The last and only punt of redshirt junior Toby Baker’s Arkansas football career was nothing to write home about.
Unless you were UAB’s Jamarcus Nelson, who returned Baker’s 36-yard, low-flying boot 33 yards down to the Arkansas 10.
“There’s only up from there,” Baker said.
The 22-year-old Baker (6-3, 202), a Memphis native who has won the punting job headed into Saturday’s season opener with UTEP, had taken over the job last season when Sam Irwin Hill was slumping.
“The ball was supposed to go left and I cut it across to the middle of the field and they took it back to the 3,” Baker said. “Then that resulted in the only three points that they scored (in a 45-3 Arkansas win). That was basically my fault. Again, it only goes up from there.”
Baker, who was a quarterback that passed for 1,400 yards and 12 touchdowns while also 42.2 yards per punt his senior season at Memphis University School, noted that he never lost confidence in himself.
“It didn't really affect my confidence too much,” Baker said. “Obviously I wanted to do better, but I knew and the coaches knew that wasn't what I've shown. … That wasn't the best ball.
“It was pretty bad. I just kind of shrugged it off. It was tough during that day and night. But I came back the next week and did the same thing I'd been doing earlier in the year.”
Baker, who bombed a 57-yarder in scrimmage during preseason camp, had held off incoming U.S. Army All-American Blake Johnson even before Johnson’s alcohol-related arrest last weekend.
“Toby Baker’s been hitting the ball very, very strong,” Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema said.
Razorback defensive line coach Rory Segrest, who is in charge of the punt team, admits Baker has been a work on progress.
“Toby's really made a lot of progress in the off-season,” Segrest said. “Last year he was really inconsistent just to be honest with you. But he knew that, and so he put that time and effort in during the off-season and he's hitting the ball really well.
“He's not perfect by any means, but he's a long way ahead of where he was this time last year.”
“…He's hitting the ball with a lot of power right now and he's hanging the ball up for us. Of course, we directional punt. Everybody knows that and he's getting the ball where we need it. All those factors combined he's doing a nice job with it.”
Baker said it has been indeed been a matter of consistency.
“My two goals this whole time in camp has been hang time and consistency,” Baker said. “I've been working on that in the spring and during this whole summer. … I've worked on having the same drop every time, the same steps, the same everything, so that I can be as consistent as possible.
“Just simple things … walking down a straight line working on your drop for 30 to 45 minutes. As boring as that might sound, it's helped me a ton.”
He has a simple goal for how long he wants the ball in the air.
“Our goal is 4.5 hang time,” Baker said. “I'm close to that. My average is a little lower than that, so I'd like to get it up.”
He chose to walk on at Arkansas over the same opportunity at Tennessee and Alabama.
“"It's really funny Arkansas wasn't my leader when I was in high school," Baker said. " (Former Arkansas assistant) Tim Horton recruited me and it was either Tennessee, Alabama or Arkansas.
“....Dylan Breeding was the only punter here so I thought it was a better situation than the other schools that were recruiting me."
But Australian-born Hill arrived in 2013 and immediately won the job meaning that Baker had to exhibit one attribute.
“Patience,” Baker said. “Timing's everything. Just being ready to be able to be a punter and learning about the consistency and the little things that matter, working on my drops and my steps by myself is more important than going out there and trying to hit a perfect ball every time. But you have to do the little things first to be able to do that.”
Baker, who also played basketball and soccer in high school, is well aware of how Bielema is a big fan of using fake punts and that has him excited.
“How can it not?,” Baker said. “A punter doesn’t get to do that too ofter. Right now though I am just concentrating on punting.”
He’s a big fan of senior snapper Drew Groton, who takes over for the graduated Alan D’Appollonio.
“He's awesome,” Baker said. “There's no letdown from Alan to Drew. He's so consistent. Every time the ball's right where you want it. You don't have to worry about it. You trust him, because you know he's going to be put the ball where it needs to be. You don't have to worry about that. You can just worry about what you need to do.”