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Bears’ Sam Hurd ready to shed special-teams label as a receiver

Then-Chicago Bears wide receiver Sam Hurd waits for pass before an NFL preseasfootball game Chicago August 2011. | AP file

Then-Chicago Bears wide receiver Sam Hurd waits for a pass before an NFL preseason football game in Chicago in August 2011. | AP file photo

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:25AM

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — Sturdier than he used to be but still tall, thin, long-necked and wiry at his listed 6-3, 200 pounds, Sam Hurd looks more like he was drawn by Walt Disney than chiseled by the football gods.

He’s been called ‘‘Bird’’ most of his life and was tagged with ‘‘Noodle’’ as a rookie with the Dallas Cowboys.

Bill Parcells’ first impression upon meeting Hurd in 2006?

‘‘He told me I had a chicken neck,’’ Hurd said.

But on the inside, Hurd is a consummate athlete, competitor and football player who thinks like an NFL wide receiver. The words of Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak when Hurd was an NIU freshman in 2002 still ring true today as Hurd prepares for his sixth NFL season at age 26: ‘‘He’s young enough and silly enough not to fear anything.’’

So don’t discount Hurd’s contention that he signed with the Bears to be a wide receiver who also contributes on special teams instead of the other way around.

Breaking out of the special-teams niche is a difficult trick in the NFL. But Hurd is a good athlete who’s smart enough — and willing enough — to do the little things it takes to succeed. As a wide receiver at NIU, he learned how to be an effective downfield blocker for Michael Turner and Garrett Wolfe. As a rookie with the Cowboys, he learned every wide receiver position, not just his own, to try to win a roster spot. He stayed after practice in training camp for tutoring with the great Terrell Owens. And he didn’t just play on special teams — he excelled on special teams.

‘‘I want to be a wide receiver. Who wouldn’t?’’ Hurd said. ‘‘I’m just hoping it’s not a closed book like in Dallas. That’s the whole [reason] I’m here is because I was only going to be treated as a special-teams [player] in Dallas. I didn’t come here just to play special teams.’’

From the looks of it in training camp, the Bears are giving Hurd a legitimate opportunity to contribute at wide receiver in Mike Martz’s offense. And Hurd is making an impression. His versatility, his blocking and his ability to make downfield receptions in traffic make him an intriguing possibility.

‘‘His energy is what we’re looking for,’’ offensive coordinator Mike Martz said. ‘‘He’s a tall guy who can run, but you just can’t tire him out, and those are the guys you like.

‘‘He’s learned three positions right away, which is a big help for us. You can move him around. He’s going to make a spot for himself.’’

That’s what Hurd seems to do best. He didn’t play football until his junior year at Brackenridge High School in San Antonio but caught 23 touchdown passes and averaged 27.3 yards a catch (60 receptions, 1,639 yards) as a senior. He was a late signee at NIU after failing to qualify academically at Arizona and opened camp as the Huskies’ fifth-string split end in 2002. But in the third game of his college career, he caught eight passes for 161 yards against Wisconsin as a 17-year-old freshman before 77,460 fans at Camp Randall Stadium.

After finishing his career No. 2 on NIU’s all-time list in receiving yards (2,322) and No. 3 in touchdowns (21) he was a long shot in a field of 11 wide receivers with the Cowboys after going undrafted in 2006. But he became a hit in training camp at wide receiver and on special teams and made the roster. With a small window of opportunity, he wasn’t consistent enough to establish himself as a receiver, but he became an ace on special teams.

By the fifth season, it was a role he felt trapped in. Hurd led the Cowboys in special-teams tackles the last two seasons. But being captain of special teams is a double-edged sword in the NFL. Hurd became more and more of an afterthought at wide receiver last season. He caught 14 passes for 123 yards (8.6 per catch) with a long play of 13 yards — a big drop considering that even in his limited role, Hurd averaged 16.5 yards per catch in his first four NFL seasons (31 receptions, 510 yards).

‘‘It’s very difficult [to break out of it],’’ Hurd said. ‘‘Being established on special teams, [if] you’re tied with someone else [at wide receiver], they’re always going to put you on special teams.

‘‘It makes you think, ‘Dang, should I do terrible [at special teams] and just be better at wide receiver?’ But that’s not me. I’m going to do my hardest at anything I do. That’s all I’ve done.

‘‘There’s nothing wrong with special teams. I will go as hard as I can for special teams. But I would love to start at wide receiver and play wide receiver all the time. So if I get that opportunity, I want to take advantage of it.’’

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