Last year's most
unexpectedly electric rookie was a special teams speedster who seemingly scored
at will. So how to take advantage of his touchdown touch? Give him the damn
ball! (At wideout, of course)
Most average joes
would gladly trade places with Devin Hester, and he might be open to the idea.
After one remarkable NFL season the Chicago Bears' Pro Bowl kick returner is
feeling suffocated by celebrity. He's having a hard time coping with the
autograph seekers who interrupt his dinners and intrude upon his nights on the
town. A typical approach begins with the fan spotting Hester from afar,
deducing from the 24-year-old's beefy forearms, broad shoulders, barrel chest
and bejeweled earlobes that this is indeed the league's newest gamebreaker, and
then bravely sidling over for a little small talk. "They'll say something
like, 'Nice run' or 'I was at the game where you did such and such,' and I'll
just put my head down and say, 'Thanks,' " says the soft-spoken Hester.
"You really don't want to talk loud because once one person overhears you,
that's when the crowd comes."
The attention so
overwhelms him that at times he says he's actually scared to sign--but the fear
is nothing that a little VIP treatment won't allay. "I might go out to eat,
and the waitress might say, 'My boss said that if you sign this, we'll go ahead
and take care of your meal,' " he says, cheerily noting one of the benefits
of sudden fame.
This, in essence,
is Devin Hester: a walking, talking contradiction, a player both low-key and
flashy, humble and cocky. Those conflicting personality traits might make him
tough to pin down in a conversation, but they suit a man who shreds defenses by
feigning one thing while doing another. The elusive Hester returned an
NFL-record six regular-season kicks for touchdowns as a rookie--three punts,
two kickoffs and a missed field goal--then made number 7 his most memorable: a
92-yarder on the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI.
So electric was
Hester with the ball in his hands that the Bears are moving him from cornerback
(where he played sparingly in Chicago's dime package last year) to wide
receiver, on the logic that his talents will make the NFL's No. 2 scoring team
of '06 even more potent. Since most opponents undoubtedly will kick away from
Hester this year, why not find other ways to deploy Chicago's most dynamic
Though on the
small side at 5' 11" and 186 pounds, Hester combines the underpinnings of a
productive wideout--strong hands and quick feet--with preternatural speed and
an instinct for making people miss. YouTube is a living shrine to his
ankle-breaking runbacks: Highlights from his NFL rookie season and his three
college years at Miami show him slicing through wedges, spinning away from
defenders and wending around the field as if operated by joystick. When EA
Sports rated Hester's speed at 100 in Madden NFL 08, many in the blogosphere
saw the grade as a slap at such fabled fast men as Deion Sanders and Charles
Woodson, neither of whom ever scored that high.
loftiest marks come from Bears teammates. "He's going to create so many
mismatches, speed and quicknesswise," says quarterback Rex Grossman. Adds
coach Lovie Smith, "I can't think of an athlete who's been able to be a
great returner and play corner, receiver and possibly running back. Reggie Bush
does a lot of things on the offensive side--but he couldn't play
The precision and
speed with which Hester already runs routes has come as a surprise to many. He
was so fast through most patterns at his first practices with the offense that
he often had to slow down coming out of his breaks to time up with throws.
While not yet as fluid a route runner as, say, teammate Muhsin Muhammad--who,
in fairness, has spent 11 pro seasons perfecting the craft-- Hester won't need
much polish. "Having the ability to stay disciplined and do exactly what he
needs to do on every single play is going to be his biggest adjustment,"
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?"