Hester hoping to make splash as target for Cutler
LAKE FOREST -- Devin Hester is kind of like a football version of "The Little Engine That Could."
"I feel like the coaches are giving me an opportunity to step up and be No. 1," Hester said after an OTA on Wednesday. "Whenever you get an opportunity to do that, you want to come out and play, and make the best of it and take advantage of the opportunity."
As a result, Hester is determined to make as much of an impact in catching the ball as he did returning kickoffs and punts his first two seasons, when he scored a combined 12 touchdowns.
Last season, with Bears coaches wanting to capitalize on his speed, Hester began the transition to wide receiver.
"They want to take advantage of my play," Hester said. "When the coaches felt my role was to get the ball more and move the ball on offense, they put me in the mix, and I got my hands on the ball more often.
"I started playing more often toward the end of last season, and that's when they put their hands in it and put me in more offensive [situations]."
While he returned 32 punts and 31 kickoffs for 1,603 yards in 2008, he failed to score.
"I hate to say it, but the season I had last year was not up to my high expectations," Hester said. "This year, I'm trying to come out and be better than I was the first two years. My goal this year is just to come out and make big plays, like I normally do."
On the flip side, Hester caught 51 passes for a team-high 665 yards and three touchdowns in his first full season as a receiver.
It was on-the-job training, as Hester didn't play receiver in high school or in college at Miami.
"It's a learning process for a world I don't know," Hester said. "This is my first time to really get to learn, and now I got stuck learning at the highest level you can get.
"It was a slow process of me just learning the basics of receiving, and then from there, just moving up to the big leagues."
Admittedly, he made mistakes with five fumbles, but that was an improvement over the 15 combined fumbles he had during 2006 and 2007 as a return artist.
Things started coming together for Hester late last season, and it became apparent that the experiment was starting to see positive results.
That's one of the reasons why Bears general manager Jerry Angelo didn't place as high a priority on acquiring a veteran, high-profile receiver during the offseason.
"I really was hoping we'd have gotten a veteran earlier this year," Hester said, "but it is what it is and we're stuck with what we've got, so we've got to make sure we make the best of it and learn from each other."
With the acquisition of Jay Cutler, Hester finds himself with a quarterback who can help guide him as a pass catcher. And Hester has the type of speed that could make Cutler look better.
"Bringing in Jay Cutler, a Pro Bowl quarterback, speaks for itself," Hester said. "And my learning process as a receiver is just growing, and Jay is just helping it out a whole lot."
While Cutler still is learning the Bears' system, the connection he's made with Hester already is obvious.
"We talk about it every day, in practice; after a play, I ask him what he sees," Hester said. "Jay voices his opinion, that if the play's not there, then do [something different].
"When he tells me stuff like that, it really makes sense -- and it really seems -- like we're on the same page. Each and every day, we're learning something new about each other."
While that all sounds good in theory, the fact remains that this is still just Hester's second year as a receiver. Is becoming the No. 1 receiver a realistic goal for a guy who is essentially serving an apprenticeship right now?
Offensive coordinator Ron Turner believes so. What's more, Hester the apprentice doesn't have to worry about having someone say "You're fired" if he makes a few more mistakes along the way.
"He should be [No. 1], and he definitely can be," Turner said. "At the end of last year, we were really pleased with how he was playing. He's like anybody; he's grown into the position.
"This is really only the second year full time in the position, and I can see the improvement and confidence. He's playing a lot faster and with a lot more confidence right now."
Hester appreciates the feedback. He wants to become one of the top receivers in the game in much the same way he became one of the pre-eminent return specialists.
"I've asked a lot of different coaches about how they see my development as a receiver coming along," Hester said. "Every coach is letting me know that I improved a lot last year, and that's my No. 1 goal, to just improve and get better."
If everything goes the way the Bears hope, the combination of Cutler and Hester could one day rival the league's best quarterback-receiver tandems.
"[Cutler's] a great guy for [Hester] to have," Turner said. "Devin's got a lot of confidence in him, and [Cutler's] got a lot of confidence in Devin. It's just a matter of those guys establishing the chemistry and their relationship on the field, which every day we get out here, they take another step."
Even as he continues his development as a receiver, Hester will keep his hand in the other thing he does best: returning punts. Danieal Manning will assume his role as the team's primary kickoff return specialist.
Hester can't wait for the regular season to begin. He has a lot to prove to himself, his team and his peers around the league.
"I was kind of hard on myself last year," he admits. "I'm kind of upset because when they'd show commercials on ESPN and the NFL Network, I'm not one of the players they show. So, I know there's a reason why, because of the season I had last year. Hopefully, I'll have a better season so I can get back on those commercials."
Jerry Bonkowski is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.