Ronald Baines has worked hard to get where he is – harder than most fans will ever know.
By his reckoning, he finally arrived during fall camp of 2012, when he earned a starting cornerback position at Eastern Washington.
“My reaction was overwhelming, but I didn’t take it that I’m a starter, that I’m going to get a big head,” said Baines, now in his second year opposite T.J. Lee III.
“All the hard work has paid off,” said the soft-spoken Baines, who by the end of that season won Honorable Mention in the Big Sky Conference.
The work began back home in Tacoma, where Baines struggled to overcome a hearing problem that has followed him to adulthood. By the time Baines was a senior at Mt. Tahoma High School, the resulting problems in the classroom scared off several Pac-12 schools despite some stunning performances on the field as a running back.
The biggest highlight was a 412-yard rushing performance against Shelton in the opening game of the 2008 season. Eastern took notice, and first-year head coach Beau Baldwin and former assistant Torey Hunter visited the Baines home.
More hard work awaited Baines, who redshirted in 2009 and focused on his studies even as his role changed on the field; he was moved to cornerback in 2010.
That wasn’t a complete surprise – a possible position change from running back was discussed even during recruiting – but, still, it was a major adjustment.
“I hardly played any defense, and not at all my junior and senior years in high school,” said Baines, who saw action mostly on special teams during EWU’s national championship 2010 season.
“That was such a great moment,” Baines said.
Baines made his first career start at corner the following season against Sacramento State, played extensively and finished the year with 25 tackles. But he wanted more.
“I had the mindset that I wanted to play a lot more, and I knew my skill set,” said the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Baines, one of the fastest players on the squad. The battle to succeed the graduated Alden Gibbs was one of the major talking points of fall camp in 2012. Baines let his work ethic do the talking.
“I just wanted give it my all through fall camp,” Baines said. “But the grind never stops, regardless of whether you start or not.”
In fact it was just beginning. Playing opposite Lee, an All-American, had predictable results: Opponents targeted Baines, testing him over and over. That he’s passed most of those tests speaks to his work on and off the field, cornerbacks coach Cherokee Valeria said.
“It’s been an uphill battle at times, but he does a lot of things off the field, perfecting his technique day in and day out,” said Valeria, who joined Baldwin’s staff in the spring of 2012.
“He’s one of the most dedicated disciples I’ve ever had,” Valeria said.
Baines acknowledges that opposing offenses “are probably going to pick on me more than T.J. I just have to rise to the challenge.”
It happened again in this year’s season opener at Oregon State. The Beavers tried to isolate star receiver Brandin Cooks alone on Baines. Cooks had a strong first half, including a 48-yard gain along the sideline despite good coverage by Baines.
“They kept attacking me,” said Baines, who has 31 tackles this year. “I’d get a little frustrated, but you have to keep going every play.”
As the game wore on, Baines’ coverage helped force Oregon State to go away from the long ball.
Baines’ biggest highlight came against Southern Utah. With the Thunderbirds driving into Eastern territory in the third quarter and the game still in doubt, Baines ripped the ball away from receiver Easton Pedersen as both players were falling to the turf.
“That’s what I love about the game – making plays with a bunch of guys who love the game the same way I do,” Baines said.
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