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As Bears camp begins, talk centers around a missing Olin Kreutz

Bears coach Lovie Smith said he hopes team can get something done with veteran center OlKreutz (57). | Rick Stewart~Getty

Bears coach Lovie Smith said he hopes the team can get something done with veteran center Olin Kreutz (57). | Rick Stewart~Getty Images

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Updated: November 2, 2011 12:45AM

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — Safety Chris Harris scanned the meeting room Friday at Olivet Nazarene University as the Bears gathered for the first time after labor negotiations wreaked havoc on the offseason.

Even though the Bears are a veteran team with continuity throughout, Harris still was puzzled as he looked around.

“It’s very weird,” Harris said. “I don’t know half the guys here. We need to put name tags on.”

Added quarterback Jay Cutler, “There’s 40 faces we’ve never seen before.”

The Bears have 89 players under contract, one below the league max. Several players and coach Lovie Smith re-emphasized “the core,” but the longtime anchor, center Olin Kreutz, was noticeably absent.

“I’ve been on record as far as the importance that Olin Kreutz brings to our football team,” Smith said. “When you’re out of season, negotiations go on, which is happening right now. I just have to trust the process and hope we can get something done.”

During his news conference, Cutler was asked about a handful of players, from running back Matt Forte to new wide receiver Roy Williams to former tight end Greg Olsen. But when Kreutz’s name came up, Cutler laughed uncomfortably.

“How can I answer this carefully?” he said quietly. “You know, Olin’s one of the guys. I’d love to have him. We need him. But if we don’t, they’re going to have to step up in some certain way.”

After a quiet start as other teams signed big-name free agents, the Bears kicked the tires on some lesser-known players such as defensive end Jason Babin and linebacker Justin Durant and initiated a trade of Olsen.

It’s believed the first player the Bears agreed to terms with was punter Adam Podlesh on Thursday morning.

Despite being $34 million under the $120 million salary cap, the Bears were clearly navigating an unprecedented market of players in search of bargains.

But momentum picked up as they added tight end Matt Spaeth and dumped tight end Brandon Manumaleuna.

Just after midnight Friday, the Sun-Times reported that Williams — the former top-10 pick of the Detroit Lions — was expected to sign with the Bears, which he did later in the day. Then receiver Sam Hurd, defensive tackle Anthony Adams, linebacker Nick Roach and defensive end Vernon Gholston, the sixth overall pick of the New York Jets in 2008, were signed.

So even though Kreutz wasn’t signed by Friday night, the players and coaches were thrilled that they were back together, even if there are some new rules — because of the collective-bargaining agreement — everyone is still trying to get a grasp of.

For instance, the veterans who signed Friday — including Williams, Podlesh and even quarterback Caleb Hanie — can attend team meetings and functions but can’t practice until Thursday.

“It was great to finally see some of the players,” Smith said. “It’s been a long time as you know.”

There were concerns that if training camp was pushed back much later, the Bears might not be able to hold it at Olivet Nazarene for the 10th time.

“Every year I’m pumped up and excited,” Smith said of arriving here. “Bourbonnais, ONU does a great job of hosting us. But, for us, all the things that happened in the past are just that.

“Like I told the team, now is the time for us to get to work.”

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