Can Fast Willie carry the torch?

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> So far this season, the Steelers have lost their starting quarterback, back-up quarterback, right guard, left cornerback, nose tackle and inside linebacker for lengthy stretches.

Three of those players are out for the season; four of them entered the league as No. 1 draft picks; a fifth was a second-round pick. Yet, the Steelers are 7-1 and the consensus best team at the midway point of the season. So excuse the Steelers for not worrying whether undrafted rookie Willie Parker can pick the team up at Cleveland this Sunday.

"He's gonna have to," said guard Alan Faneca. "That's kind of been our motto this year. He's going to have to."

It's been expected of all back-ups, and will be expected of Parker when he replaces Verron Haynes as the Steelers' third-down back on Sunday.

With Duce Staley questionable with a hamstring injury that kept him out of last Sunday's game, and with Jerome Bettis nicked by a calf muscle, Parker could figure even more heavily into the game plan.

Not much is known about Parker, particularly since he carried the ball only 48 times as a senior last year at North Carolina. So what kind of back is he?

"Fast Willie Parker," Faneca said. "He's fast."

Yes, he's known as Fast Willie Parker to his teammates, and he's learned to live with it.

"That's what I think everybody's calling me," Parker said. "But that ain't my name. My name Willie. They don't listen. They be telling me, 'Aw, shut-up rook.' So I just sit and laugh with them and play along with the guys."

How fast are you?

"Pretty fast," he said.

The fastest guy on the team?

"I don't know about all that, but I know I'm in the top two, the top three."

What's your 40 time?

"I can run a 4.2, but you can take me out of here right now and I'll run a 4.3 no matter what."

So he is Fast Willie Parker, and he showed it this preseason when he led the Steelers with 202 yards and 46 carries (4.5 avg.). He flashed the 4.3 speed then, and afterward offered several reasons why he hardly played at North Carolina: There was the position coach who didn't care for him; there was the head coach who preferred bigger backs; there was the awful offensive line; there were the unproven whispers of fumbling problems.

It's safe to say his four years at North Carolina weren't much fun. But here he is, smack dab in the middle of a pennant race, and Fast Willie Parker is about to be thrust front and center.

Haynes injured his big toe last week after catching a screen pass. Parker stepped in late in the game and carried three times for 14 yards, including a very fast run for 10 yards around end. Haynes was limping severely Wednesday and did not practice. He's listed as doubtful for the game, so he was asked what Parker's most important job as third-down back will be.

"Out there on third downs they disguise a lot of blitzes, so just recognizing defenses," Haynes said. "That's a big part of third down. That's when defenses disguise all their blitzes and they come with their best shot. Protecting the quarterback is always No. 1. That's how we make plays down the field."

Parker has no apprehensions about his blocking. He may only stand 5 feet 10 and weigh 209 pounds, but he's solidly put together and shouldn't have trouble with the physical aspect of blocking.

"My blocking's real good," Parker said. "I was comfortable in preseason blocking. That's just something you have to do in this league, block and catch the ball. I knew that coming in and I worked on it a lot."

Did Parker ever see holes at North Carolina like the ones the Steelers' line opened last week? "Never, never," he said. "I'd be sitting on the sideline telling people I'm not used to nothing like that, opening up holes you can just drive through."

Parker may be taking a big step up, but he'll still have his rookie chores, such as bringing Gatorade to Mr. Staley.

"They don't stop with that," Fast Willie said. "They just treat me like a little kid around here, but it's fun. I think with the team chemistry, a lot of rookies are doing stuff like that. I think that's why we're so successful right now."

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