Even though Devin Hester isn't expected to play a great number of snaps at wide receiver this season as he begins his conversion from cornerback, he has already generated tremendous interest based on his NFL-record six kick-return touchdowns as a rookie in 2006.
By the middle of last season, Hester was making teammates and opponents, as well as fans, sit up and take notice every time he touched the ball because of his rare combination of speed and ability to make tacklers miss him in the open field. Bears coach Lovie Smith convinced Hester that he would be much more valuable to the team with additional touches, even though it meant abandoning his desire to develop into an NFL cornerback like his mentor Deion Sanders.
Since Hester had played some wide receiver and running back at Miami, the conversion has been smooth so far. Even during OTAs when the switch was first made, Hester caught the ball downfield effortlessly while maintaining the same exciting open-field moves he displays on kickoff and punt returns.
"Just watching film [from OTAs] and seeing some of the things that were going on, when I was coming out of my breaks and just catching the ball, I was like, 'Hey, I can do this,'" Hester said. "It's not bad. The more reps I get, it seems like the better I get."
Hester will still be the focal point of the Bears' return game.
"Most definitely," he said. "The special teams ain't going nowhere."
It's unclear how much action Hester will see on the offensive side of the ball behind starters Muhsin Muhammad and Bernard Berrian. And backups Mark Bradley and Rashied Davis both played key supporting roles last season. But the best guess is that the Bears would like Hester to get 10 touches a game, whether it's lining up in the slot, split wide, catching the ball out of the backfield or even taking an occasional handoff or pitchout. As far as physical tools, Hester has more than most NFL players.
"The speed was always there," he said. "It's just being able to get my hands on the ball and the run after the catch. I feel like I'm getting a lot better with that. I'm dealing with more, dodging guys, and it's helped me out a lot. I know it's going to carry over to the special teams as well.
"Once you get your hands on the ball it's show time. The more repetitions I get, I feel the better as a player I get and this team gets."
Even if Hester doesn't touch the ball, his presence on the field could benefit the offense. With his big-play ability, Hester will attract a great deal of attention from opposing defenses. The Bears occasionally used Hester as a decoy during 11-on-11 scrimmages in the spring with great success.
"That's the fun part, just running a fake reverse and seeing everybody just run at you, [while running back] Cedric [Benson] is way over on the other side of the field. It just cracks me up."
CAMP CALENDAR: The Bears report to Olivet Nazarene University in far south suburban Bourbonnais on July 26, and their first practice is at 3 p.m. Friday, July 27. Camp concludes after an 11 a.m. practice on Saturday, Aug. 18. They will return to Chicago on Saturday, Aug. 4 for a 7 p.m. practice at Soldier Field.
NOTES & QUOTES
According to the Bears' new defensive line coach Brick Haley, second-year man Dusty Dvoracek will have every opportunity to win the starting job at nose tackle next to DT Tommie Harris.
"Dusty will be getting most of the reps [in training camp]," Haley said. "He and Anthony [Adams] will be in there taking turns at the nose, and they'll share the reps for most of training camp." ...
Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher has become the face of the Bears' franchise while making six Pro Bowls in seven seasons. And two-time Pro Bowl weakside linebacker Lance Briggs has been the talk of the town because of his threat to sit out 10 weeks in protest over being named the team's franchise player.
All of which leaves strongside linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer in the familiar role of forgotten man. But that doesn't mean he's not a key member of the defense.
"He's as solid as a rock," said new linebackers coach Hardy Nickerson, who replaced Bob Babich when he was promoted to defensive coordinator. "He's steady day in and day out. He's very smart. He understands the defense. He knows where to line up all the time. He's never out of position. He's always in the right place at the right time." ...
After a rookie season in which he accumulated a stunning 12 sacks, Mark Anderson, a fifth-round pick in 2006, moved ahead of veteran Alex Brown during the Bears' OTAs, and that pecking order is expected to continue when training camp gets underway next week. The Bears are planning for the 6-4, 255-pound Anderson to be much more than a pass-rush specialist this season, and they're happy with the progress he made in the offseason.
"His work ethic is getting him to where he needs to be," defensive line coach Brick Haley said. "He's got really good speed, quickness and agility. The thing he has to do now is be able to be a better run defender for us. He's not going to be in the game only on third down or second-and-long. He's going to play three downs. If he keeps working to get better at that, I think we'll be fine."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He has the hide of a buffalo; a water buffalo. I think Rex has taken a lot of heat, of course. He gets criticism and stuff like that, and the guy still goes out there and makes plays." - WR Muhsin Muhammad on QB Rex Grossman.