By David Knox
It’s a season of Thanksgiving and second chances for Cole Baker.
The former Clay-Chalkville football standout realizes anew the many blessings he has in life, and the second chance he gets at a shot at the Division I level of football.
Baker, a member of the Cougars’ state championship team in 2014 and the state runner-up team in 2015, will play for another championship as a starting defensive tackle for East Mississippi Community College in the National Junior College Athletic Association National Championship Game in Perkinston, Miss., just outside of Biloxi, on Sunday.
Baker, the son of Don and Lisa Baker, signed with Delta State in Cleveland, Miss., after graduating from Clay-Chalkville. The Division II school was the best offer at the time, but after a year there, he felt in his heart he could play at a higher level. And Delta State just didn’t seem like a good fit for him.
“I wanted better,” Baker said. “I thought about it for a long time. Seeing JUCO guys pop up and go on, and my classmate at Clay-Chalkville, A.J. Walker went to Dodge City (Kan.) Community College, got me to thinking this could be a route for me.”
East Mississippi Community College, an NJCAA football powerhouse in Scooba, Miss., caught his attention. Known as “Last Chance U” thanks to a Netflix documentary series by that name, it’s where some former college players land after they’ve been bounced from a Division I squad due to academic or disciplinary issues. Playing at the JUCO level is their “last chance” to prove themselves and return to Division I.
That wasn’t Baker’s case. He has a 4.0 grade-point average and will graduate in December, so he’s got the books in order. He was looking for a chance to bounce upward, not back. In fact some 20 of his 2016 DSU teammates had come from the highly-competitive Mississippi junior college ranks.
But he didn’t see Delta State as his destiny.
East Mississippi seemed his next step to that. But it meant he’d be competing for a spot on the roster with some high-profile, big-time athletes for a spot — just a spot — on the team. You don’t just walk into EMCC and announce you’ve arrived to play football. It doesn’t work that way.
“It’s hard to say, but I was on the edge of not making this team in the spring,” Baker said. “In Mississippi, there’s only eight roster spots on junior college football teams for out-of-state players. That was the motivation to me for making this team. I knew if I could make this team, I would be set up for success.”
As a junior at Clay-Chalkville, Baker was a linebacker. He moved to defensive end as a senior, and that’s where he started at DSU as a 6-foot-3, 245-pound true freshman. He was fifth on the team in tackles with 43, had nine tackles for loss and and 2.5 sacks.
But to play at EMCC, he needed to find a new role.
Defensive line coach Davern Williams and head coach Buddy Stephens convinced him he needed to move inside to defensive tackle. There’s less glory on the inside than on the outside, where the ends come off the edge to get sacks, or at linebacker where you clean up what the big boys inside jammed up. It’s not for the faint of heart or weak of spirit.
“You’ve got to have a little bit of dog in you to play inside,” Williams said. “Every snap, you’re going to get hit by two pads, by two people. You’ve got to have a different mindset.”
Baker was eager for the challenge, especially if it got him to his goal.
“Coach Williams and Coach Stephens told me I could be something special at the defensive tackle position,“ he said. “You get a little more banged up inside, but I enjoy it. I love being in the middle of everything and just getting after it. It’s a lot of fun.
If he hadn’t adapted to the new position, he might have been playing the role of the guy who was left out.
“Because we’re only allowed eight out-of-state players, he started out behind the 8 ball like all the other kids from out of state,” Williams said. “He started out at defensive end, and he showed real promise at defensive end, because he’s athletic, he’s got pass rushing abilities out there on the edge.
“But we needed an inside guy bad. He’d never done it before, with his hand down in the turf, so it was a first for him. But he’s a tough, a hard-nosed kid, a physical kid, a smart kid, very coachable, and that allowed him to pick up the techniques real quick you need to survive inside. He was a leader in the weight room right away, and now he’s put on weight, and he’s got the ideal size to play inside.
“Typically a guy coming here from a Division II school, the odds are against those guys. Normally, the kids we have coming in here from out of state are your Division I, Power Five (conference) type of guys. But Cole fought through the adversity, competing with those out-of-state guys for that same spot, or just a spot play on defense.
“To be honest, I wanted to give him a fair shot to make this team, because guys like Cole don’t come by very often as far as instinct and who understands football. He won the job as a starter, and he’s never let it go. He was willing to do that. He just wanted to play. He wanted the opportunity to go to a higher-level of football. That’s why he came to a JUCO.”
The move has paid off for East Mississippi and for Baker. The Lions ran through a 10-1 season, avenged their only loss to Northwest Mississippi in the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges championship game in double overtime. Baker made three tackles, including a sack, in the win.
Baker, a season-long starter at defensive tackle, racked up 37 total tackles including 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks.
For his efforts, Baker was voted second-team all-state by the head football coaches of the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges.
Now, he will help lead the No. 1 Lions into the national championship game against No. 2 Arizona Western.
Williams said Baker is the consummate teammate.
“He picks his team up and I’ve seen him get in guys’ faces and be the leader on the field. In the locker room, he jokes and is a great teammate,” the coach said, “and in the film room he asks smart football questions that other guys are scared to ask, he’s seeking information and clarity. He’s highly respected and they respond to him. They listen to him because of what he does on the football field and because of his story, as a guy who’s come from D2 and has earned the offers he has now. They see him work hard to get where he wants to be, and it has a trickle-down effect. They want what he has.”
What Baker has already are two Division I FBS offers to Ohio and Buffalo, both of the Mid-American Conference, and both headed to bowl games. Ohio will meet UAB in the Bahamas Bowl.
But before he takes the next step in his journey, he’s simply thankful for where he is.
“It’s a blessing to have this opportunity.”
He’s also more mindful to not waste an opportunity at a second chance, or a new sunrise. On Nov. 18, just a week after the state championship win, Lions teammate Tyone Clemons was killed in a car wreck. Not only was Clemons a teammate, he was Baker’s backup at defensive tackle.
“Going into my junior year at Clay, I lost a teammate there — Mekail Evans — and this year it hit us last week right after the championship,” Baker said. “It’s been tough. We are a real tight group and it’s been tough not having him at practice. I think we’ve learned to embrace each other more and enjoy the little things.”
And the big things — like a shot at a national title and a Division I future.
“He’s excited,” Williams said. “And I’m excited for him.”