Freshman running back Quinton Baker has survived rocky first year with WKU

WKU Hilltoppers freshman running back Quinton Baker (3) try to escape a tackle from FIU junior...
WKU Hilltoppers freshman running back Quinton Baker (3) try to escape a tackle from FIU junior linebacker Treyvon�Williams (52) during the game against the Florida International Panthers on Saturday at L.T. Smith Stadium. Nov. 5, 2016. WKU defeated FIU, 49-21. Matt Lunsford / WKU Athletics(WBKO)
Published: Nov. 23, 2016 at 9:43 AM CST
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It has been an up-and-down 2016 for Quinton Baker – and that’s not strictly referring to life on the football field.

A freshman running back for Western Kentucky, Baker missed the program’s annual spring game because of a minor ankle injury, pleaded guilty to a criminal offense in May, and has battled through a sometimes-rocky first season as a Hilltopper.

Yet, after 11 games, the 5-foot-10, 195-pound Ashland native has carried the ball 87 times for 429 yards and three touchdowns while becoming one of WKU’s many offensive threats.

“This has been the funnest season I’ve had so far,” he said Tuesday. “I haven’t played as much as I had in high school, but from a learning standpoint, I can feel myself growing in the game. Just everyday, these guys come out with a positive mindset to get better every day.”

Baker was an intriguing prospect while playing at Blazer High School in Ashland, a campus just 19 miles from where Western Kentucky will face Marshall at 6 p.m. CST Saturday. He ran for 1,976 yards as a senior and scored 26 times – part of a 6,234-yard and 86-TD career.

A Mr. Football finalist in 2015, Baker had already committed on two different occasions to two different programs before deciding to attend WKU. He pledged to the University of Kentucky in 2014.

“Shoot, that was two years ago. That’s crazy. But at the time, it was really my first offer,” he said. “I went and saw all the new facilities, saw the new field that was coming, my dad went there, and it just all seemed right for me to go there. The more I looked into it, the more it really didn’t fit me. So I kinda took a step back.”

Baker’s father, Al Baker, played for Kentucky from 1986-90 where he was known as a speedy – but also bruising – back who totaled 1,427 yards on the ground, 317 yards as a receiver and 17 total touchdowns.

Al won state championships at Trigg County High School as a weightlifter and sprinter.

“I think one of things that (Quinton's) learned is he has to get stronger. I think in high school he was just quick,” Al said about watching his son play at the collegiate level. “I think now he realizes you have to be strong and quick and ready to go at any time.”

Al Baker is the cultural diversity director at Ashland Community and Technical College. His son left home and enrolled at Western Kentucky in January. A few months later Quinton found himself in trouble.

He was arrested April 24 and charged with failure to produce an insurance card, instructional permit violations, possession of open alcoholic beverage container in a motor vehicle, possession of marijuana, careless driving, and operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

In May, Quinton pleaded guilty to two of those charges.

“First time on campus and the first time out of the house, you go out and you do some things that you shouldn’t be doing. And you learn from it. Hopefully he’s learned from it,” Al said. “I really appreciate him being there and being honest with me and talking to me. He makes mistakes, I think I made mistakes, and I think everybody’s made mistakes they wish they could take back. It’s a little more costly when you’re an athlete – and especially a scholarship athlete.

“I think he’s kinda calmed down and realized that, ‘Hey, it’s a take second before you’re whole career is gone.’ You have to really be smart about every decision you make.”

Quinton, on the field, had already missed WKU’s spring game with an ankle injury. His career on The Hill was close to ending before even getting started.

“I learned, really, to grow up,” he said. “That really changed my whole perspective of life. After that experience it was just all different.”

Going into the 2016 season, Baker was expected to see limited action at running back, and maybe get a chance here or there in the kick return game. But a season-ending injury to backup running back D’Andre Ferby, along with some minor injuries throughout the year that limited starter Anthony Wales, thrust Baker and fellow freshman Marquez Trigg into the spotlight.

Baker has played in every game for the Tops and is now second on the team with 429 yards while averaging 4.9 yards per carry. He eclipsed the 100-yard mark in Week 3 at Miami (Ohio) and has three games where he averaged more than six yards per run.

And he’s still getting better.

“He’s really done a great job of getting under (Wales), and ‘Ace’ has done a great job of just coaching him up, of being kind of a coach on the field,” WKU running backs coach Chris Barclay said. “He’s gotten a lot more patient, and I think he’s worked on it, but it’s still something he needs to improve on.

“The game, for most freshman, is a transition period. Everything moves faster. But he has to play the game and anticipate. A lot of times freshmen react and don’t anticipate. Sometimes he’s moving too fast, but not allowing things to develop yet. That’s something he’s gotten better with over the course of the season. He’ll continue to improve.”

Fumbles have also been an issue for Baker. He lost one against Miami (Ohio), lost another the following week against Vanderbilt, and lost two Nov. 5 against Florida International.

“It’s part of it. I just gotta fix it,” Baker said. “It’s really on me. It’s not anything else anybody can do. It’s just persistence, and just holding on to it.”

Al Baker said he expects at least a party of 10 members of the Baker family to attend Saturday’s game – that number doesn’t include friends and former teammates and coaches from Quinton’s high school team.

Quinton also committed to Marshall in June before rescinding that announcement to side with WKU. So the final regular-season game of Baker’s first year will be a homecoming of sorts.

And he’d like nothing more than to cap it off with a productive day on the field.

“I’m real excited,” he said. “Hopefully I can go out and do my thing.”

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop

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