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Bears’ backup ’backers will be tested in Brian Urlacher’s absence

Updated: September 9, 2012 6:22AM

BOURBONNAIS — Brian Urlacher’s expected absence for the preseason opener Thursday night against the Denver Broncos will give the Bears a chance to see if their depth at linebacker is as good as they think.

With Urlacher missing his sixth consecutive day of practice Tuesday, Nick Roach is expected to start at middle linebacker, with newcomer Geno Hayes replacing Roach at strong-side linebacker. Second-year pro Dom DeCicco, the No. 2 middle linebacker on the depth chart, figures to get an extended look with the second team.

“We like our depth,’’ coach Lovie Smith said. ‘‘Nick Roach had an outstanding day [Monday]. Nick has played good, winning football for us.

‘‘It’s a great opportunity for younger guys like Dom to get reps. Training camp is a great time to develop some of that depth.”

Urlacher, who has been sidelined with soreness in the left knee he injured in Week 17 last season, was excused from Tuesday’s light practice for personal reasons.

‘‘Brian will be our Mike linebacker this year,’’ Smith said.

Wide receiver Devin Hester missed practice with a mild illness.

Briggs in great form

Two linebacker positions are in flux, but Lance Briggs is solid on the weak side.

‘‘He’s had as good a training camp, if not the best, since I’ve been here with him,’’ said linebackers coach Bob Babich, who has been with the Bears for nine of Briggs’ 10 seasons.

Big test for Hardin

The preseason opener will be particularly big for rookie safety Brandon Hardin, who has been impressive in training camp. The third-round pick from Oregon State, a cornerback in college, is not only playing a new position but will be in a game with his team for the first time since the end of his junior season, when he recovered a fumbled punt and blocked an extra point in a 37-20 loss to Oregon.

‘‘It’ll be interesting to see how he adapts to a game,’’ defensive backs coach Jon Hoke said. ‘‘He’s done well in practice — understanding concepts and what we’re trying to get done. How he executes in the game is going to be big.’’

The game plan

Starters are not expected to play more than a couple of series, if that, against the Broncos. The focus generally is on the back end of the roster, particularly those players in their first NFL game.

Among the players who have piqued curiosity are wide receiver Brittan Golden, kick returner Greg McCoy, cornerback Isaiah Frey, safeties Jeremy Jones and Trevor Coston, guard Nick Pieschel and tight end Brandon Venson.

‘‘Everyone, for the most part, will play a little,’’ Smith said. ‘‘We haven’t decided how many reps everyone will get. We have some tough decisions to make on the 53-man roster [and] on who starts — that’s what we’re looking for.’’

Cutler backs Dane

Wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher, on the roster bubble again, received a major endorsement from quarterback Jay Cutler. Sanzenbacher was Cutler’s go-to guy after Earl Bennett was injured last season, catching three touchdown passes.

‘‘You watch film on Dane, and you have to keep him [from] a quarterback’s perspective,’’ Cutler said. ‘‘I know there’s numbers, and he’s got to contribute [on special teams]. But he’s going to be hard to let go if we have to.’’

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