BY SETH KLEMPNER
Daily Sports Editor
Published August 12, 2001
SAGINAW On April 21, a life long dream for Jeff Backus came true as he made his official entry into the world of professional football. The Midland native stood up on the NFL Draft podium beaming with pride as he held up his No. 76 Honolulu blue and gray Lions jersey.
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It was the combination of one National title, two first team All-America selections, five years of hard work at Michigan, numerous Big Ten honors and 49 consecutive starts in his collegiate carrier (one short of record holder Jon Jansen) that led him to this point.
After Michigan"s 31-28 win over Auburn at the Citrus Bowl, Backus went to work on improving his stock as the NFL combine and draft day, approached.
All this hard work resulted in a No. 18 overall selection by the Lions, only one after fellow lineman, Steve Hutchinson, was selected by Seattle.
This began a honeymoon where Backus would receive a five-year contract from the Lions and began to adjust to life in the NFL. But with July came the beginning of the Lions" training camp and a Midwest heat wave that brought an abrupt end to that honeymoon.
With temperatures piquing in the mid-90s, Backus started learning the hard knocks of being a rookie in the NFL a rookie, no less, who is expected to start at left tackle, the most important position for an offensive linemen with a right handed quarterback.
As the left tackle, Backus is quarterback Charlie Batch"s blind side blocker. A misstep or delayed reaction on Backus" part likely results in a sack or broken play. Furthermore, as a tackle, Backus will be facing some of the fastest defensive linemen in the league.
Luckily for Batch, Backus is improving and increasing his confidence with each practice. His improvement would not be so evident if not for Backus" tenacious work ethic.
On Sunday, he could be seen on the field after practice working on his footwork and technique with fellow offensive tackle Ray Roberts.
"It is difficult at any position (to adjust to the speed of the pros)," Lions" head coach Marty Mornhinweg said. "Much of it is how fast they can learn or master the techniques and those types of things. Some guys it takes a little time to learn those things and some guys snap to it."
Backus seems to have made the adjustment smoothly, having displayed the skills needed to start at tackle in the Lions" first preseason game, and will hold up in the Lions" new west cost offense.
"The level of the athletes you are playing against (is the biggest difference between the NFL and college)," Backus said after his first NFL exhibition game. "The players are both stronger and faster. You have got to be ready to go on every snap."
Backus played the entire first half with the Lions" first and second team, displaying good footwork and agility. He was completely in control of the defensive linemen he was assigned.
During that first half, the Lions rushed for 19 yards and passed for another 100 while putting up 17 first-half points.
"I think he is working hard," Lions running back James Stewart said. Stewart is entering his second year with Detroit. "He is competing and he is going to get better as the year goes along. I think he is the type of guy that will gain in maturity as he gets games underneath hit belt."
The high intensity practice schedule and level of complexity of the plays are important steps in the adjustment from college to the NFL. Most importantly, on the professional level everything is expected to be perfect from the start, and players do not require the amount of training they encounter at the college level.
"He has developed beautifully," Mornhinweg said of Backus" improvement. "He has had his ups and downs, which is normal and expected, but I know he is going to be able to help us during the year so I am very pleased with him."