As the only coaching holdover from the Lovie Smith regime, Jon Hoke is aware of the challenges facing 66 rookies and first-year players who arrived at Halas Hall on Friday for rookie minicamp with little or no familiarity with many of their peers.
Hoke, entering his sixth season as the Bears defensive backs coach, is trying to quickly evaluate the eight defensive backs who participated Friday, including first-round cornerback Kyle Fuller and fourth-round safety Brock Vereen.
Of course, Hoke knew plenty about Fuller and Vereen before they were drafted.
“He’s a football guy,” Hoke said about Fuller, who impressed him firsthand at the NFL Combine in February and on a pre-draft workout. “… Has a concept of what it’s all about. He plays the game the way you like to see defensive backs play – he’s a very physical player.”
Adding physicality to every area of the worst defense in franchise history was a major point of emphasis in general manager Phil Emery’s thorough offseason revamping. So was finding versatile players who give coordinator Mel Tucker more flexibility.
“He’s a unique guy because he played corner and he played safety,” Hoke explained about Vereen, the former Minnesota Gopher whom the Bears traded up to acquire. “He gives you a lot of flexibility. He is a safety – that’s where we’re going to play him – but you can see his athleticism for the safety position when he did play corner.”
Though he’s expected to be on the field roughly 50 percent of the time as a slot defender, Fuller’s starting days will have to wait, as Pro Bowlers Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings are currently entrenched atop the depth chart. According to Hoke, Chicago’s top pick will still be able to learn plenty from his new mentors.
”He’s got two great guys to watch … just an opportunity to see how they work, conduct themselves as professionals,” Hoke said, adding that Tillman and Jennings have always embraced their role as veteran teachers.
Unlike cornerback, the battle for starting jobs at safety is as “wide open” as any spot on the Bears roster. In addition to Vereen, the Bears added three veteran free agents to the mix – Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings and Danny McCray – and re-signed Craig Steltz.
Hoke’s advice for the players who are competing?
“Go play the best football you can play – be the best player you can be,” he said.
Hoke also spoke about embattled Chris Conte, who is coming off his worst season and underwent shoulder surgery last in March.
“Just didn’t make the plays,” Hoke said of Conte’s struggles. “The ball got to him probably quicker than in the past. … If you watch him play in 2012, he was a very good player,”
Hoke said Conte lost some confidence, but he expects him to get over it quickly.
Vereen, who said he expects to play free safety, is focused this weekend on making a good first impression.
“Hopefully, over these three days I can prove that I belong on this team,” Vereen said. “I’m hoping these coaches can walk away from these three days and say, ‘Brock is a player for us’.”
That’s Hoke’s expectation. He hopes that, by the end of their first weekend as Bears, Fuller, Vereen and the rest of the rookies will benefit from this new experience.
“Just to have a basic grasp of how we do business,” he said. “Of being a professional football player; how we teach and how we install our system of defense.”