Running back Toney Baker could have returned for another season at NC State if he wanted to, but at age 23, having graduated in December and getting feedback from NFL scouts that has indicated Baker would likely be drafted in April, Baker has decided that he will forego taking a sixth year at NC State and move on.
Baker missed most of 2007 and all of 2008 with a major knee injury, but he made a successful, and some may say stunning, comeback by rushing 160 times for 773 yards and six touchdowns in 2009. Baker also caught 28 passes for 355 yards and three more scores and won the 2009 Brian Piccolo Award as the league's "most courageous" player.
After all the hard work and rehab Baker put in to make a successful return, some may think that the risk of another injury was a prominent reason for his departure. While Baker acknowledges that may have been part of his decision, that was not the main factor.
"You can't really control injuries," Baker said. "Coming back next year, there's a lot of things that could happen. I could have a really good season coming back, but I personally feel like it was time for me to go, especially after earning my degree here. Really I just feel like it's time.
"I was just thinking about the fact I have my degree. I had three pretty good years here at NC State. I just feel like it's time."
Baker said that he made his decision in December to leave. He has hired the services of Miami-based agent Marco Marciano to represent him and will train for the draft in Orlando, Fla. Baker also said he closely consulted with Wolfpack head coach Tom O'Brien throughout the process.
"He was very supportive, even at the beginning of the process after the Carolina game, he told me that he understands if the feedback I get that I'd be drafted he definitely can understand me coming out, but he also mentioned that he would love to have me back to play more football for NC State," Baker said.
"There's no question he would like to have me back, but at the same time he stepped back and told me that he can understand me leaving and that he would be behind me either way. I'm really thankful for that because a lot of coaches could have easily just tell you need to come back for whatever reason, but he stepped back and looked at the big picture for me. I'm really thankful he did that."
Baker will not forget about NC State however, and he said he will remember his five years in Raleigh fondly.
"Everything, everything from the academics all the way up to our football program and the fans, they're fantastic," Baker said. "How much support they gave me even when I was out two years, they were just very supportive. The people around here are special. I really enjoyed my time here. I did. I've been through two coaching staffs here. I think both of them did really well and had my best interests at heart."
Baker has not yet received an invitation to the NFL Combine, but he holds out hope that he could get one. He also feels like his strong play throughout the 2009 campaign will turn heads.
"I think it holds a lot, looking at the season, I think that is going to play a big part, and actually what I do at the combine and pro day will also help out a whole lot once they get their hands on me and see me in person doing all the drills that they want me to do and see that I can do them well, I think my draft stock will rise a lot," Baker said.
Replacing Baker and classmate Jamelle Eugene will not be an easy task for NC State. Junior Curtis Underwood, Jr. redshirted this past season after rushing 51 times for 200 yards and a touchdown in his first two campaigns. He will be challenged by rishing sophomores James Washington and Brandon Barnes.
Washington started the year as State's third back in the rotation and ran 21 times for 76 yards and two scores and also caught five passes for 44 yards before injuring his knee and missing the final five games of the season. Washington is expected to be healthy for spring practices.
Barnes ran 25 times for 79 yards and a touchdown. The four-star recruiting coming out of high school also caught three passes for 33 yards.
"There's going to be some good talent back there, no doubt about that," Baker said. "Curtis Underwood, he's been working hard all season. I think he's going to be running between the tackles for us. You got to see a little bit of Washington this year. He's going to be a great attribute as well. Barnes, he's pretty much an all-around back. I think they're improving and they're going to be good for the program."
Baker will watch their progress from afar. The Jamestown, N.C., native grew up admiring former NFL running backs Terrell Davis and Jamal Anderson, and now he is going to have the chance to make his own mark in the pros. Even though he had extra time to make his decision and did not necessarily have to make an announcement before the NFL early entry deadline, Baker said the opportunity was too exciting to pass up.
"I'm very excited just to train and get my body ready," Baker said. "I've really been working for this a long time. This is a dream of mine. Really just excited, anxious, just ready to get out there and play with the best."