BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — With so many changes, the first post-Brian Urlacher training camp has been mostly bereft of nostalgia.
Paying homage to old Bears is a year-round tradition in these parts, but a trip down memory lane won’t get you anywhere at Olivet Nazarene University.
This is an organization aimed toward the future.
But as the team gets used to the ways of new head coach Marc Trestman, the vaunted Lovie Smith-inspired defense has remained familiar sans Urlacher, who retired after getting limited interest from other teams after last season.
While Urlacher, who started his Bears career in 2000, prepares for a TV role, weakside linebacker Lance Briggs has taken over his friend’s playcalling duties and senior linebacker status.
And as it stands right now, Jon Bostic Bears linebacker has a bead on Urlacher’s job. At least this week. Nothing like replacing a future Hall of Famer.
For the Chicagoans too young to remember Bill George, Dick Butkus and even Mike Singletary, Urlacher was the perfect middle linebacker of the franchise.
His departure this past offseason, though some would say exile, was jarring, but necessary.
With veteran free-agent pickup D.J. Williams out “week-to-week” with a right calf strain, Bostic, the 22-year-old former Florida Gator, has been fast-tracked into the starting lineup for Friday’s preseason game in Carolina.
Along with Williams’ injury, the defense has suffered the usual nagging maladies — defensive linemen Julius Peppers and Corey Wootton sat out Wednesday, while Chris Conte and Henry Melton got dinged up. The big news was that veteran nickelback Kelvin Hayden was ruled out for the season with a torn hamstring. Second-year cornerback Isaiah Frey is the favorite to take his place.
In this league, guys get Wally Pipp’d every week. While it’s too early to anoint Bostic anything, the team invested in him for a reason.
Bostic has quietly gone about his work in a camp that features little hitting and a lot of focus on another new Bears offense. He said he doesn’t feel any pressure filling Urlacher’s old spot or mixing in with more accomplished teammates.
“Not really,” Bostic said after practice Wednesday. “I’m kind of looking at is as I’m a rookie coming in to learn from (the veterans). Guys have accomplished a lot here, and they deserve for us to come in and get them to another championship.”
Bostic has no idea what he’s in for. How could he? The Southeastern Conference is tough, sure, but the Bears open with the Cincinnati Bengals, not Bowling Green. No one is expecting Bostic to fill Urlacher’s role (team icon/defensive savant), just his position. But if Williams is out for any extended time, and even when he returns, Bostic will be expected to play like a veteran.
With so many of his teammates playing for contracts, this is no transitional year. So Bostic’s education has to be sped up.
Good thing Bostic can move with the best of them.
He had the fastest 40 time for an inside linebacker at the NFL combine, not to mention the fastest three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle.
But anyone can run in shorts and a T-shirt. Is he NFL fast? That’s a different kind of intuitive speed that veterans like Briggs possess.
“I see play actions, he’ll turn around and sprint to a route, because he knows exactly where it’s going to be at,” Bostic said after practice Wednesday. “I know the route’s coming, but not as fast as he does. He still moves like he’s a rookie coming into this league.”
Remember, the 32-year-old Briggs isn’t old, just seasoned. And with that comes the benefit of experience to make up for any steps he might have lost. Urlacher had that, too.
Briggs is taking on a new role this season, replacing Urlacher as the face and voice of the defense. Under new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, the defense has remained the same, at least in terms of terminology and basic philosophy. But it’ll be much different for Briggs, who is surrounded by new teammates like James Anderson, D.J. Williams, and Bostic.
“I was real comfortable in my role before,” Briggs said when camp opened. “Very comfortable. Now I’m getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
While every other defensive group for the Bears brings back the core of last year’s unit, the linebackers — the heart and soul of the defense — are a work in progress.
“They’ve done a great job,” safety Chris Conte said. “I think those guys are really studying and getting in their playbooks. It really takes time in our defense. The linebacking position is probably one of the hardest to get down. There are a lot of run fits and things they got to learn.”
Continuity is how the Bears defense — always said to be on the precipice of being too old to dominate — was one of the best in the NFL last season, leading the league in takeaways and setting a record with eight interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Of those eight, six came from the veteran triumvirate of Urlacher, Briggs and Peanut Tillman. That’s NFL speed.
The Bears defense has looked stout in practice. Jay Cutler was picked off four times Tuesday, leading to much talk about the defense tipping passes at the line, something that’s frowned upon in practice. It’s certainly not conducive to the offense getting repetitions.
Of course, on the first play of Wednesday’s practice, serial offender Henry Melton tipped a Cutler pass into Briggs’ mitts. It was funny, sure, but ultimately pointless.
But in another way, that kind of rebellious attitude speaks to the continuation of the defense’s tougher-than-thou attitude.
Offensively minded head coach or not, it would be natural for them to feel this is still their team.
“I haven’t been here, but it doesn’t look like it’s changed,” Bostic said of the Bears defense. “We’re getting turnovers in practice, we’re going after the ball, and we’re getting the ball out as much as we can. From what I saw watching film and seeing at practice, it looks like the same to me.”
Bostic’s Gators team had 20 interceptions in 2012, seventh-most in college football. He had two, including one of the team’s two touchdown returns.
“It’s something we did at Florida, we wanted to be known as a ballhawking defense,” he said. “I always wear these wristbands that say Florida on them and Ballhawk on the other side. That’s something we were a part of at Florida. I’m happy it’s the same thing here.”
Bostic has soaked up his teammates’ advice. He speaks highly of Williams, new starting strongside linebacker James Anderson and Blake Costanzo. Bostic said Briggs has been better than advertised.
“He’s kind of blown (expectations) out of the water, to tell you the truth,” he said. “I know they say when guys get up in age, they’ve played for so many years, they can coach the team. He really can. He knows the defense inside and out.”
Tillman has helped tutor Bostic with breaking on the ball and keeping his wits about him in coverage when the quarterback breaks the pocket.
The meeting room — and there’s a lot of meeting time in Trestman’s camp — has been a fun place to work, especially with the characters on defense and the well-liked Tucker, who busts up with the best of them.
“You don’t get a chance to walk in a locker room with this many vets, this many years under their belt,” Bostic said.
Bostic’s NFL experience so far has consisted of 11 practices under Trestman, who discourages live hitting. It’s tough to gauge where he’s at, in terms of football speed. Friday’s preseason game is a start.
“I look at it as another day to go out and compete,” Bostic said. “There’s still a lot of stuff I got to learn before I can put that jersey on. I’ve got to keep preparing.”
Brian Urlacher’s leadership both on-and-off the field cannot be replaced, not in one draft, but the Chicago Bears did an excellent job in drafting not only Bostic but I liked the Khaseem Greene pick a lot in terms of value in the 4th round.
Not to many people gave credit to the organization on acquiring veteran linebackers D.J. Williams and James Anderson, but both of these guys can make plays when healthy.
I expect the Bears’ defense to take a step back this season, but only for the mere fact of how fortunate they were in terms of forcing turnovers last season. You cannot expect that to happen at the same rate this season. I still think this unit will be solid and finish somewhere within the top 10 overall in team defense.
When you look at their team defense efficiency ratings from last year, the Chicago Bears simply got things done! With all of their Pro Bowlers (Tillman, Briggs, Peppers, Melton and Jennings) returning, I just cannot see this team falling too far done the list.