Baker hoping to fill big shoes in secondary

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau used 3-safety sets down the stretch last season, but lost a key component when Chris Hope signed elsewhere. According to Steelers insiders, undrafted rookie Zach Baker has a good chance to take Hope's place on the roster.

Number 28 of the Pittsburgh Steelers has one great run on his resume and it came out of punt formation.

On a reverse from the slot, Zach Baker took a handoff 44 yards, the longest run of his career. It was similar to a play made by the guy who last wore No. 28 for the Steelers, Chris Hope, who once took a pass on a fake punt for 81 yards and a touchdown.

Can Zach Baker, the 6-1 5/8, 212-pound strong safety-turned-free safety turn it all into an NFL career, a la Hope?

"Obviously these are big shoes to fill," said Baker. "He's obviously a great safety, one of the best in the NFL. Hopefully I can wear the number with pride."

Baker, unlike Hope, wasn't drafted, but the Steelers are hoping they found buried treasure in this former Pirate.

Baker looked like an NFL player early his senior season. Following up on a junior season at East Carolina University in which he led his team with five interceptions and was second with 76 tackles, Baker intercepted two passes and recovered a fumble in an opening-day win over Duke. He was on the NFL's radar screen, but Baker intercepted only one pass the rest of the season and could not improve upon the third-team all-conference status of his junior season.

"I got hurt in the fourth game against Southern Miss and missed the next three games," Baker said. "I had a couple of drops and then got injured in the last game. It was kind of an injury-plagued season, which was a disappointment. But I'm here now and I have to make the most of what's happened since then."

Baker tested well. He was timed at 4.53 and 4.55 seconds in the 40 and had a vertical jump of 39 inches. His 6.9-second 3-cone time and his 16 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press are representative of NFL safeties, but he wasn't drafted.

"It's a little disappointing but I got my opportunity and I'm going to do my best to make the team," he said.

At spring drills with the Steelers, Baker displayed the high motor, discipline and change-of-direction ability for which he had been noted. The team also likes his size and speed, although he struggled a bit in man-to-man coverage.

"It's definitely a very complicated system," he said. "It's tough learning this thing, but slowly but surely it starts to click more and more each day."

Only three years ago, Baker was playing a straightforward cover-three at a junior college in Arizona. He'd come out of Tucson as an all-city player who had six interceptions and 12 touchdown catches at Sabino High. At Pima Community College, Baker became a second-team All-America selection before transferring to ECU. He believes he's improving each year.

"I hit puberty at a late age, so I'm a late bloomer," he explained.

Baker's a confident player, but one who hadn't imagined receiving a serious look from the Super Bowl champs.

"I really didn't," he said. "But it's great to be here. I've always been a 49ers fan but I'm a Steeler fan now."

And his teammates?

"Good helpful guys," Baker said. "You can always ask the veterans for help and they're there to give you any advice you need and help you get on that playbook. They're good guys."

He said the most helpful teammate has been Troy Polamalu.

"The nicest guy you've ever met; real helpful," Baker said. "It makes you wonder how a guy who's such a wild man on the field can be so nice."

After his Polamalu-like performance in his senior opener, Baker was asked what it takes to be a great safety.

"The difference between good safeties and great safeties," he told his school newspaper, "is the good ones make pass breakups and the great ones catch interceptions."

He was asked this spring to elaborate on his football philosophy.

"Stay in the game mentally, hit hard and stay healthy," he said.

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