Transformation from career underachiever to top of the heap began with a face to face meeting with Urban Meyer last year and a conscious decision that it was time to change his life from the bottom up. It began in the classroom where he proved to everyone but more importantly, to himself, that he surely had the brainpower and the willpower to succeed. It extended to the football field where he played through multiple injuries including a broken rib and punctured lung to put together a 52-catch season that was good for 697 yards and five touchdowns.
He decided to try things Meyer's way last spring, convinced that the old Dallas Baker was heading on a pathway of uncertainty. He decided that he could give maximum effort in the classroom, maximum effort in the weight room and maximum effort on the practice field. He tried it and found out he liked it.
The new Dallas Baker did a 3.0 in the classroom, the first time he'd ever turned in such a GPA, and had a spring practice where he showed off a new work ethic.
"Last year at this time I wanted to do good things but I didn't even know how to prepare every day for practice and I really didn't know how to do my best on every play," said Baker Wednesday afternoon after the first spring practice of 2006. "I listened and I learned and I tried hard. This spring I'm prepared and I know that I have to give 100 percent every single play. I have to go as hard as I can every play in practice or in games."
The month between the win over Florida State (three catches, 38 yards, one touchdown) and the Outback Bowl allowed his battered body to heal. Against Iowa, he played full speed and pain free for the first time since early in the regular season. He torched the Hawkeyes for 10 catches, 147 yards and two touchdowns, a strong performance that earned Baker the MVP trophy and the expectations that 2006 will be a year to remember.
His career numbers are 91 catches, 1,316 yards and 11 touchdowns. Nobody would be surprised if he catches something like 60-70 passes for 1,100-1,200 yards and something like 12-15 touchdowns. If he puts up numbers like that he will make a steady move up the charts and finish his career ranked among the very best receivers in Florida history.
Numbers are nice and a place in the Florida record books is a good thing, too, but if you ask Dallas Baker if that's important you might be surprised to get an answer that reflects this confident, newfound maturity that has blossomed in the last 15 months.
"If we decide to run every single play and I don't catch a pass but my blocking helps us to win, then that's what's important," he said. "At some point you have to decide what's important and to me, what's important is to win. Nothing is more important than winning.
"If I don't catch a single pass all year but I give my best to do what the coaches ask me to do and it helps us to win games, then that's all that matters. It's not about what I do personally. It's all about what the team does."
Team. Since the day he arrived on the Florida campus, Meyer has constantly preached the virtues of what it's like to be a real team. Baker believed Meyer the first time he heard the speech and he's never once doubted that things like trust, accountability and sacrificing personal goals will transform Florida into a real team, the kind of team capable of winning a championship.
It wasn't until he watched Coach Billy Donovan's basketball team march its way to the Final Four that it really sunk in what a real team is all about.
"Listen to the interviews on TV and you hear Taurean (Green) talking and he's not talking about himself but he's talking about all the good things that Corey (Brewer) did," said Baker. "You listen to Corey and he's telling everybody how great Al (Horford) is and Al's talking about Joakim (Noah) and Joakim's talking about Lee Humphrey.
"They're what a team is all about. We live with them and eat with them and we talk to them all the time and they really do care about each other. They're a real team. They're what it's all about."
He looks at his own team and thinks about what they were last year and what the could be this year. Florida went 9-3 last year, a good record but not what it could have been. Now there is the 2006 season. It's his senior year and he is dying on the inside to win a championship.
But to win a championship, he knows there must be changes that take place in the Florida football team between now and the fall when the season begins.
"The basketball team is going to come home with a ring and that says once and for all that they're the best," said Baker. "I want a ring. I want to be a champion but to be a champion the team has to want it enough that we'll sacrifice personal goals for the good of the team. We've got to worry about total yards not how many yards I had or how many touchdowns I scored. We've got to worry about the team's total tackles and all the stops the team made, not how many tackles or sacks I got. When we start thinking about how well the team did and not look at my numbers then we'll become a great team.
"I really believe that if we become a true team like our basketball team that there isn't anyone who can beat us next year. I think we can do it. If you want to know what my most important goal for the spring is, that's it."