It all began fairly innocently at a Snyder High School football practice last year.
Jahleel Baker came to Snyder, thinking he was going to be a lineman. After all, it was the position he played for the Jersey City PAL football program.
“All throughout growing up, I was a lineman,” Baker said.
And as a 6-foot-2, 195-pound freshman, maybe along the line was the best spot for a growing adolescent.
But somehow in his heart, Baker thought differently.
“I knew I wanted to be a quarterback,” Baker said. “I just knew it. It was my desire to be a quarterback, because that’s what I wanted to do in college.”
So just on a whim during a practice last year, Baker told Snyder head football coach Ray Marshall of his idea.
Marshall’s reaction was like any other coach.
“I knew the kid from Little League baseball,” Marshall said. “He’s an outstanding pitcher in baseball. So when he told me he wanted to be a quarterback, I told him to get back with the linemen.”
Then, Baker picked up the football at the goal line. He turned and fired the ball. It landed 65 yards down the field.
“It’s true, that’s what I did,” Baker said.
“He turned and threw the ball 60 yards in the air,” Marshall said. “And he kept doing it over and over. I knew he was a good athlete. I didn’t know he could do that.”
Suddenly, Baker had a new position. His days as a lineman were over.
Sure, he still played defensive end for the rest of the season, but offensively, he learned the intricacies of the quarterback position.
“I watched and learned,” Baker said. “I took it up for the rest of the year, determined to become the starting quarterback.”
But the Tigers already had a starting signal caller in Titus Whitehead, who led the Tigers to a miraculous five wins last season.
“We wanted to get Titus back to wide receiver, which is his natural position,” Marshall said. “Titus is a good athlete. We knew he could handle going back to wide receiver. We just had to get Baker up to speed at quarterback. He had to learn the different verbiage of the plays and the different coverage in defenses. We didn’t have to worry about him throwing the ball. Just the little things, but he was picking them up quickly.”
Marshall said that he toyed with the idea of making Baker the starting quarterback last year, but stayed with Whitehead. However, as soon as the season ended, Marshall knew he had a new quarterback.
“He was green,” Marshall said. “This was the first time he was playing quarterback. I was shocked with his knowledge of the game. He was making the tough throws. It was like he was supposed to be there.”
“I was just waiting for the right time,” Baker said. “Now, I knew it was my turn to take this team to where they haven’t been in a long time.”
Meaning the NJSIAA state playoffs. Snyder has not been a participant in the postseason since 1990. Baker wants to make sure that drought ends.
“I’m determined to make that happen,” said the talented sophomore, who has begun this season like he was born to be a Snyder quarterback. “I’m very confident about it. I have a good feeling. I’m just trying to be successful and do bigger and better things than anyone else has ever done.”
Two weeks ago, the sophomore completed 15-of-19 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Marist.
Last week was his complete coming-out party. Baker completed an astounding 22 of 28 passes for 291 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Tigers to a 26-0 victory over Belleville.
For his actions, Baker has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Marshall said that he is not surprised by Baker’s explosion in the signal-calling elite.
“I’m not shocked at all,” Marshall said. “I’m just shocked that people are noticing him now for the first time. No one was giving him any credit. But he’s the real deal. When he runs, he’s very physical. And when he throws, he’s brilliant. I knew he had talent. I predicted this would happen. At the way he’s progressing, the way he’s got everything going, he’s the real deal who keeps getting better.”
Baker said he was determined to do well against Belleville.
“I was just focused,” Baker said. “Coach [Marshall] said before the game that if we didn’t win, there were no state playoffs. Well, I then became determined to win the game. I knew we had to win.”
Marshall said that he knew Baker was on a roll.
“He completed his first nine passes,” Marshall said. “He was just in a groove. He was focused. You could see it in his eyes.”
Baker said that he’s tried to stay humble through his recent success.
“This is just the new start of my high school career,” Baker said. “I’m only a sophomore. I have a lot more to go. I still have a lot to learn. But I know Snyder hasn’t been to the state playoffs in a very long time. It’s one of my goals to get this team there. I want to make Snyder history.”
It’s much easier to create history with the ball in your hands, rather than blocking for someone else who does. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com