By Laurence Holmes
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. (WSCR) — Over the last six seasons, Bears fans have been treated to watching the kick-returning exploits of Devin Hester. It’s not even a question if he’s the greatest of all time. The only question is if his special talent will make him the first player, who is mostly known for returning kicks, to make it to Canton.
Hester’s ability to give the offense great field position makes him one of the scariest weapons in the NFL, but recently teams have tried to neutralize his effectiveness by kicking high instead of kicking long.
The rugby-style kicks have given Hester problems, but not for the reasons you may think. His issue isn’t his hands or catching the ball. The issue is spacing. Hester’s worry has been where his teammates are in relation to where he’s fielding the punt. He doesn’t want to run up their backs or have a teammate blocked into him and perhaps turn the ball over.
With more air under the ball and more players capable of getting to the landing spot, it lessens the room the return team has to work with. So Hester has been content in letting a lot of those punts drop instead of fielding them — which is not what the Bears want.
It’s something that the team is working on in camp.
“Punters that punt the ball 20 or 30 yards, it’s harder to field the punt when you got all 21 guys right in front of you,” Hester said.
The Bears want to get Hester to a point where his only concern is fielding the punt. He has to trust that the return team will do their job and stay out of his way.
“What you’ve been noticing is teams are kicking ‘skyballs,’ end-over-end rugby kicks. They’re not worried how far they go. They just want to kick them high,” Special Teams coach Dave Toub said.
The idea being: Make Hester uncomfortable. The Bears are taking the guesswork out of it. There is an emphasis in this camp to have Hester run up and field those punts. Toub wants to keep him aggressive, even if that means a fair-catch.
With 17 total returns for touchdown in his career (2nd to Deion Sanders’ 19), the Bears know a big play is right around the corner if they can get the ball into his hands.
“He has an uncanny knack for making people miss. You just don’t know which way he’s gonna go and it’s natural. It’s something you can’t coach,” Toub said.
The rugby-style kicks have made him field less. In 2011, Hester had his lowest number of returns in a season where he played 16 games. It’s a trend that he would like to turn around.
“I just gotta trust that my guys will see me coming to catch the punt and clear it out for me and make it a lot easier for me. So that’s my goal on special teams this year, to run down there and catch those pooch punts,” Hester said. “It’s something I gotta work on.”
For more coverage during training camp, follow Laurence on Twitter at @LaurenceWHolmes.