Classic sports cliché: Player gets big chance to start at new position due to injury. He never looks back, goes on to greatness at the new position, and lives happily every after. This is the situation for San Francisco 49ers center, David Baas. As a 6’4″, 330 pound mass of humanity, he doesn’t resemble a person who might be concerned. Yet when speaking with Baas, his physical size is belied by a meekness which is clear to anyone bothering to look. It is this meekness which could prevent him from seizing an invaluable opportunity and rather than living the life cliché, sees him moving anonymously to the roadside joining others who also could-have-been.

#64 David BaasOn a sunny and cool August 9 morning, veteran center Eric Heitmann went down with a broken leg. In moves Baas, the big man with an even bigger opportunity many would beg for. Here it is, being handed to him. This is not college however, where he played only a half his senior season at the position and wound up receiving the award as the top center in college football. The position of center in the NFL is more demanding than the collegiate level and is one of the most demanding positions on the field. The responsibilities are far more than the obvious – touching the ball on every offensive down.

Offensive Coordinator, Jimmy Raye had these observations after watching Baas’ first morning with the number ones as Baas auditioned for the new position, ” the center is… basically the backup quarterback. The things that he’s responsible for from protection calls, to line calls, some of that you just can’t teach in a shorter period of time. Eric [Heitmann] was tremendously gifted that way in terms of the comfort level for the quarterback and making the calls, and the assessing the tops. There’s just some of it that you can’t get enough reps to get it all covered.” Sounds like an awful lot is being expected from Baas.

When being selected in the second round (33rd overall) of the 2005 NFL draft by the 49ers, they believed they were getting an All Big 10 Conference, All-American player, capable of excelling regardless of where they put him. As long as he has been near the ball – at center or either of the guard positions – Baas has shined. He was half-way through his senior season before he played the position of center at a colligate level. On the offensive line and at center, Baas continued to thrive. As a result, high expectations have followed the 29 year old for several seasons.

Given Baas’ history of having successfully jumped into a new position quickly, one could easily surmise that he was made for this opportunity. The present situation also has eerie similarities to Baas’ NFL journey. He became a regular player as the offensive line shifted in light of injury to then-center, Jeremy Newberry. With an outstanding center in Newberry going down to injury, it was Heitmann who very aptly learned the position where he became nearly as respected as his predecessor. In that move, Baas got the chance to become an NFL starter, taking over Heitmann’s former position at right guard. Since, Baas has spent most of the next five seasons with his right shoulder nearly touching Heitmann’s at the position of left guard. With the drafting of first round pick, Mike Iupati, Baas was already preparing for a position change back to right guard which would allow the rookie to move into the system more gently as the left guard.

Now, another change – certainly the biggest challenge of Baas’ five year NFL career. I caught up with him after morning practice and asked him about how the transition is going. “I need to be just like [Heitmann], when I am in the huddle. I need the guys to know that I’m going to make the right call and have their confidence. That way we can work together.” His look was serious and sober. He spoke deliberately and clearly grasped the gravity of his present situation. Though clearly a bright young man with a firm grasp of what it takes to succeed in this new role, there seems to be something missing.

After five years of service in the league, Bass is again replacing Heitmann at the latter’s former position. Unlike past seasons, however, Heitmann will not be next to him on the line. As I left ‘Niners training camp yesterday, I happened upon Baas sitting in an enormous tub of ice. He was alone near the player’s parking lot with his head down. While it might have been the discomfort of the ice bath, it looked to me that this young man had a lot on his mind. Hopefully for the 49ers entire offense, Baas can put aside the overwhelm and rather than attempt to become Heitmann (which is not possible), chill, and create his own version of a solid NFL center who leads this offense to a place it has not seen in a long time — the NFL post-season.