LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) – The injuries sometimes made even walking difficult. That might explain why Dorian Baker is so eager to run back on the field.
A balky hamstring cost the Kentucky receiver his first three games of 2016 and limited him to just two late touchdowns and 208 yards. Baker’s hopes of following up that promising finish ended last August with a season-ending broken left ankle in the final scrimmage.
Now, however, the senior has recovered and awaits to Saturday’s opener against Central Michigan determined to prove he’s healthy and ready to be a reliable target.
“I just need that first catch, that first tackle and I feel like I’ll be good,” said Baker, who had career highs of 55 catches for 608 yards and three touchdowns in 2015. “I’ve just got to get those jitters, those butterflies out of my stomach right now.”
Fall camp has helped the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Baker shed rust after nearly two years off the field. Though Kentucky coaches have taken care to ensure he hadn’t overdone things, they haven’t exactly babied him, either. Most encouraging has been his response after taking initial hits in scrimmages and making cuts while running routes.
“He gets more and more comfortable with every opportunity,” coach Mark Stoops said. “First time he was tackled since he was injured and getting that rust off, I think that was very helpful for him and a big confidence builder.”
Baker has also shown an intensity that’s critical to leading a young receiver corps and familiarizing himself with newly named starting quarterback Terry Wilson. Kentucky first-year receivers coach Michael Smith just wants to ensure he follows a steady path.
“The biggest thing right now is just getting him back in shape and being smart with his reps because of what happened last year with the injury,” Smith said.
“He’s made a lot of progress. The thing that Dorian does, he practices fast, he’s a big, physical wide receiver. We’ve just got to keep polishing him up and getting him back into game shape.”
Keeping Baker looped in during his recovery was key. He participated in workouts and team activities. Smith and quality control assistant Tommy Mangino gave Baker additional duties working with his younger cohorts, a responsibility that has helped Baker look beyond his situation and learn additional nuances about his position.
“I’ve been through so much, so it’s kind of hard to keep my eyes on everybody else,” Baker said. “I’m trying to do my best right now to keep my eyes on everybody and make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. At the same time, I’m trying to get myself together.”
Much of that process occurs before and after Baker hits the field.
He comes in early to get the heat treatments and stretching on the ankle to ensure it’s loose before drills. Baker seemed eager to leave a media group after a recent practice to ice his ankle and prepare for the next day.
“I’m not the same dude that can come out and just move around the same,” he joked.
Maybe not, but Baker has recovered well enough to reclaim his spot in Kentucky’s offense.
He’ll start at the ‘Z’ receiver spot, the beginning of an effort to replicate his breakout 2015 season in which he led the Wildcats in receptions – with 26 going for first downs. Baker would also welcome something close to the final two games of 2016, when he grabbed both of his TDs and seemed to regain his groove.
Overcoming that hamstring injury made Baker confident he’d bounce back stronger from the ankle surgery. As he dreams of making clutch plays again, getting those first-game snaps matter more.
Though not as much as getting through camp in good shape.
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