Niners center Baas fighting for starting spot on offensive line

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- David Baas bounced a couple of snaps during team drills and knows that's not going to cut it. Afterward, he and quarterback Alex Smith stayed on the field to do more work and find their timing.

Baas is determined to win the San Francisco 49ers' starting job at center, replacing the injured Eric Heitmann. And Baas seems to be the front-runner after taking all the repetitions with the first team Tuesday morning.

Heitmann broke his left leg Monday and is expected to miss up to two months, a big blow for a unit that is determined to establish some continuity in 2010.

"It is hard, but I need to be just like him in the huddle. It's not a done deal," Baas said Tuesday of being the 49ers' new starting center. "I have to be very confident. I put two balls on the ground today."

San Francisco's new-look offensive line, featuring first-round draft picks Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati, will have its first real test in a preseason opener Sunday at Indianapolis.

Baas lined up at center just once in his first five NFL seasons, and not since Dec. 31, 2006, at Denver. He was a regular in the spot as a senior at Michigan in 2004.

"You've got to be versatile in this league," Iupati said. "There are a lot of people here who can play a lot of positions."

Interestingly, Baas earned his first start as a rookie on Dec. 4, 2005, against the Arizona Cardinals, replacing Heitmann at right guard. Heitmann had been moved to center to take over for the injured Jeremy Newberry. Baas started the final five games that year.

Baas' transition to leading the line and calling the signals up front must happen in a hurry. Offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye ideally would like to have a starter in place by the third preseason game.

"I know it has to be quite quick," Baas said. "We've got to be on the same page. If the offensive line can't work together, the offense can't work together."

Raye realizes he has a daunting task of preparing a line featuring a new center and two talented, yet raw, rookies.

A year ago, Raye spent much of his first year as San Francisco's top offensive coach shuffling the line. Heitmann was a steady presence during that time. At least the current situation doesn't come in the middle of the season with "the game-week pressure," Raye said.

"Huge," Raye said of his task now. "The center in our system of football is basically the backup quarterback. You don't really think about losing your center. It's a unique deal. ... I think we made a step today, once we got over the initial shock that Eric's going to be (out) 4 to 6 weeks."

Baas will be challenged for the job by Tony Wragge and Cody Wallace, although it appears to be Baas' spot to lose. Raye said the coaches will meet on their flight Saturday to Indianapolis to determine how many snaps the starters play in the first preseason game.

Baas is only worried about doing all he can to be sharp.

"You've just got to keep going and try to improve on your techniques and your calls," said Baas, who has bounced back since sustaining a mild concussion during the first full-pads practice Aug. 2. "For me it's just coming out and getting better."

Baas' linemates aren't concerned about him being ready come the season opener at Seattle on Sept. 12.

"Dave's always been a hard worker," said left tackle Joe Staley, who missed seven games last season with a sprained knee. "He's a perfectionist. It might not be coming right now, because it's kind of new, but he's definitely going to work until he gets consistency."

Notes: The 49ers signed LBs Bruce Davis and Brandon Long and waived/injured LB Martail Burnett (sprained knee). Both new guys practiced for the first time Tuesday. Davis is the son of Bruce Davis Sr., who played offensive tackle for the Raiders from 1979 to 1987. ... Coach Mike Singletary gave TE Vernon Davis and WR Michael Crabtree the morning practice off as a veteran courtesy. ... CB Nate Clements, who missed the final nine games last season with a broken right shoulder blade, picked off a Smith pass that was intended for Ted Ginn Jr. during 11-on-11 drills.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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