In many ways, 2021 was a special season for Southern Illinois quarterback Nic Baker. As a sophomore, the downstate Rochester product started all 13 games propelling the Salukis to an eight-win season, a playoff road win and a single-season program passing record.
Now a upperclassman, Baker wants more. Much more.
“Simply not enough. That’s all I can think of is that we didn’t do enough,” Baker told Prairie State Pigskin Tuesday. “I had a couple big games. I had a some games that weren’t so good. I want to have those big games every game. I want that to be the norm because when you play good (as a quarterback), the team plays good.
“That’s just the reality of a quarterback. You can’t have a bad quarterback and win.”
Baker sees what he calls “the little things” making the difference toward becoming more consistent.
“I need to be more accurate (as a passer) and getting better at those little things,” he said. “I need to be more of a presence on the field.
“As a team, we accomplished a lot of things (in spring ball). We got a couple of new guys in a few spots. We got accustomed to seeing those guys making plays all camp.”
Passing records & the next step
Last season Baker threw for 3,231 yards, breaking Saluki head coach Nick Hill’s single-season mark — a fact that has led to friendly jousting between student and mentor.
“He lets me know he’s still got the passing touchdown record,” Baker chuckled. “We definitely banter a bit.”
Certainly Hill knows a thing or two about being an elite quarterback. In addition to the passing TDs record, Hill still holds the best completion percentage (68.3) in school history.
Hill also led the Salukis to a win at Indiana in 2006, a game in which he tossed four touchdowns as SIU became the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s first team to defeat a Big Ten opponent. Hill capped off his career the following year by leading the team to the national semifinal round of the playoffs. He was also a finalist for the Walter Payton Award as the top player in I-AA football (now FCS).
Hill, now in his seventh season leading the SIU program, sees Baker more than capable of becoming an elite quarterback.
“When you take the next step at quarterback, it’s decision-making at critical moments, it’s situational awareness and mastering different situations — when is it the right time to pull the trigger and when to let the game come to you,” Hill explained. “We were throwing it for low-60s (completion percentage) last year, and we’d like to push that to 70 percent.”
Baker and the offensive staff have spent time in the film room breaking down his highlights and mistakes.
“You don’t want to overcomplicate things,” Baker said. “It’s knowing what I did well in those big games and knowing what I didn’t do well in those bad ones, stuff like turning the ball over.”
From the film room to the field
Many coaches and players will tell you that next fall’s triumphs are the result of this off-season’s training. Baker is taking those lessons to heart.
“It’s taking the completions that are there and not trying to do too much,” Baker said. “Everybody wants that guy who makes a play every play, and I think I’m capable of doing that, but being the quarterback you’ve got to be able to roll with the punches and take what the defense gives you. But when an opportunity presents itself, make a big play. I just need to get better with the completions and not turning the ball over.”
There’s no doubt that each football season is a grind. Every player feels the aches and pains as the leaves turn brown and fall from the trees. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 194 pounds, Baker is no different.
“It’s not just keeping your body in shape, it’s keeping your mind in shape throughout the season,” he said. “I try to run more and stretch a little bit more. I think my body can hold up pretty well. I’ve incorporated a few different things, especially with my mind.”
Baker’s mind is more than capable. After all, he was named to the MVFC All-Academic team with a 3.723 GPA in finance.
“I have goals of being in the real estate business (after college), that’s why I’m in finance. You may as well learn about the business of money,” he said.
So for now, his goal remains gaining valuable real estate against SIU’s opponents and making sure his passes are on the money.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself. Yes, we made the playoffs and all that jazz, but that’s not enough. It’s not enough to just make the playoffs. We want more,” Baker said. “We want to be one of those elite programs.”