take root.”
Robinson, whose father, Ray, played at Tennessee from 1985-88, was rated the nation’s No. 24 offensive guard by ESPN.com coming out of Warren County and is now playing that position as a redshirt sophomore for coach David Cutcliffe’s Duke Blue Devils.
Malone has pondered the best way to use Baker on defense. He has decided to mimic South Carolina’s utilization of Heisman Trophy candidate Jadeveon Clowney, a dominating 6-6, 274-pound defensive end.
“Carolina will use Clowney at weak-side end, at strong-side end, at a shade, at a three and they’ll sometimes they’ll line him up at a zero over the center and just let him work,” Malone said. “We’re going to do that with Baker. We’re going to put him at different spots on a week-to-week basis because he’s a nightmare to block.
“We’re looking at the best matchups for him and hope that force offenses to put two people on him. I just don’t know if you can block him with one kid.”
Something else Malone wants from Baker, in his senior season, is vocal leadership on and off the field.
That process may have actually started in 2012.
The Pioneers got off to a dismal 0-6 start, losing those games by a combined score of 188-23. Malone’s response to that terrible stretch was a glimpse into just how the coach would coach the Pioneers.
“Coach Malone brought all the juniors into the gym and told us it’s no longer (the seniors’) season,” Baker said. “It’s your season. You have to become the seniors. We were all on board and after we won our first game the seniors jumped on board with us. But it was mainly our show.
“I didn’t have much of a voice for most of last season, but I’m a senior now. It’s my job this year.”
East Ridge won three of its last four games to finish 3-7 last season, missing the playoffs for the second straight year.
Malone says the shift toward a stronger leadership role has been fast and sure.
“Last year C.J. was just an angry kid ticked off at the world,” the coach said. “It was everybody else’s fault. The man was keeping him down. Now, he sees that he can go as far as he wants and that’s been neat to see from a guy I want to be the team’s leader.
“That self-awareness usually doesn’t happen until a man’s older.”
Malone’s research into East Ridge’s football history leads him to believe the two best single-season records in school history are 10-2 marks in 1997 and 2001. More often than not, the Pioneers have been a middle-of-the-pack team, routinely finishing near the .500 mark.
The 17-year-old Baker sounds like a player on a team that consistently rolls 10-win seasons off the football assembly line, not one which is 12-19 overall and 9-12 in District 6-AA over the past three seasons.
“We’re going to shoot high,” he said. “If everybody buys in, and I think they already have, we’ll be district champions (in 2013). We’ll win at least 10 games and I want to say we’ll host a playoff game. We’re tired of East Ridge being at the bottom.”
As one of the team leaders, goals should be set high and serve as a motivating challenge.
When Malone first saw a winter weightlifting workout in December 2011, there were six players in the room – Baker was one of them.
What did Malone take from that scene?
“Those six guys cared about East Ridge football,” he said.
With Baker’s help, the number of lifters swelled to 45 a year later.
“You see signs about pride everywhere around here,” Baker said. “That’s what leadership is all about – pride.”
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)