By Chris Emma–

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — Within coordinator Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defense, the assignments vary on the defensive line. It’s something rookie end Jonathan Bullard has embraced.

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Often times, Bullard is asked to stay home and fill the gap. He’s the “smallest” defensive lineman at 290 pounds but has flashed the ability to take on opposing blockers, sometimes a double team, and create problems, opening up space for teammates.

This is a basic responsibility of lining up for Fangio’s defense.

“Play with technique,” Bullard said.

When Bullard gets the green light to be more aggressive, he’s ready. And he will see green plenty this season.

In training camp, Bullard has flashed his explosion off the snap, which the Bears saw in their pre-draft scouting. During one of his first practices, Bullard jumped off the snap and smothered running back Ka’Deem Carey before anyone could blink.

Bullard routinely gets to the backfield and creates disruption.

“He’s lived up to the expectations thus far,” Bears coach John Fox said.

On Thursday, Bullard returned to Halas Hall after missing the early part of the week tending to a family matter. He was back with the Bears and continuing his process of learning the details of Fangio’s defense.

For Bullard, the key is learning how the defense functions, particularly what everybody else is doing within each play. Fangio’s verbiage is generally simple but understanding some its greatest details can be complicated.

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Once Bullard, who expects to play in Saturday’s third preseason game, has a firm grasp of all the responsibilities, he can master his own.

“I’m starting to understand the defense and what the guys are doing around me,” Bullard said, “so I can play much faster and start making the plays that I’m used to making.”

As a senior at Florida, Bullard made a lot of plays, being voted an All-American by several outlets and named a unanimous first-team All-SEC selection after recording 6.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for a loss. The common theme for Bullard was living in SEC backfields, something he hopes translates to the NFL.

“He’s a tough-minded player, he’s a tough player physically,” Fox said. “I think from a trait standpoint, he’s explosive, which helps in pass rush situations. That’s one of the reasons why we drafted him.”

Like so many players, Bullard talks about the chip on his shoulder. He was hoping to enter the NFL after the 2014 season, but scouting grades suggested he return to Florida. Bullard then had a phenomenal senior season, only to fall out of the first two rounds before being selected by the Bears in the third round.

Early into the preseason, it’s clear that Bullard has the physical abilities to be a force in the NFL. Rounding out his knowledge of Fangio’s defense is the next vital step in the rookie transition.

Fox has seen the progress Bullard has already made, his dedication to learning allowing him the ability to read and react. This is just the start, and Fox and the Bears haven’t hesitated to get Bullard chances with the defense.

“If you’re not thinking, you’re performing and not being slowed down my the mental aspect,” Fox said. “He’s just getting more comfortable in our schemes.”

 

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Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.