Commentary

One down, one to go

Devin Hester wants to prove he's as good a receiver as a returner

Originally Published: August 7, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Draw up a play with a stick in the dirt, go deep, beat your man. Devin Hester could do that.

He could also take a kickoff or punt with 11 men bearing down with intent to crush him, and elude every one of them.

[+] EnlargeDevin Hester
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesDevin Hester has dropped jaws returning kicks.

If only it could all come so naturally. Not just running with the football, but also running to catch it. Not just catching it, but also having to talk about it afterward.

In his fourth year of pro football, Hester wants to make it all easy again. But if he has learned anything, it is that some things just take time.

"It's all about venturing into new things," he said. "I pretty much succeeded in the return game. Now let's try to move on to something bigger."

Hester ranks fourth in NFL history with scores on 11 combined kick returns, and he set an NFL record as a rookie with six return touchdowns. Bigger than that is no small task, but one that Hester says he is up to accomplishing.

"Hopefully, I can be a Pro Bowler at the receiver spot," he said.

Hester doesn't believe he's as far away as everyone else seemed to think when he first transitioned to the position two years ago. Word was that he just wasn't grasping it, and the adjustment was evident with drops and miscues in route-running.

He did not have a return for a touchdown last season, but his progress as a receiver is becoming evident.

"Guys spread rumors about me not being able to be a receiver," said Hester, who will cede all kickoff-return chores to Danieal Manning this season. "But you have to look at it that I played half a season last year and ended with over 650-something yards [a team-high 665 with 51 catches in eight starts]. You add up [a full 16 games in] the fourth season, it's like I'm at 1,300 yards. [There are] Pro Bowl receivers with those kinds of numbers."

Even with the Bears' receiving corps widely considered a weak spot on the team, quarterback Jay Cutler's arrival injects hope into an offense that ranked 21st in passing last season and 26th in total yards. And based on the Bears' first week of training camp, Hester will be a target worthy of Cutler's powerful arm, both deep and underneath.

"He feels really, really comfortable with what we're doing right now," Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner said of Hester. "We've moved him around a lot. We're doing a lot of different things with him and he's handling it all very, very well.

[+] EnlargeDevin Hester
Harry How/Getty ImagesNow Hester is trying to master the receiver position.

"Really late in the year, the last six games, he was playing with a lot of confidence. He's had a tremendous offseason. I'd say that's the biggest thing, he's playing with a lot of confidence and he's playing fast."

Hester said his inexperience at the position made it difficult, having never played it in Pop Warner or high school and only sparingly at Miami.

"I had to start from the basics, out of nowhere -- where to line up at, how I'm supposed to bend my knees -- to being an NFL receiver," he said. "It was pretty tough trying to learn it at the highest level you can. It was harder than I thought. I was so anxious to play, but then I wasn't ready. And I had to go through facing guys who learned all that stuff back in Pop Warner and high school."

Two years ago, Hester might not have expressed that much to a reporter.

"I was kind of shy talking in front of a bunch of cameras," he said. "I wasn't aware of the kind of questions they were going to ask me. And you have to get a feel for what people are going to ask you about because they're going to ask the same questions so you find yourself repeating yourself.

"I did a couple training courses this summer, last summer and a little toward the end of last season, and it helped. The most important thing I learned is to be yourself. Don't try to say words that you're not comfortable saying, that you're not used to saying. Just be yourself, be relaxed."

The same goes with receiving, just like those returns not so long ago, just like the plays drawn up in the dirt.

"I want to prove to myself and my family the most, the ones who believe in me and always felt I can do anything," he said. "I just want to prove to those guys I can do this."

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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