Cole Baker and Zach Burks are no strangers to high-level college football.
Baker spent last season on the roster of the most famous junior college in the country: East Mississippi Community College, the former location of Netflix show Last Chance U. He played in a conference littered with potential Division I athletes, including some that are now going through spring practice with schools like Alabama and LSU.
Burks — who verbally committed to Kansas before deciding on Ohio — played at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. He also played in a conference that featured a stable of Division I talent, including guys who are now at Oklahoma and Georgia, among others.
So when Baker and Burks decided their next stop would be on Ohio’s defensive line, coach Frank Solich was thrilled.
“They both, I believe, have the ability to help us right away,” Solich said.
With the Bobcats graduating nearly its entire defensive line, depth along that position was stressed in the recruiting cycle. Nabbing the two junior college transfers was huge for Ohio; Baker and Burks, who are roommates, have college experience against some of the best players the junior college level has to offer.
They’re part of the incoming freshmen class that enrolled in January after the NCAA’s first early signing period, which allowed players to sign their National Letter of Intent in December. The early signing period deems them eligible to participate in spring practice.
Baker has impressed coaches and shown what he’s capable of in his short time in Athens. At 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, he’s navigating through the depth chart and beginning to stand out. Of course, he stands out already as the guy on the team from East Mississippi Community College. He’s thankful for that step in his career. Under coach Buddy Stephens, Baker was a part of East Mississippi Community College’s 2017 National Championship team.
“It’s a place where you find out who you are on the inside,” Baker said. “And you find out who you are as an athlete.”
But Baker doesn’t put any pressure on himself as a product of a well-known school with copious national championships. The pressure, rather, came when he was at East Mississippi Community College and he was facing linemen who now block at schools in the Southeast Conference.
Reps against that talent could pay off for Baker. When the Bobcats travel to Virginia, an Atlantic Coast Conference team, facing top-notch linemen will be nothing new to him. He’s probably faced better.
Burks, meanwhile, was beginning to show his ability throughout spring camp. Now, you can find him on the sidelines in shorts and his jersey; he’ll likely be there for the remainder of spring practice. He has a nagging injury that sidelined him at times during his time in junior college.
When he is able to come back and contribute to practice — and in games, he hopes — he’s looking forward to the opportunity.
Burks is unlike many players in his shoes. He doesn’t talk trash on or off the field, and he doesn’t get very emotional. His experience has humbled him, and he’s just looking to earn his shot at playing time in the fall.
“Everybody’s trying to prove something at JUCO,” said Burks, who wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school and in junior college. “I’m just fortunate to be here. Not a lot of guys get this chance.”
As for the time being, both Burks and Baker are in the right place at the right time. The Bobcats not only need depth but also stability in their defensive unit. The offense remained almost entirely intact after a stellar 2017 campaign. The defensive backfield is loaded with talent and experience.
The only thing missing is a proven defensive line, but when given the chance, Baker and Burks will be ready to prove themselves. With the losses up front from a season ago, they just might have to.
“I want people to know who I am,” Burks said. “I want to make a name for myself.”