By Chris Emma—
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (670 The Score) – The human highlight reel that Devin Hester was during his NFL career set an example for young players to follow.
Hester was truly incredible as a returner, combining his tremendous athletic gifts with natural instincts that are rare to find in football. Bears special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers remembers his days game-planning against Hester during previous stops in the coaching ranks.
“What I noticed watching him return, it always like he was never looking at the guy that was in front of him,” Rodgers said Wednesday, a day after Hester announced his retirement. “He was one block ahead. He knew how he was going to make this guy miss. He was trying to make the next guy miss and set up his blocks. He had kind of a hesitation-speed deal where it always seemed like he was moving about 80 percent, but when he put it not that final gear, he had a real ability to squeeze through some spaces that didn’t look like he could.”
Count Bears rookie running back Tarik Cohen as a fan of Hester’s career. Cohen pointed out that he’s still 19 return touchdowns shy of Hester’s all-time record of 20, though there are similar traits between the two.
In Cohen’s first career return touchdown, he ran more than 125 yards in total on a winding route and electrified the way Hester did at Soldier Field. He flashed the kind of athleticism and vision that made Hester the player he was.
“As a young returner, some of those evasive maneuvers are things that can be learned, even if you don’t have an identical skill set,” Rodgers said. “But some of those traits, certainly with speed and quickness, Tarik’s in the conversation, the same genre.”
Cohen has something to strive for in Hester’s standard, though he shouldn’t try to emulate everything.
The Bears are counting on Cohen as the ideal backfield complement to Jordan Howard. The two averaged more than six yards per carry and posted a combined 227 rushing yards during a win in Cincinnati on Sunday. A rookie out of North Carolina A&T, Cohen has rushed 80 times for 347 yards this season, but his work as a back now comes with a different look.
Finally, Cohen has found success by displaying patience in the backfield. During runs early his rookie season, Cohen would panic when there wasn’t a hole off the edge and turn the other way. It’s something a returner can pull but not a running back facing a disciplined defense. Cohen learned the patience by studying his teammate Howard.
“I feel like I’ve been learning a lot,” Cohen said. “I’d say it’s a learning year.”
Cohen entered this season expecting his role to be primarily in special teams. When Jeremy Langford went down with an injury during training camp, it opened the door for Cohen to become the Bears’ backup to Howard. After expecting a special teams role, Cohen has rushed for two touchdowns, caught one and thrown one.
Coach John Fox even went as far to compare the attention defenses give Cohen to that of Steve Smith and Demaryius Thomas. It’s a high compliment that he has earned during a stellar rookie season.
The key for Cohen is to find consistency in his distinct roles. Sometimes, it’s better to be patient than electrifying.