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Bears’ Isaiah Frey finds a niche at nickel back

Updated: December 17, 2013 6:11AM



This is one way it’s supposed to work in the NFL: When the starter gets hurt, you throw someone in there and he plays, learns from his mistakes, keeps you from getting beat and you end up turning a negative into a positive by developing a player who otherwise never would have played. It often works best when the ‘‘next man up’’ is a draft pick and not a stop-gap.

That’s how good teams not only withstand the attrition of a season, but keep moving forward. The Bears have struggled to overcome the losses of Brian Urlacher, Henry Melton, Lance Briggs and Nate Collins, and who knows how they will fare with cornerback Charles Tillman out for the season.

But in nickel back Isaiah Frey, they appear to have a winner. The second-year cornerback from Nevada, a sixth-round draft pick in 2012, has thrived as a replacement for injured ‘‘starter’’ Kelvin Hayden, who suffered a season-ending torn hamstring in training camp. For what it’s worth, the 6-foot, 190-pound Frey is one of three regulars on defense with an overall positive rating from Pro Football Focus.

‘‘He’s definitely making a lot of progress,’’ safety Chris Conte said. ‘‘The nickel position is the toughest one in our defense, with the amount of reads and things he has to do.

‘‘Being a young player, he has a huge load on him, and he’s done a great job of it. Coach [Jon Hoke, the Bears’ secondary coach] has been tough with him and expects a lot of him. And that’s tough on a young player. But he handles it great. He has a lot of confidence, and he’s getting better every week.’’

Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has been impressed with Frey’s ability to adjust to a complicated position in a pinch.

‘‘He’s got good feet. He’s got good balance and body control,’’ Tucker said. ‘‘He has outstanding awareness. He’s very, very competitive. He usually doesn’t make the same mistake twice.’’

The nickel back plays starters’ reps for the Bears. Frey has played 45 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, including 66 percent against the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions the last two games.

‘‘I feel like I’ve been doing my job well,’’ Frey said. ‘‘I take it as a challenge when we come into a game and there’s something complicated going on. I feel like it’s on me to know my assignment and show the coaches I know what I’m doing.’’

Frey credits Hoke for pushing him to excel at the specialty ­position.

‘‘He’s always on me about being the smartest player on the field. I take pride in that, trying to know what’s going on at all times,’’ Frey said.

Frey spent last season on the practice squad. But he learned well, and he has benefitted from playing time.

‘‘It’s experience,’’ he said. ‘‘I remember last year coming in as a rookie they put me at nickel and it’s like night and day. I had no clue what I was doing. In the offseason I got a lot more reps and started getting more comfortable with it. It started becoming a lot more familiar to me.’’

The only danger now is that he will be pigeon-holed as a specialist. Frey still hopes to be a starting corner. But his value to the Bears as a nickel is so great that he hasn’t moved up the chain after Tillman’s injury.

‘‘Whatever role we need, he’ll do it — so we’re taking it one day at a time,’’ Tucker said. ‘‘I really don’t want to deal in speculation about ­future plans. He’s our starting nickel and he also can play corner.’’

Frey is glad to be on the field in any capacity. But he still has big plans.

‘‘Definitely,’’ he said. ‘‘They drafted me to play corner. Hopefully one day I’ll play corner. But right now, I’m just doing what the coaches ask me to do.’’

Email: mpotash@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkPotash



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