Bears unlikely to risk Hester on returns in exhibitions
NFL's top threat probably limited to receiver until season starts
Devin Hester fields a kick return during training camp. (Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images / July 30, 2011)
Story: Exhibition opener: After starters leave, roster battles will begin
By Brad Biggs, Chicago Tribune reporter 9:15 p.m. CDT, August 12, 2011
Don't look for Devin Hester returning kicks or punts in exhibitions.
While special teams coordinator Dave Toub said a final determination hasn't been made, he said the electric return man "probably" would not see action starting with Saturday night's opener against the Bills at Soldier Field.
"If he's back there (on a punt) he's probably going to fair catch," Toub said. "I don't like putting him in there because I'll tell him to fair catch and he'll say, 'Oh, coach, it was open,' and he'll take off. I don't have to see him in preseason and he's getting a lot of work in practice. We need to evaluate the younger players and see who our backups are."
The Bears have been cautious with Hester in the return game in exhibitions before and it's a precaution against injury to the NFL's all-time leader in return touchdowns.
Toub has a host of backups to consider and Earl Bennett and undrafted Syracuse rookie Mike Holmes figure to have a role on punt returns. Holmes, who missed more than the first week of camp with an undisclosed injury, has looked good recently. The game will serve as the first real measuring stick on special teams after new practice rules reduced what teams can do during camp.
"Preseason is the most important thing for us on special teams to evaluate," Toub said. "Right now, it's about assignment football making sure everyone knows what to do. It's a matter of going full speed and how people are going to react."
Toub also has a good selection of players to sort through as "gunners" on the punt team. Corey Graham and Sam Hurd project as the starters but Hurd could be sidelined with a sprained left ankle. He listed Johnny Knox, Josh Moore and D.J. Moore as possibilities.
It will be interesting to see how the new kickoff rule — moving the ball from the 30 to the 35-yard line — affects play. In five exhibitions Thursday, there were 15 touchbacks. Touchbacks happened on 16.38 percent of kickoffs last season and Toub has predicted that number will double. If early returns are accurate, Toub will be close. There were 1.63 touchbacks per game in 2010.
Not much planning: The Bears took a brief look at what the Bills do Friday in preparation for the game. But there is no real game plan going into the first exhibition. The Bears pulled quarterback Jay Cutler after one series last year in the opener in San Diego — sooner than they wanted to — because the Chargers were blitzing and there was fear he could be injured.
"We're expecting the Bills to work on the things they're practicing right now and hopefully we've improved enough where we know our assignments and know the offense better than we did last season," offensive line coach Mike Tice said. "We'll see it as it comes and block it as it comes."
Look out: With one week of training camp at Olivet Nazarene remaining, the Bears wonder what's next. They've had one practice moved because of turf conditions at Soldier Field, one moved because of a ComEd power outage and another one cut short because of a heavy thunderstorm. Is an earthquake next?
"Possibly," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "We have gotten frost, you know, in the summer. Coach Lovie (Smith) talks about we've got to have a little adversity. What better way to do it than have a few tornadoes before the season."
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