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HUSKERS: Though playing time is down, senior LB Baker isn't
BY KEN HAMBLETON Lincoln Journal Star
It was close. Very close.

Rod Baker could almost taste the starting role as the strongside linebacker in the Nebraska defense.

As late as August, Husker linebacker coach Craig Bohl said Baker was in position to battle for the top spot and a coveted black shirt before the season opener.

Something happened. Scott Shanle, a sophomore walk-on, was given the starting nod and Baker was assigned the backup role for the opening game with San Jose State.

Shanle has done well and improved throughout the season. The sophomore from St. Edward is the fourth leading tackler on the team, has four tackles for losses, a quarterback sack, an interception, a pass deflection and three quarterback hurries.

Baker has played in two games and has one assisted tackle.

That might not seem like much to anybody into statistics. To Baker, the lack of opportunity is something he can't control.

What is important is that he is still on the team, still giving everything he has every day in practice and on course to graduate in engineering next spring. Baker and his 26 senior teammates will spring through the Nebraska locker room tunnel for the last time Friday before the 11:08 a.m. game with Colorado in Memorial Stadium (carried on ABC local channels 7 and 8).

"This is the hardest year I've ever been through here but I'm glad I'm still here," said Baker, who was a high school standout at Adams Central High School near Hastings. He was injured his senior year and recruiting efforts from many Division I schools dried up and Baker walked on at Nebraska.

"Your first year here as a redshirt, you feel it can't get any worse," he said. "You're lining up against the first team and getting banged around every day. You don't play and you don't travel with the team. It seems to last forever."

Baker played in three games as a sophomore and three more in 1998. He played in seven games last year, participated on special teams and earned academic All-Big 12 honors.

The academic honors were special because he is an industrial engineering major and he tripped badly as a sophomore. "I was too busy, I guess, and even though I worked as hard as I could I managed to get on double academic probation and posted a 1.75 grade point average," Baker said.

By the next year, he was back with a strong grade point average and has raised his overall average for four years to above 3.0."I got to work harder on the courses and really got going," he said. "I was thinking about changing majors to something easier, just like I thought about quitting the football team. But I chose to stick it out, try harder and I believe I have the most valuable lessons in life I could have."

He spent long hours talking with his family and his girlfriend about the possible changes to make things smoother. He spent a number of hours thinking about the choices he made.

"It's funny how I made the final decision to stick with engineering and then to stick with football here," he said. "I was speaking at a church group, about 10 older people, in Ashland and a woman came up to me and said, 'Stay with the engineering. You'll never regret it.' I stayed and next May I graduate."

Baker declined to discuss why he isn't playing more. At this stage it doesn't matter. "I'll be out there with my teammates, guys like Eric Fischer, Brandon Mooberry and Brian Wanish, and the starters, like Dan Alexander and Loran Kaiser, too. The people on this team are the people I've been close to for five years and getting out there one more time, in front of these incredible fans is still a big thrill.

"I remember the goose bumps running down my arm when I was a redshirt sitting in the stands the first time I was a Husker. Then, I took it for granted for awhile, I guess. Now, Friday, I can't imagine what kind of electricity we're going to all feel."

Saturday, Baker will go hunting with his father, Bruce, for the first time in a long time. "My license was expired in 1997 or something, showing that football and hunting just didn't fit time-wise," Baker said. "But, like all these guys who stuck it out, I'm proud I made the sacrifice because I know I'll be ready for anything in any profession I go into."

Reach Ken Hambleton at 473-7436 or khambleton@journalstar.com.

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