As a standout at Northern Illinois University and Buffalo Grove High School, Alan Baxter proved he could pressure the quarterback.
He has also shown that ability as a rookie outside linebacker with the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers, notching a pair of sacks in the 2013 preseason and earning a spot on the club's practice squad.
Now Baxter, a defensive end at NIU, is working to round out his game, with his pass coverage a key focal point.
"I think the biggest change is going from, 'OK, well I'm going to get off the ball fast to try to get to the quarterback' to more reading offensive sets, reading backfields, knowing when to drop," Baxter said in a telephone interview Wednesday as Pittsburgh started to ramp up its preparation for its Monday night game at Cincinnati.
The 22-year-old Baxter is one of eight members of the Steelers' practice squad, a group of less-experienced players NFL clubs keep at the ready should they need roster reinforcements. Generally speaking, the practice squad is a way for teams to develop players who have shown some long-range upside.
Baxter's appeal to the Steelers may lie in his pass-rushing potential. In his senior season with the Huskies, Baxter recorded a team-high 9.5 sacks and earned all-Mid-American Conference honors. What's more, he was voted a first-team Capital One Academic all-American by sports information directors.
Though Baxter went undrafted in April, he quickly signed with Pittsburgh as a free agent, and he stayed on the club's roster throughout the preseason. He was waived when the Steelers trimmed their roster to 53 players, then was re-signed to their practice squad the next day.
Baxter impressed in the Steelers' third exhibition contest, recording two sacks against the Kansas City Chiefs. On both sacks, Baxter was matched up with NFL veteran Geoff Schwartz, and the rookie rusher showed a different skill on each play.
On the first sack, Baxter used his strength to push back Schwartz to take down quarterback Chase Daniel. On the second sack, Baxter sped around the corner and knocked the ball away from Daniel, with Kansas City recovering.
Listed at 6-feet tall and 238 pounds, Baxter has quickness and leverage in his corner.
Northern Illinois defensive coordinator Jay Niemann believes Baxter's hand use is another strength.
"The best pass rushers have a knack of getting the offensive lineman's hands off of them with different techniques that they use," Niemann said. "He was always really good at that, and that's not something you learn overnight. You have to drill it, work on it, practice it until it becomes second nature."
While Baxter works at his game, he also has the responsibility of helping his teammates get ready for next week's opponent. As a member of the scout team, Baxter is charged with mimicking the opposition. As an example, he played the role of Tennessee Titans outside linebacker Akeem Ayers in practice leading up to the season opener.
The Steelers have a long history of taking collegiate defensive ends like Baxter and playing them at outside linebacker. The organization is also known for developing its talent from within. A practice-squad player can work his way into a bigger role with Pittsburgh, which James Harrison did. After practice squad stints in 2002 and 2003, Harrison earned his way onto the roster full-time in 2004 and later became a star.
Harrison's story is a unique one. Right now, Baxter's NFL story is just beginning. That Baxter has made it to this point is a good start.
"I think I've really come to develop, really come to learn these different coverages and drops, and I'll continue to develop as my time here goes on," he said.
• Mike Wilkening has covered the NFL for more than a decade. You can read his work at Pro Football Talk, The Linemakers at Sporting News and NBC New York, among other publications. He can be followed on Twitter @mikewilkening. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.