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Sam Baker came back for a final season at USC, and his decision figures to pay off in a big way next year

September 21, 2007|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

Sam Baker's workout was nearly complete, but suddenly it felt as if the weight of missed opportunity was crashing down upon him.

It was April, the first day of the NFL draft, and USC's All-American left tackle and his father had ventured to the gym to relieve stress.

Baker had decided to bypass potential NFL millions and return for a final season at USC. But there remained an element of "what if" anxiety as the teams began selecting players.

When the Cleveland Browns chose Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas third, Baker nodded his approval.

"He was a beast," Baker recalled thinking as he returned to his weightlifting routine.

Then, two picks later, the Arizona Cardinals selected another offensive tackle, Penn State's Levi Brown.

"Ahhhh!" Baker exclaimed in a brief but emotional that-might-have-been-me moment.

David Baker, commissioner of the Arena Football League, dropped his workout log and immediately counseled his son.

"He looked at me and said, 'Oh, Dad. We'd be counting money right now,' " David Baker said. "It took about five or 10 minutes to put him back together."

Recalled Sam: "My dad put it in perspective real quick. 'God has you here for a reason. You don't know where you could have gone. You could have been the last pick of the draft.'

"We were kind of having a little laugh about it."

Three months later, Thomas signed a five-year, $43-million contract that guaranteed him more than $22 million. Brown soon signed a six-year, $62-million deal that guaranteed him $18 million.

"That's when I was kind of like, 'Wow,' " Sam Baker said. "If we have two guys going top 5, that's cool. That means offensive tackle is getting more valuable."

Next April, the 6-foot-5, 305-pound Baker could be one of the most sought-after commodities in the 2008 draft. As Michael Lewis documented in his book "The Blind Side," left tackles are among the most coveted and highly paid players in the NFL.

For the time being, though, Baker is thrilled to be part of a Trojans offensive line that burst onto the national scene with a dominating performance against Nebraska.

USC rolled up 313 rushing yards as running backs repeatedly dashed virtually untouched deep into the Cornhuskers secondary. Five times they reached the end zone. Meanwhile, quarterback John David Booty went virtually untouched.

"I don't know if he's even given up three or four sacks his whole career," Booty said. "He's just kind of been the staple of our offense. He's the wall. . . . One of the best in college football if not the. I'm just blessed to have him on my backside."

The sage and bearded Baker, a four-year starter, led the way for a line that features a true freshman, Kris O'Dowd, at center.

"He goes out and shows every week that he's just a ridiculously consistent performer," offensive line coach Pat Ruel said of Baker. "It's motivation for the other guys to understand what it takes to be an All-American-type player."

With former All-American center Ryan Kalil now playing for the Carolina Panthers, the quiet and unassuming Baker has taken on a more vocal leadership role in the meeting room and on the field.

For example, when the Trojans arrived at Memorial Stadium to play Nebraska, offensive linemen huddled in the end zone with Baker providing fiery, inspirational words.

"It's not my personality, but it's easy to talk to my guys because it's almost like talking to your family," Baker said.

Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said Baker commands respect but also gives it to less-experienced teammates.

"When he tells them something it's a little different spin on it than maybe when it comes from Pat or myself," Sarkisian said. "It's, 'This guy is speaking from experience,' and I think they really trust and value his wisdom."

Sophomore tackle Charles Brown called on Baker throughout the spring and summer for extra work and instruction. After the offensive linemen went through their scheduled routines with coaches and strength-program personnel, Baker accompanied Brown to the practice field for more.

"When you watch his film, you know he's doing everything right all the time so he's not going to tell you anything wrong," Brown said. "Sometimes the coaches don't understand some stuff that you can't really do. But you know that [Baker] knows and he'll show you."

Baker, who declared before the Rose Bowl that he would return this season, had arthroscopic knee surgery before spring practice and is taking his final class this fall to earn a sociology degree.

He suffered a cracked rib during training camp and played sparingly in the opener against Idaho, but apparently healed as the Trojans took advantage of a two-week window because of an open date.

Then came Nebraska.

"I thought we could run the ball, but I wasn't thinking like that," Baker said. "It was cool. I've just been trying to tell everybody that we can do this every week if we're communicating right and everybody is on the same page taking care of their job."

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