For Devin Hester, returning is better than receiving
BY MARK POTASH Staff Reporter August 13, 2013 10:34PM
Wednesday Break camp
at Panthers 24, Bears 17
Thursday vs. Chargers 7 p.m.
Aug. 23 at Raiders 9 p.m.
Aug. 29 vs. Browns 7 p.m.
Updated: August 14, 2013 9:40PM
BOURBONNAIS — Devin Hester isn’t as busy as he used to be in training camp, but he’s definitely not bored.
The former wide receiver is active in kick-return and kick-coverage drills. He’s fresher, healthier and more fully engaged with his teammates and coaches. Most of all, he’s happy doing what he does best and not lamenting his absence from the offense after spending the last six seasons as a wide receiver.
‘‘I’m enjoying it; I’m not complaining,’’ Hester said Tuesday after practice. ‘‘I don’t know where y’all are getting these stories that [the decision] was on the coaches. It was pretty much my decision. I feel comfortable with it.
‘‘The coaches and I came to an agreement. We feel comfortable with the situation we’re in. We’ve got some nice receivers who are able to step up and make plays. So let me get back to doing what I’m great at.’’
Hester holds the NFL all-time record with 17 combined kick-return touchdowns, including an NFL-record 12 punt-return touchdowns. But his production as a return man has largely been inversely proportional to his impact as a wide receiver. His most prolific run of kick-return touchdowns — 13 in 2006 and 2007, including a return of a missed field goal and a Super Bowl kickoff return — came when he was not a full-time receiver. His next run of return touchdowns — six total in 2010 and 2011 — came when his production at wide receiver was diminishing rapidly.
‘‘It’s tough being a receiver [and] a return man,’’ Hester said. ‘‘It’s never really been done in the NFL. You have Steve Smith and Santana Moss and guys like that who try to do it. But [with] the legacy we built around this organization on the return game, I wanted to go back and stick to that.’’
Though Hester often made his kick-return dominance look easy, it isn’t. Besides being in sync with his blockers, Hester depended on a focus and mental edge that he was losing by playing wide receiver.
‘‘It’s the time,’’ he said. ‘‘What guy can play 50-60 plays on offense and be as effective as a return man as they can be? The second quarter, your legs are shot. You’re not really peaking at 100 percent of speed.
‘‘It wears down your body throughout the whole week. And then trying to go in a game and do 50-60 plays on offense as well as returns — it’s pretty much impossible. I’ve never seen a guy who can do that and last.’’
So even though he might look bored standing on the sideline during offensive drills, Hester said he’s enjoying the benefits of his dedicated kick-return role for the first time in his NFL career. (Hester was a defensive back as a rookie in 2006.)
‘‘I’m a lot fresher than I’ve ever been coming out of camp,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s the most important thing right now is to start the season without any nagging injuries. I’m ready to go. I’m more energized, more fresh. [In] game-time situations, I won’t be as tired. My legs won’t be beat up. I’ll be more fresh when it’s time to return.’’
Hester can contribute in other ways on special teams — particularly on coverage units. As a sophomore at Miami, he blocked a field goal against Florida State and returned a blocked field goal 78 yards for a touchdown in the Peach Bowl against Florida.
‘‘I’m trying to contribute any way I can,’’ Hester said. ‘‘We could win off a field-goal block. That’s in the back of my mind — to go out and try to get a couple of blocks, as well.’’