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Bears plan for Devin Hester to play bigger offensive role this season

Chicago Bears wide receiver DevHester catches ball during NFL football training camp Monday Aug. 1 2011 Olivet Nazarene University Bourbonnais

Chicago Bears wide receiver Devin Hester catches a ball during NFL football training camp Monday, Aug. 1, 2011, at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:23AM

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — When he arrived at Olivet Nazarene University, Devin Hester didn’t know what role coaches had in store for him.

“They haven’t really told us,” Hester said July 30, a day after players reported for training camp.

Now he knows — and he couldn’t be more thrilled.

During the unusually long offseason, Bears coaches evaluated film of the 2010 season and recognized ­Hester wasn’t used enough.

“He played even ­better than I thought he did,” ­offensive coordinator Mike Martz told the Sun-Times. “He’s an outstanding wide receiver. He’s very quiet and understated, and we had trouble getting him the ball, but I don’t foresee that being an issue this year.”

Added coach Lovie Smith, “He’ll be a huge part of the offense.”

In 2010, Johnny Knox had more catches (51), ­receiving yards (960), receiving touchdowns (five) and even offensive snaps (864) than any other receiver. Hester, meanwhile, had 40 catches for 475 yards and four touchdowns. But receivers coach Darryl Drake said the film showed that Hester consistently did what was asked of him.

“[Hester] played so much better than people imagined,” Drake said. “Sometimes you don’t realize some things until you really sit down and you look and see what you asked of him, and he was ­always where he was ­supposed to be.

“He really was our best receiver last year, even though the numbers didn’t show it.”

Bouncing back

There were high hopes for Hester last season, too. But after a 77-yard, one-touchdown game against the Dallas Cowboys, Hester had only eight catches for 58 yards in the next four. In two playoff games, Hester had only two catches for four yards.

For the season, according to Pro Football Focus, Knox was targeted a team-high 97 times with Hester second at 71 and Earl Bennett third at 66.

“It was a little frustrating; I’m not going to sit here and say it wasn’t,” Hester said of his opportunities at receiver. “But, at the same time, things happen for a reason.

“I’m glad this is a new season and a fresh start for all of us.’’

If this training camp is any indication, Hester will be a major part of the offense. He has been a favorite target of quarterback Jay Cutler, who, unprompted, singled out ­Hester for having an ­“unbelievable” camp.

Specifically, Cutler said Hester isn’t thinking, a sign of his growing comfort in Martz’s offense.

“He’s reacting, and he’s running super fast,’’ Cutler said. ‘‘I’m happy. I think he’s happy with where he’s at right now.”

Before his news ­conference, Cutler connected with Hester on one of the highlights of the practice, a 46-yard touchdown.

The play showcased both players’ command of the ­offense, Drake said. Like many play calls, that ­particular one has options based on the coverage.

Usually, Hester would run a short post, a play that would yield six yards. But as he was running full speed from left to right, Hester noticed the safety move to the middle of the field, leaving plenty of real estate toward the right side of the end zone.

He beat cornerback Tim Jennings in a footrace, and Cutler launched a perfectly placed ball for the touchdown.

“Those are the kind of things this offense will allow you to do,” Drake proudly said. “They both recognized it, and they made the play.”

Hester said he spent 70 percent of his pre-snap thoughts on his assignment and 30 percent reading the defense.

“Now it’s 100 percent ­reading the defense,” Hester said.

Other responsibility

Drake said Knox and Roy Williams will battle for the split-end position. He said Knox has “got to improve,” without providing anything specific.

But Knox led all NFL receivers in one dubious ­statistic: most interceptions on passes intended for him (11).

Martz, meanwhile, anointed Hester the starter at flanker.

“That’s a huge role for us,” Martz said.

Still, Hester said he’s patient, and he isn’t fixated on any specific goal as a receiver.

“I just want to be ­consistent, be where I need to be,” Hester said. “If you’re a consistent receiver, all those other things will come.

“Maybe last year wasn’t meant for me to get the ball thrown to me 100 times. But this year I have to have the mentality, if that situation does come, where I get 120 or 130 balls thrown my way the whole season, then I have to make at least 95 percent of the plays.”

But Hester has another important job: returning punts.

And he does have a ­specific goal in mind.

In Week 15 last season against the Minnesota Vikings, Hester broke the NFL record with his 14th combined kick-return ­touchdown.

“There’s a lot of goals I have,” Hester quietly said. “I haven’t reached [any] of my goals yet.”

Asked for an example, Hester said, “My goal is to get over 20 [touchdown] returns for my career.”

Hester, who turns 29 in November, considers that a realistic goal.

Comfortable as a receiver and as a returner and in the prime of his career, Hester, more than anything, wants to help the Bears score points and win games.

“I’m just out here to make plays,” he said. “Whenever I get my opportunities, I try to make the best of it.”

The Bears, though, are mindful of Hester wearing down.

He played in all 16 regular-season games last season and 66 percent of the offensive snaps, nearly 200 snaps fewer than Knox. In two postseason games, Hester averaged 9.2 yards per punt return and 15 yards per kickoff return.

“We look at snaps,” Smith said. “But we have to rely on him a lot. When he’s tired, he’ll let us know.

“But there’s no way I could stop him from returning punts. I mean, he’s a Hall of Famer. There’s a balance there, and we’ll watch it.”

For his part, though, Hester admitted that it’s difficult to take himself out of a game.

“There’s no way to ask a football player if you’re tired or not,’’ Hester said. ‘‘As a competitor, you never say you’re tired even if you’re tired.”

A balance needs to be struck, but Martz reiterated that Hester will have an important role in his offense this season.

“Now we will make sure he is fresh,” Martz said. “We’ll never take away from his special-teams role. But when he’s rested, he’ll be in there because he’s too good a player.”

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