Training camp notes: Hester returns with flare

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When one of your team’s best playmakers sits out practices for nearly a week, it’s perfectly normal to feel a touch of anxiety, especially when your team has missed the playoffs in three straight years.

But, as it turns out, the five days that Devin Hester missed were not due to injury but instead were a precautionary measure to rest what Lovie Smith called “groin soreness.” What’s even more encouraging is how well Hester played in his return to the practice field.

In Tuesday’s morning practice at Olivet Nazarene University, Hester was targeted by Jay Cutler six of 18 times in 7-on-7 and team drills. He was also used in the evening practice particularly in the all-important red-zone drill.

Asked about his soreness, Hester responded: “It just kind of built up. I didn’t hurt it on any specific plays. When you’re working hard, things like that happen. Coaches always say, if you don’t get hurt in training camp then you’re not working hard enough. So I guess I’m working hard.”

Hester has made strides in each of his three seasons as a receiver and he has proclaimed that this, his third season as a full-time starter, will be his breakout year.

Cutler struggles in return

Meanwhile, unlike Hester, Cutler appeared to struggle in his return to the field. Given a day off on Monday, Cutler returned Tuesday and struggled with two interceptions in the span of three plays. Cutler and the offense also had trouble in team drills and the two-minute offense as he was sacked — or what would have been the equivalent of a sack — a couple times and the offense settled on a Robbie Gould 43-yard field goal.

It’s difficult to accurately project how Cutler is doing up to this point in training camp compared to last year’s regular season performance when he led the league in interceptions because no contact is allowed, which means Cutler doesn’t have to panic and try to force passes as much. Plus, this year’s offense calls for Cutler to throw passes to spots on the field rather than him waiting and trying to force it through a tight window. Another factor is that the defense figures to be a lot better this year and we don’t know how much of Cutler’s struggles have been because of the quality of defense he’s facing.

Clark finds new role as H-Back

One of the more intriguing developments recently is the news of Desmond Clark’s “change of position,” so to speak. While technically still a tight end, Clark was listed as the first string H-back when the Bears released their first official depth chart. The H-back is a versatile position that lines up both in the backfield and on the line of scrimmage depending on the play.

“The whole H-Back thing is something that was just thrown out there that’s been causing a stir,” Clark said. “But what people have to understand is that it is just a label. I guess the starting lineup is void of a fullback, and an H-Back is just a second tight end. It is pretty much the same thing we have been doing around here for a long time.”

More importantly than where Clark lines up on the field is that he now, more than ever, appears to have a role with the team. His role was in question after the acquisition of Brandon Manumaleuna in free agency and the retention of Greg Olsen — the team explored trade options for the former first round pick in the off-season. With how well Clark has been playing in training camp and the starting H-back role he’s attained, I’d say that his job is pretty safe at this point and it’s Kellen Davis and Richard Angulo that will have to work harder to make the team.

Prominent role for Olsen

While Clark has been listed at a different position on the depth chart, the man who is at the top of the tight end list, Greg Olsen, has been featured quite prominently in the offense throughout training camp. At least, it may seem that way considering the speculation that Olsen would be a square peg in the round hole that is Mike Martz’s offense.

Cutler and Olsen seem to have picked up right where they left off in last year’s training camp when the two began a bond both on and off the field. Cutler continues to target Olsen this year and it appears that the tight end position as a whole will have a much bigger role in Martz’s offense than originally anticipated.

Wright gaining valuable playing time with starters

Rookie safety Major Wright returned to the practice field recently after missing nearly a week due to a groin injury. When a rookie misses that many days, it’s only natural to expect a slow development time for him as he works his way back into the defense. Wright, however, has been an exception to the rule as he’s made several plays on the ball and even displayed some of his toughness by breaking up passes with contact, including one in the end zone for a would-be touchdown.

Wright has been getting extra reps with the first team defense in the absence of Danieal Manning and Josh Bullocks. Chris Harris has just recently returned from his back injury and Craig Steltz has been moved around regularly.

I’ve been saying all along that the Bears’ best combination of safeties would be Harris and Wright, and the sooner they abandon their campaign to force Manning into the starting strong safety role and put him back at nickelback where he belongs, the better off the defense will be.

Tinoisamoa vs. Roach a hot competition

Arguably the most intriguing competition in training camp is taking place between Pisa Tinoisamoa and Nick Roach for the strong-side linebacker job.

Tinoisamoa only played 25 snaps in 2009 before landing on IR with a knee injury. He looked impressive during those plays and displayed the speed and athleticism he exhibited in six seasons with the Rams, four of which he led the team in tackles.

Roach also looked impressive last season with a much larger sample size. Due to injuries to both Tinoisamoa and Brian Urlacher, Roach started in 15 games last year and was fourth on the team in tackles.

Both players flash playmaking skills and each could start on more than a handful of teams in the league. The competition has been friendly but it certainly has brought out the best in both of them. Whichever player does not start would figure to have a solid role on special teams, and can certainly make an impact and help the team in that way.

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