By Matt Trowbridge
ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR
LAKE FOREST — Devin Hester’s former “brothers” keep telling him what he can’t do.
“You’ve got no routes. You can’t do this. You can’t do that. We can run with you. Stuff like that. We’re just teasing him,” Bears cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. explained.
“There’s a lot of joking around, because I played DB,” Hester said as his conversion from a defensive back to a wide receiver began Friday through Sunday at the Bears first minicamp of 2007. “Those guys are great guys. I spent a whole year with them and had a lot of fun. It’s like a brotherly challenge. Everyone wants to go against me as a DB.”
You know it’s a tease, because the Bears seem to think there is nothing Hester can’t do after he returned an NFL-record six kicks for touchdowns as a rookie. He added a seventh with the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl.
The move to offense even has the blessing of Hester’s idol, Deion Sanders.
Hester said “Neon Deion” told him: “You are a playmaker. Wherever you go, you are going to make plays. It’s not going to hurt you.”
Lovie Smith persuaded Hester to move by mentioning his one national endorsement.
“You didn’t get a chance to do a Chunky Soup commercial based on back-pedaling,” the Bears coach recalled telling Hester. “It’s with your hands on the football. We want to get his hands on the football a few more times. Both sides saw it that way.”
Hester saw it even more clearly Friday afternoon. Bears players erupted in whoops and hollers when he juked out two defenders and turned a 15-yard catch into a long touchdown in the Bears’ first practice of the 2007 season.
“After I scored, (Lovie) said, ‘I told you you were making the right decision,’ ” Hester said. “I said, ‘You are right.’
“If I can provide a little spark to the offense here and there, that’s fine with me. I’m willing to do it for the team. It’s not only going to be better for the team, but for me as well.”
Smith calls Hester “a big-play guy in general.” But making big plays as a receiver is different than doing so as a kick returner.
Many of the greatest kick returners in NFL history have doubled as receivers, but none ever truly starred there. Dante Hall has never had as much as 300 yards receiving in any of his six seasons. Desmond Howard topped 300 yards once in nine years. Even the two most accomplished receiver/returners, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson and Rick Upchurch, averaged fewer than 500 yards receiving per season.
“It’s difficult for some people,” Manning Jr. conceded with a laugh, “but if you have natural speed like Devin, everything else falls into place.”
“It can be tough,” offensive coordinator Ron Turner said Saturday. “It depends on the individual and his skills. From what I’ve seen in two days of minicamp, he has a chance to be a good receiver. He runs good routes. He has great hands. He has a good feel for it. If he commits full-time, which he is doing, he can develop.”
Manning Jr. said if former Arena Football player Rashied Davis can start out as a Bears cornerback and catch 22 passes for 303 yards in his first year at receiver, Hester can also make the transition. Davis, though, said it won’t be that easy.
“I played receiver my whole career until I got to Arena, where I played both defense and wide receiver,” Davis said. “Devin has never formally been trained at one position. In college, they didn’t know where to put him. But he’s a tremendous athlete and he looks good out there right now.”
Hester is not worried. Especially about catching the ball.
“Catching a pass is easier than catching a punt,” he said. “the ball is coming straight at you and there is no hang time.”
The Bears will also try to keep it simple for Hester. “We’re going to have a very specific package for him,” Turner said.
The Bears want to be creative with Hester and move him around. Hester could line up anywhere from out wide, to in the slot to in the back field as a running back. That has brought comparisons to how the Saints use Reggie Bush.
In this still very young experiment, the only thing Hester is completely sure of is he does not like that comparison.
“Everybody says, ‘You are going to be the next Reggie Bush.’ No, I’m not Reggie Bush,” he said. “We are two different players. I’m Devin Hester. He’s Reggie Bush. That’s just the way it is.”
Assistant sports editor Matt Trowbridge can be reached at 815-987-1383 or email@example.com.