By Chris Emma—

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. (CBS) – After nearly four decades of coaching, Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio knows a thing or two.

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Despite flashes from then-rookie defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard last summer in training camp, Fangio realized that he wasn’t ready for a key role. A defense still seeking an answer opposite Akiem Hicks at the five-technique would still be waiting.

A year later, Fangio now sees what Bullard was missing.

“He’s more mentally and emotionally ready for the rigors of playing in the NFL trenches against grown men,” Fangio said last week. “And we’re hopeful. I like where he’s at now. I think his arrow’s pointing up. We’ll see how far it goes up.”

It was pretty simple what was wrong with Bullard when he would get out of his stance and hesitate as blockers converged. Assignment football wasn’t clear to him as a rookie, as he wouldn’t explode off the snap at full speed.

Rushing against veteran teammates like Kyle Long and Bobby Massie in practice brought challenges for Bullard. He just wasn’t ready for the NFL level.

“Now, I kind of get it,” Bullard said. “I know how to expect the blocks to come, why (Fangio) is calling a certain defense. I know how it’s going to come.

“I can just go out and play faster.”

Playing faster is what will ultimately land Bullard the open starting spot on the defensive line. The Bears brought in veteran Jaye Howard to contend as well, and incumbent Mitch Unrein entered training camp as the listed starter.

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Bullard has seen his workload increase throughout training camp. The faith from his coaching staff is becoming clear.

“It means a lot,” Bullard said. “I’m having a pretty good camp, making plays. I got to keep doing it and hopefully land the job.

“I feel that I can play at a high level.”

The Bears made Bullard their third-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, a selection that many viewed as a steal at that point in the field. A standout at Florida, Bullard had fallen a bit after many projected he could be a second-round pick.

Bullard was and is clearly a gifted athlete, but fine-tuning the mental aspect is a different beast.

Bullard knows well what went wrong last season. He’s using that and a sharpened edge to attack at the line of scrimmage.

The Bears are encouraged and hopeful in what Bullard could become. Now, his mentality is a lot more simple.

“Continue to grow, continue to be the player that they drafted,” he said. “Be able to adjust to the game but play my game with the quick get-off, the quick hands, extension, getting off blocks. So far, so (good). I got to keep pushing and stacking the days, having good days.”

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