SEATTLE -- Chris Petersen and the Washington Huskies football coaches had a lot to improve, fix and change when they arrived in Seattle in early December 2013.
But at the top of that list was a straightforward decree: Get. Budda. Baker.
“It was the No. 1 thing we had to get done when we first arrived here,” co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said. “All you had to do was watch the tape -- he was a once-in-a-decade type of a player.”
Baker was the top prospect in the state of Washington at the time and the No. 7 safety in the nation and, unfortunately for the Huskies, committed to Mark Helfrich and the Oregon Ducks. But Baker became priority No. 1 for Petersen & Co. as the new Huskies staff looked to turn Washington, and then the Pacific Northwest, purple.
In the 2012 and 2013 classes combined (the two recruiting classes before Baker’s), only one of the top three prospects in the state of Washington had become a Husky -- two went to USC, plus one apiece to Stanford, Oregon and Colorado.
When Baker switched and committed to Petersen, he became the first No. 1 prospect from the state of Washington to commit to Washington since 2011, but since then the Huskies have kept four of the top six players at Washington in the 2015 and the 2016 classes. In the 2017 class, the Huskies have commitments from three of the top four and are waiting on a decision from the state’s top-ranked player, offensive lineman Foster Sarell, who took his official visit to Seattle earlier this month and could make it a perfect 4-for-4 for Washington.
All of these commitments are not direct branches off Baker’s commitment back in early 2014, but coaches do believe they have their roots there.
“Once we had gotten [Baker] to sign, it became cool to stay at home at the University of Washington,” Lake said. “Washington hadn’t had the top in-state recruits stay on because it was cool to go the next state below, it was cool to go to Southern California. But we started getting a lot of the top local guys. ... It just kind of opened up the dams of keeping all the in-state guys right here at the University of Washington.”
But it wasn’t just Washington. Slowly, the Huskies have invaded the “state below,” pulling prospects out of Oregon and expanding their footprint across the Pacific Northwest.
From the 2012 to 2014 classes, the Huskies failed to sign any of the top six prospects from Oregon. In 2015 and 2016, they got the No. 4 player and No. 8 in the state of Oregon, respectively. But in the 2017 class, the Huskies now have commitments from the two top players out of the state of Oregon, including Elijah Molden, son of former Oregon All-American defensive back Alex Molden.
Baker has meant a lot to these recruiting classes -- his own and those that followed -- but the fact that he panned out, as an in-state star recruit, served the Washington program hugely, and that was something Petersen understood when he took over the program, which has risen to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Because every Washington kid who tuned into a Huskies game over the past three seasons saw a player in Baker who they might’ve played against or knew someone who had played against him. They saw someone they could relate to, and as a result, they saw a link to the Washington program.
But even on top of that, it has been Baker’s personality that has continued to pay dividends for the team and its staff.
“It was his level of passion for football, and I’m not just talking about going out there and running around. In the meeting rooms and on his own just watching video, he has a passion for the game of football,” co-defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said of Baker. “The kid is one of the top we’ve been around when it comes to passion of football.”
Petersen told Fox Sports last spring that Baker’s commitment just under three years ago was “big,” that not only was Washington the right choice for Baker -- who has gone on to become a two-time All-Pac-12 first team selection -- but Baker was the right player at the right time for Washington.
“I think he fits our university and our program and the things we’re all about,” Petersen said. “He fits us to a T.”
In his 39 games for the Huskies, Baker has proved that, delivering some huge hits and plays for Washington. But in retrospect, looking at the impact he has already had on the program, the state and the Pacific Northwest as a whole, it’s safe to say that not only has he helped deliver wins for Washington but he was Washington’s first big win before this coaching staff ever started concocting game plans for a single opponent.