Ever since they worked together at Texas and Louisiana Tech, Manny Diaz and Blake Baker spoke of the ultimate end game:
Diaz getting a head coaching job and Baker joining him. That became reality this week, with Baker named UM’s new defensive coordinator — a position he held at Louisiana Tech the past four years.
“Knowing coach Diaz for eight years, this was something we always talked about,” Baker told Joe Zagacki on WQAM’s Hurricane Hotline in his only interview since being hired. “This was a dream of ours, one day him getting a head coaching spot and being able to bring me along.”
So what can UM fans expect strategically and philosophically from Baker’s defense? Very similar to what they saw with Diaz’s defense the past three seasons.
“Philosophically, we definitely [are similar],” Baker said. “Create confusion for a quarterback and be physical and violent in nature and take the football away from the offense. We share those ideas and similarities in the way we want to attack an offense. I’ve learned a lot from him as a graduate assistant. Both of us have evolved in different ways.”
Baker also believes in trying to keep teams off balance by changing defensive looks.
“If you sit on your heels and wait on an offense to read your conflict defender, they can pick you apart,” Baker said. “If you sit back there and play the same coverage and play soft coverages [you will be victimized]. Offenses are too good [now for that].”
Of defending the spread offense, he said: “There are multiple ways to attack them. Trying to make things look exactly the same pre snap or change the look pre snap. There are those two components. You see more man to man coverage than you did five, 10 years ago. You want to give our kids something they are mentally able to do - you have to stay aggressive.”
Baker will meet his players, collectively, for the first time on Sunday when they return from winter break. He’s thrilled that junior linebackers Shaquille Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud are all returning for their senior seasons.
“They’re going to make me a lot better coach right away,” he said. “I was definitely fired up about that. I’m excited to get a chance to meet them.”
Baker will retain the striker position that Diaz incorporated in UM’s defense last season. That player — a pseudo linebacker/safety — is often asked to chase running backs or tight ends or receivers in pass coverage. Junior Romeo Finley played that position effectively for UM this past season.
“It’s vital in today’s game,” Baker said of the striker. “We have good players there and it gives kids a different role in the defense; that most certainly will continue. It’s continuing to evolve and that position is a necessary evil in that it allows you not have to sub every time an offense subs, especially in the tempo portion of the game.”
With recruiting, Baker made clear UM isn’t going to pursue shady characters even if they’re talented.
“First thing we look for is high-charactered kids,” he said. “That’s one thing we talked about in our staff meeting. You can outwork a little more talented player than you are.”
The fact Baker has worked with Diaz and assistant coaches Ephraim Banda and Jonathan Patke should help.
“One of the most underrated things in college football is staff camaraderie,” Baker said. “It was a no-brainer with the history the four of us have together. It’s fun for the kids to be around. When we’re having fun, they’re having fun. There is no ego in our room…
“We’re going to call ourselves the band,” he added, laughing, when Zagacki mentioned that Jimmy Johnson called his staff his crew. “We’re going to get the band back together.”
And Baker embraces the challenge of stopping offenses in an era where some teams put up video game numbers.
College football today “is made for offenses to score points and you have to continually improve your craft. I’m excited to get in the film room with [Diaz].”
Under Baker, Louisiana Tech this past season ranked 27th in yards allowed, fourth in sacks per game, 12th in tackles for loss and 33rd in takeaways.
Here was my UM post from earlier Tuesday on grad transfers, a prep quarterback and other players that the Canes are pursuing for immediate help.