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Bears DT Henry Melton off to great start

Bears defensive tackle Henry Melthad two sacks six quarterback hits against AtlantFalcons seasopener. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton had two sacks and six quarterback hits against the Atlanta Falcons in the season opener. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 18, 2011 12:22AM

Like so many other talented but unproven Bears prospects before him, Henry Melton came into training camp with expectations that seemed driven more by hope than anything else.

He’s bigger and just as quick. His goal is double-digit sacks. It always sounds so good.

But those who had to see it to believe it didn’t have to wait long. In the season opener last week, Melton was even better than advertised. The 6-3, 295-pound third-year defensive tackle had two sacks and six quarterback hits in the Bears’ 30-12 victory over the Atlanta Falcons at Soldier Field.

It was an impressive performance, but it still left room for doubt. Was Melton just that good? Or was he taking advantage of two Falcons offensive linemen starting for the first time in the NFL? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle, but that doesn’t matter to Melton.

‘‘I really just have to worry about what I have to do out there,’’ Melton, 24, said. ‘‘Last week is last week. I’d like to even improve on that. I missed even more opportunities to get some sacks in that game.’’

Either way, Melton knows the degree-of-difficulty will increase Sunday, when he faces the New Orleans Saints and Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans and former Bears center Olin Kreutz. They have a combined 18 seasons in the NFL and eight Pro Bowl selections.

‘‘With anybody who’s established themselves as one of the best in the game at their position, it’s good to see how you match up with them,’’ Melton said. ‘‘It’s going to be fun.’’

It wouldn’t be a big surprise if Melton keeps on going. The Grapevine, Texas, native always has had unusual athletic skills. He was a running back in high school and in his first two seasons at Texas. He scored 10 touchdowns for the Longhorns as a freshman. But when his weight seemed to be slowing him down at running back, Melton was moved to defensive end at the end of his sophomore season.

A fourth-round draft pick by the Bears in 2009 as a defensive end, Melton was moved inside as he continued to get bigger without losing any quickness. That gives him the bulk to stop the run and the agility to rush the passer.

‘‘He’s not your prototype defensive tackle,’’ teammate Nick Reed said. ‘‘He probably weighs 300 pounds, but he plays like he’s a D-end. He plays fast. He gets off [the snap]. He plays hard. He’s a great pass rusher.

‘‘Sometimes coaches are willing to give up that pass-rushing ability and quickness to have a big, heavy three-technique [defensive tackle]. But he probably does better than most of those big, fat three-techs playing the run, and he’s a great pass rusher. ’’

As gifted as Melton is, the secret to his success is a work ethic developed through years of having to prove himself. He came to Texas in a recruiting class with Jamaal Charles, so the running-back spot never was handed to him. By the time he started working full-time at defensive end, he was a junior and had to learn a new position. As a fourth-round draft pick, he had to work to make the roster. He missed his rookie season after being put on injured reserve with an ankle injury.

Last season, he struggled to make the team, then had to learn another new position.

‘‘He just works his butt off,’’ teammate Corey Wootton said. ‘‘Toward the end of last season, he was one of our better rushers in there. He had a great offseason. He came into camp really showing his quickness and explosiveness. Ever since then, he’s doing a great job.’’

After years of being in flux, Melton seems to have found his niche with the Bears at defensive tackle.

‘‘I was telling someone the other day that he could have a great year here, with the D-line we have and the way he plays,’’ Reed said. ‘‘He’s a great athlete. And the way [defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli] lets our three-techs run around, he’s in the right spot, doing the right thing.’’

Melton also said he learned a lot from former teammate Tommie Harris, who played that position at the highest level until injuries slowed him down.

‘‘He had a lot of instincts to go with his quickness,’’ Melton said. ‘‘I learned a lot, looking back at his old tapes. And he was still doing good things before he left. He’s been really helpful to me, and he’s been really supportive.’’

Melton knows he still has a long way to go.

‘‘The season is just starting,’’ he said. ‘‘I want to keep improving.’’

But he’s already ahead of schedule. And finishing with double-digit sacks doesn’t seem so far-fetched right now.

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