Flashes' Baker off to Atlanta

By David Carducci Record-Courier staff writer Published:

For the third consecutive year, the Atlanta Falcons drafted from the ranks of the Kent State football program, picking wide receiver Eugene Baker with the 31st selection in the fifth round of the NFL Draft Sunday at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.

When Baker reports to Atlanta Thursday for the start of a three-day minicamp, he will be re-united with fellow Golden Flash alums O.J. Santiago, Atlanta's starting tight end who was selected in the third round in 1997, and Bob Hallen, an offensive lineman drafted in the second round in 1998.

"O.J. called me right after my name came up, and he said he's looking forward to getting me down there," said Baker. "We're old teammates and old roommates. It'll be a lot of fun playing with O.J. and Bob again."

According to Falcons' wide receivers coach Rennie Simmons, Santiago and Hallen lobbied hard with the team's coaching staff to consider Baker.

"There is no question, the guys were cheerleading for him," said Simmons. "In fact, O.J. told me he thought Eugene was the best receiver out there."

Baker put up some impressive numbers while at Kent, including a junior season in which he caught 103 passes for 1,549 yards and 18 touchdowns, yet he was considered a longshot to be drafted by many experts.

The main reason for skepticism is Baker's lanky 6-foot-1, 165-pound frame.

"He's very thin and he's not very strong, so he may have a hard time getting jammed off the line," said professional scout Frank Coyle, who ranked Baker 33rd among the wide receivers eligible in the draft."

The Falcons, however, had no reservations with their decision to select Baker.

"I'll tell you, even though he's not real heavy, Eugene is very well put together," said Simmons, who has coached receivers like Art Monk and Gary Clark. "We are happy to have him. He has real good body control, good quickness, good hands and he's not afraid to catch the ball in a crowd, all the things you look for in a wide receiver.

"Obviously he has to get a little more strength, and we'll be able to work with him on that. There are also a lot of things we can do within our offense to make things easier for him. We can move guys around, put him in motion. There are a lot of ways we can help him get downfield."

Simmons compared Martin's body type and his receiving skills to All-Pro Tony Martin, a star wide receiver with the Falcons last season, who signed as a free agent with the Miami Dolphins.

"Obviously, we lost Tony Martin and we didn't draft anyone else at receiver, so we have a need there," said Simmons. "With this team, when someone comes in, we don't look at where he was drafted, if he was in the fifth round, sixth round, whatever. As a coach, we put them on the field and give them every chance to succeed."

With the Falcons needs, and with Santiago and Hallen waiting to welcome him, Baker may be headed to the perfect situation in Atlanta.

"I wasn't surprised Atlanta picked me at all," said Baker, who watched the draft from his home in Monroeville, Pa., where 25 people, including Kent teammates Astron Whatley and Jonathon Williams, gathered for a draft day party. "If I had a choice, it would be Atlanta. I'm excited about it."

Record-Courier staff writer Allen Moff contributed to this story

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