Q&A, Part II: With Brian Baker

In the second part of a two-part interview with linebackers coach Brian Baker, he analyzes the play of Henri Crockett, the future of Raonall Smith, the mentality needed to play middle linebacker and the possibilities for 2003.

Brian Baker, who joined the Vikings as their defensive line coach prior to the 2001 season after spending four years with the Detroit Lions defensive line, is now coaching linebackers for the Vikings. Baker also coached the defensive line with the San Diego Chargers in 1996.

Baker's coaching roots run deep, with seven years of NFL coaching experience and 12 years coaching at the college level, despite being only 40 years old. He started at the University of Maryland coaching linebackers in 1984-85, then coached fullbacks at Army in 1986, then served for nine years at Georgia Tech under Bobby Ross. His connection to Ross also brought him to San Diego and Detroit. He is also an active member of the American Football Coaches Association.

Q: How have the remainder of the young linebackers progressed?

A: The guy that we have the most hope for is our second-round pick (Raonall Smith). He showed flashes of being a guy that can really help us upgrade our defense before he got hurt. But he has missed the entire season, so basically he is going to be a little less dumb than most rookies. He will have some idea of our scheme because he's around it. He will have some idea of the intensity in the NFL because at least he has practiced a little bit in training camp and that kind of stuff with pads on. But he's no idea what it's like on Sundays, and the only thing that is going to prepare him for that is next year on Sundays. So, Raonall Smith will be a guy that can help us, but he's going to have to learn on the go.

Q: What can you do with him during the offseason to help his development?

A: The thing that you do in the offseason is give him a better mental knowledge, which gives him confidence because the more you know the more confident you play. But his biggest adjustment is just going to be playing on Sundays when things happen fast. That was his biggest adjustment in preseason. Things were happening fast, and it really kind of caught him off guard because there is no preparation for it.

Q: So being on the sidelines this season does not help him?

A: It's mental, and Raonall is more a rep guy. He learns a lot more from doing than he does from seeing. But obviously seeing it and being around it, he should come out with a lot more knowledge and a lot more confidence starting over than he did coming in as a rookie.

Q: What about Henri Crockett's play this season?

A: Early on we were preparing him to be our starting Mike linebacker, and he has never done that before. His progress was really slow because of that. He had never been in front of the defense and been in front of the huddle, being the man that has to set all that up and call all that. Mike linebacker, that guy is almost like a great running back. He's born. I don't know that you successfully make too many Mike (middle) linebackers because it's a real different position.

Q: What makes someone "born" to play that position?

A: Number one is, you are automatically — whether you accept it or not — you are a leader. You are calling the defense out, you have 10 other sets of eyes looking at you in the huddle. They are waiting to hear your calls so they can line up and play fast and physical. That guy really spearheads your defense. He's the guy that sets the tempo for your defense. A lot of those characteristics, everything I just said, I have down on paper, and they all have it. They know that's what it takes. But some guys don't have it and some guys do.

Q: How impressed were you with what Greg Biekert was able to do?

A Two things helped Biek. Number one, he came into a system he was already familiar with and number two, he is a born, bred ... I mean he was a Mike linebacker when he was 3. I don't know what position he played, but that's what he was. He sees the game well, he assimilates information on the go very quickly and, again, he plays with a confidence level that allows the other guys around him to play with a confidence level. A lot of those things are intangibles, but they are just as important as a 300-pound pass rusher. They affect the defense.

Q: How comfortable are you with the guys you have entering the offseason?

A: Obviously, very comfortable because these are guys we are winning some games with right now. They are getting better and better. I'm looking forward to some guys progressing to a level where we are not just trying to survive. As a coach, you start every season going into it and saying, ‘OK, we are going to win because my guys are going to play winning football for us.' At some point of camp I had gotten to a point where I'm saying, ‘OK, let's just make sure we are not winning games in spite of the linebackers.' I'd like to get back to a point where I'm used to, and that's saying, ‘Hey, we are going to win games because of the linebackers.' I think we are growing into that area. I think the progress of some younger guys will strengthen us, if nothing else with depth. If we come out next season and start out with the same three starters we have got, fine. They all should be better.

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