ATHENS, Ga. — The better Georgia sophomore cornerback Deandre Baker played this season, the more people wanted to leave town.
Tennessee tailback Jalen Hurd was never the same on the football field after Baker leveled him during the Oct. 1 thriller in Sanford Stadium, which resulted in a fumble that the Bulldogs recovered in the end zone. Hurd averaged 2.1 yards per carry in the next two games he played before deciding to leave the program.
Fellow Georgia sophomore cornerback Juwuan Briscoe held a starting spot until Baker replaced him four games into the season. Briscoe transferred from Georgia earlier this month.
"I didn't play a lot at the beginning of the season, and I knew I had to work hard so that people would know who I am," Baker said. "I worked hard every day in practice and never stopped working, and I started making a lot of plays in practice. When it was my time and they called my number, I was ready."
Rico McGraw, another Bulldogs sophomore cornerback, transferred this month due to his lack of playing time.
A 5-foot-11, 180-pounder from Miami, Baker was a consensus three-star signee in Georgia's 2015 class but had caught the eye of former Bulldogs defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt when Pruitt was Florida State's defensive coordinator in 2013. Baker played as a true freshman but didn't make a dent, recording one tackle in a 52-20 trampling of South Carolina.
When it came to a starting spot for this year's opener against North Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, Baker was nudged out by Briscoe. After Briscoe struggled in the third game at Missouri and again during the first half the following week at Ole Miss, Baker replaced him and made three second-half tackles against the Rebels.
"The second half of the Ole Miss game was where it started, and I knew I had to stay hungry," Baker said. "Once you get that opportunity, you can't get relaxed. There are other guys working hard just like you are."
Baker's first career start occurred the next week against Tennessee, which contained the highlight at Hurd's expense.
"He was pretty relaxed and thought he had scored," Baker said after that game. "I just fought through and finished like we always do in practices. Coaches always tell us to keep finishing on the ball, and I happened to make a good play."
Georgia fed off Baker's big hit, marching 80 yards and taking a 17-0 lead when quarterback Jacob Eason fell on a Sony Michel fumble in the opposite end zone. When asked about Baker following the eventual 34-31 loss to the Volunteers, first-year Georgia head coach Kirby Smart labeled him "one of the top five athletes on the team."
A sprained ankle forced Baker to miss the upset loss to Vanderbilt, but he bounced back as Georgia's most productive defender with a 10-tackle, one-sack performance in the 24-10 loss to Florida. He heads into Friday's Liberty Bowl game against TCU having started in six of the last eight games and having tallied 29 tackles.
Baker also has two interceptions this season, including one he returned 28 yards during the 35-21 win over Louisiana-Lafayette.
"He takes practice so seriously," Smart said late in the regular season. "He takes pride in tackling. We've challenged the corners, telling them that if you want to play, you better tackle. That's one of those areas we've been really weak in and he's been really strong in."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.