Chicago Bears Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher played strong safety in college at New Mexico. The team selected him in the first round of the 2000 draft and planned for him to transition to outside linebacker. Yet early in his rookie season an injury befell then-starting middle linebacker Barry Minter. Urlacher, who had struggled his first NFL game at the SAM position, took Minter's place in the middle and excelled. The rest, as they say, is history.
An eerily similar situation is developing in Bears training camp right now for Dom DeCicco. For most of his collegiate career at Pittsburgh, DeCicco played strong safety, earning All-Big East honors his junior and senior seasons. Yet the 6-2, 232-pounder was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine and was not drafted. Still, his combination of size and speed (4.64 40-yard dash), as well as his tackling ability, intrigued the Bears front office enough to sign the former Panther as an undrafted free agent.
The team felt his best fit was at outside linebacker but it only took a couple of practices before the coaches moved him inside. Since then, he's been getting almost all of the second-team reps at middle linebacker. He's going through some learning pains but it's clear he's athletic enough to play the position. Often he has trouble diagnosing plays and can get caught up in the wash of players in the middle of the field. Yet his sideline-to-sideline speed is reminiscent of Urlacher in his early years.
LB Dom DeCicco
In last Saturday's preseason game, DeCicco's first-ever live NFL action, he finished second on the team in tackles. Yet he knows there's still plenty of room for improvement.
"I thought I did some all right things, but definitely could have played better," DeCicco said. "I made a lot of mistakes but I was just trying to hustle and make up for my lack of knowing what I was doing by just playing hard."
It's a very good sign for him that, although he's playing a brand-new position and still isn't comfortable with his new role, he was just one tackle shy of leading the team. From a pure talent standpoint, DeCicco is top-tier.
"I was trying not to think too much," he said. "It's been hard to learn the playbook this quickly. The coaches have been doing a great job of helping the rookies and young guys learn. It's night and day from the beginning. I'm just trying not to think too much when I'm out there and just play."
DeCicco said the transition from safety to middle linebacker has been extremely difficult but that it gets easier every day.
"I never imagined I'd be playing middle linebacker," he said. "It was definitely pretty discouraging at first. It was harder at first than I thought. But every day I just kept getting more used to it and I feel like I've been progressing every day and just learning more and more."
Having the opportunity to learn from Urlacher and Lance Briggs has also hastened his development.
"It's a privilege to watch [Urlacher] and listen to him and pick his brain," he said. "Any time you ask [the veterans], they're more than willing to help you. I can't say enough good things about all them guys."
The way on to an NFL for roster for most undrafted rookies is through special teams. DeCicco has been lining up with the first-team kick-return squad so far this week.
"That's probably the way, if I make it, that's the way that I'm going to have to do it, through special teams," he said. "I'm just trying to bust my butt every day on it."
It remains to be seen whether DeCicco's career can mirror that of Urlacher's, but he's definitely on the right path.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.