Devin Hester (69) (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday August 28, 2007 3:36PM; Updated: Tuesday August 28, 2007 3:36PM
Rather than force him to learn the entire offensive playbook, the Bears are spoon-feeding him a package of 15 to 20 situational plays. The plan is to use him as a receiver out of the backfield and occasionally split him wide in two-tight-end, two-running-back sets. "You can let your mind go a lot of different ways," Smith says. "It's safe to say he won't play any tight end, he won't play much fullback, and he won't play quarterback."
Last year Hester often made the exciting look routine, with touchdowns that could come at any time: early (the Super Bowl); late (fourth-quarter returns in Week 1 at Green Bay and Week 6 at Arizona); even in both halves of the same game (Week 14 at St. Louis). He pulled off his most unusual return in Week 10 against the New York Giants. Pinned eight yards deep in his end zone, Hester fielded a 52-yard missed field goal, took two casual steps as if to concede a touchback -- then followed a Bears convoy down the right sideline and past the stunned Giants field goal unit for an NFL-record-tying 108-yard touchdown. Hester's knack for changing the tempo of a game in a single burst has elicited comparisons with another nearly unstoppable Bear, Gale Sayers. "Obviously," says Chicago offensive coordinator Ron Turner, "when [Hester] did what he did, we were all looking at it like, How can we get the ball in his hands more?"
Initially, Hester was loath to offer suggestions. Coming out of Miami, he was written off by some NFL teams as too versatile for his own good. He played different sides of the ball during each of his three seasons -- an experience he likens to "switching majors every year." Initially he thrived at receiver (he had a 58-yard reception in his first game), but when an ankle injury and personality differences with his position coach stalled his progress, he moved to defensive back and moonlighted as a running back. "I've seen a lot of guys come through here," says Andreu Swasey, Miami's strength and conditioning coach, "but I don't think I've ever been around a guy this talented. You can't not find a position for him."
Once in the pros, Hester, drafted 57th overall by Chicago, envisioned becoming a shutdown corner in the mold of Sanders, his boyhood idol. The Bears were convinced he'd ultimately make a better receiver, but rather than burden him with the conversion as a rookie they chose to let him settle in on defense and wet his feet as a returner. Despite the team's confidence in his potential, Hester wasn't immediately sold on the move to offense. It took 13 months of wooing by Smith, Turner and other coaches for Hester to finally flip. Smith's payoff pitch, meant as a playful jab at Hester's forthcoming ad campaign for Campbell's Soup, got straight to the point: "I told him they don't pay him to backpedal."
Maybe so, but retreating from a defensive mentality has proved difficult. Hester will say he's eager to start catching passes and will give 10 reasons why that's good for the team, but the longer he talks about the move, the more he backpedals. And before you know it, he's changing positions all over again.
"Touchdowns are for players who -- how can I say this? -- who like to be seen," says Hester, whose own end zone dances channel Prime Time's self-aggrandizement. "The defensive player is that guy who doesn't get a lot of recognition, but at the end of the day he gets a lot of praise under the table. There's a feeling you get when you know you're shutting down somebody. It's not like anybody can do that. That's the thing about cornerbacks -- they're the people who want challenges."
More than a few experts around the NFL scratched their heads when the Bears, at Smith's insistence, burned a second-round pick on Hester, whose alternate stints at returner, cornerback, receiver and tailback on middling Hurricanes teams were interpreted by pro scouts as a failure to find traction at any one spot. The Rams, Cardinals and Titans considered taking him but passed. This year, Dolphins G.M. Randy Mueller was determined not to make the same mistake. When a Hester facsimile surfaced in the 2007 draft in Ohio State wideout Ted Ginn Jr., Mueller snapped him up with the ninth pick, bypassing highly touted quarterback Brady Quinn. "I've always been a believer that speed makes a difference," says Mueller. "Devin proved last year that any time a guy gets a ball -- whether he's an offensive player, a defensive player or a return guy -- he can change the game."
It's the kind of praise any other player would welcome. Revel in, even. Hester recoils from it. "Sometimes I try to make myself feel like I don't even play football," he says, just seriously enough to make it seem like the truth. But before taking that as gospel, remember: This guy's the master at faking people out.
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