MOBILE, Ala. – University of South Alabama football offensive lineman Ja’Chai Baker recently sat down with USAJaguars.com to discuss his journey to South, what he’s learned from playing under his position coach and how being a multi-sport athlete in high school has helped him with his position, among other things.
Baker, a senior from Omaha, Neb., played the last two seasons at Southeast Missouri where he earned preseason all-Ohio Valley Conference honors prior to the beginning of last season, and transferred into the program during the offseason as a graduate transfer. Prior to his time at SEMO, Baker played two seasons at Iowa Western CC earning all-conference honors for the Reivers. He began his collegiate career at Wyoming where he redshirted the 2016 season after being ranked as the 13th-ranked recruit in Iowa according to 247Sports coming out of Lewis Central High. The 6-foot-6, 310 pound lineman has started all three games this season for the Jaguars at ??
You’ve had quite the journey to get here starting out at Wyoming, then spent two seasons at the JUCO level before playing your last two seasons at Southeast Missouri. Talk to me about your path here to South Alabama.
“I would label the journey as one of never giving up on myself no matter what I’ve done or what’s been thrown at me. I’ve always just made a way. From when I was suspended at Wyoming to going the JUCO route, and then not finding the biggest school but making the best of that situation, and then having Covid give me another year to play. I’ve strived to make the best out of each situation, which ended up leading me to South and making me the person and ball player I am today.”
What factored into your decision to come to South Alabama?
“I would say definitely the new coaching staff. Coach [Kane] Wommack and Coach [Gordon] Steele welcomed me with open arms and wanted me to help build the program. I came here to help build the program and create a legacy.”
The offensive line has a bunch of new faces with you being one of those. Talk to me about the chemistry level of the group?
“I’ve known Tank [Antawn Lewis] from JUCO. James [Jackson] is just one of the guys and he and myself got really close over the summer. We’ve just really clicked as a unit. Anterrious [Gray] is also another guy that I’ve grown close to. We all come from different back grounds. We know that and embrace it. All of those guys are forever brothers to me.”
What did the group do to develop that chemistry?
“We went to dinners together and hung out after practice. We called and texted each other and just tried to help each other out, while also getting to know each other.”
Where do you feel the unit can eventually get?
“We can be as good as we want to be. We just have to take it day by day and accomplish all our goals by focusing on the small details. Everything else will take care of itself.”
What have you learned from playing under assistant coach Steele this season?
“Attention to detail and learning what the defense is trying to do. He’s really helped me learn the game of football. He’s a very smart guy. I’m learning the game more and more everyday under him from coverages to schemes to personnel, just everything.”
What do you like most about playing your position?
“Being physical and dominant, and knowing that I have to protect [quarterback] Jake’s [Bentley] blind side. If I don’t do my job, he can’t do his, and vis versa. I take pride in that.”
What are some of the strengths of the offense?
“Definitely our passing game. We need to dial in on our run game so more and key in on details. It’s coming along and will get there eventually. Our strength right now is definitely our pass game.”
What are some goals you set for yourself this season?
“I didn’t want to give up any sacks. I also wanted to be a better teammate each day. I wanted to be a dominant, physical lineman and eventually get an invite to the Senior Bowl.”
You already hold one degree and are working on your second, what is your first in?
“My first degree is in corporate communications.”
What are you wanting to do after your football career is over?
“I want to own my own businesses and be an entrepreneur. I want to own businesses in everything possible.”
What do you like to do in your spare time?
“I like to go out to eat and shop.”
Back to football now. What are some of the challenges the offense and the offensive line face this week against Louisiana’s defense?
“They have a big defense, but we’re just going to worry about us. It comes down to playing our game. If we do what we need to and pay attention to details, I expect us to be ok and be in position to get the win.”
As a graduate senior, what type of leadership role have you take on this team?
“Coming in as a new guy, I just wanted to make sure my teammates felt that they could trust me. I wanted to be a good teammate. I’ve only been here for a short time, so I’m just trying to be as helpful as possible and spread knowledge that I’ve acquired over my career to the younger guys on the team and plant seeds in them so that they can take it from there. If they have questions about technique or anything else, I’m there to help them.”
Where do you feel that you’ve improved most as a player since arriving on campus?
“My knowledge of the game: reading the defense, knowing different types of coverage and where guys are going to be. I’ve picked up the schematics of the game a lot more.”
What were some areas you want to continue improving as the season progresses?
“My run blocking. I need to stay lower and be more physical.”
Who has had the biggest influence on your life?
“My mother. She’s been there for me since day one. She pushes me to go harder every day.”
As an offensive lineman, agility and being able to move well are very valuable skills to have. How did being a multi-sport athlete in high school help in your development in that area?
“Basketball has definitely helped. Football and basketball go hand-in-hand, especially at the left tackle position. When you stop a defensive guy, you have to kind of dance with him a little bit and move your feet back and forth. My time playing basketball helped me a lot in that area.”
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