FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — A couple hours after Austin Allen burrowed into the end zone, securing Arkansas’ seismic, double-overtime victory at TCU, Razorbacks players and coaches filed onto the airplane to head home. Bret Bielema spotted punter Toby Baker and said hello.
“Hey coach,” Baker replied. “Don’t quit.”
OK, now take a deep breath, Razorbacks fans. Bielema isn’t quitting. You won’t have any trouble spotting him on the Arkansas sideline during Saturday night’s Texas State game (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network).
No, Baker was just teasing after he’d read some of Bielema’s postgame comments. The head Hog had joked he was “going to quit” if Baker wasn’t named SEC Special Teams Player of the Week. Baker averaged a whopping 50.7 yards on six kicks, including a long of 59 yards.
But Baker didn’t earn that honor and Bielema didn’t tender his resignation. But Bielema hasn’t stopped praising his senior punter since last Saturday, when Baker showed beyond any reasonable doubt that he is one of Arkansas’ most valuable players.
Who could have guessed it four years ago, when the Memphis, Tenn., native walked on, then watched as Bielema signed scholarship punters in two of the next three recruiting classes before winning the job before his junior season last year.
“I will tell you what,” Bielema said this week. “This kid focuses in on his task, is more detailed than any player that I’ve been around on offense, defense, special teams.”
Baker was a two-year starter at quarterback under coach Bobby Alston at Memphis University School, but always felt like punting presented the best path forward in his budding football career.
“He was probably a Division II — or a potential Ivy League — kind of guy at quarterback,” Alston said in a telephone interview. “But you could tell he had a special gift for punting, so that’s what he decided to pursue.”
No Division I scholarship offers came for Baker, though, and he chose to walk on at Arkansas in the summer of 2012. With second-team All-SEC punter Dylan Breeding set to leave after Baker’s first season, he saw an opportunity for himself with the Razorbacks.
But Bielema — who was hired as Arkansas’ new coach in December 2012 — signed Australian junior-college transfer Sam Irwin-Hill in his first recruiting class.
Then in February 2015, after Irwin-Hill’s eligibility had run out, Bielema inked Blake Johnson, a standout high school punter from California who many expected to take over the Hogs’ punting job right away.
All the while, Baker stuck around, never really giving much thought to quitting football.
“I really didn’t have a problem with him bringing in any other guys,” Baker said. “I knew my abilities and I knew I wanted to do it. … I had really grown to love this place and gotten my roots here, had my friends here. … There wasn’t really anything in my mind where I wanted to leave.
College football special teams players are unique in that they are largely unsupervised during practices, other than a few team periods at the beginning. Successful kickers and punters usually need to be self-motivated, and in that department, Baker has been exceptional.
That work paid off last season when Baker earned the Hogs’ punting job.
“When a coach puts scholarship money into somebody, he’s gonna make sure that kid has to really not do it before he gives the job to somebody he didn’t put money in,” Alston said. “We knew it would be an uphill battle. Toby knew it would be an uphill battle.
“But his determination and persistence and belief in his ability, that he could do it, I think is what has made the difference.”
He appeared in all 13 games last season, averaging 41.2 yards per punt.
And last weekend in Fort Worth, his leg played a major role in Arkansas’ upset victory. During the first half — when Arkansas built a 13-0 lead and managed to keep TCU’s up-tempo offensive attack at bay — Baker drilled punts of 59, 51 and 54 yards that completely flipped the field.
Put in unfavorable field position, TCU didn’t score on any of the ensuing first-half drives following Baker’s punts, a fact that ultimately made a big difference after the Horned Frogs’ offense got hot late and forced overtime.
“He was simply sensational on Saturday,” Bielema said, “and I think the best is yet to come.”