LAKE FOREST — From his nickelback spot, Isaiah Frey dropped into a shallow zone and scanned the field for a chance to impress.
It was during a 7-on-7 drill at Wednesday's minicamp that one finally crossed his frame of view. As Dante Rosario zipped into his zone from the right, the football arrived in front. Frey lunged forward, and the three collided. The ball bounced out of the receivers arms and onto the turf.
Was it a fumble? No referees were around to say, and the answer might not matter anyway. Frey immediately dived on top of it, his teammates jumping up and down and signaling turnover.
Frey's reaction doesn’t come from instinct. He played in all 16 games last season, including six starts. Not once did he force a turnover.
The reaction instead comes from desire.
“I think if I just continue to do my job, turnovers will come,” he said.
Frey finds himself needing to improve if he wants to start this year in the position he ended last, when he was constantly on the field during Chicago’s 33-28 loss to Green Bay in Week 17. Since that point, the Bears have seen the recovery of Kelvin Hayden from a hamstring tear that took him out of the starting nickel spot a year ago. Then in May, they their first-round pick on Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller.
“I told myself, ‘I gotta get better,’” Frey said, remembering the draft. “There’s going to be great players coming in and out of this league every year. If I’m not up to my A-game, I’m going to be out of a job.”
Through OTAs and two days of minicamp, Fuller has held down a starting cornerback spot while Tim Jennings has represented the first team at the nickel position.
Frey is feeling the pressure to draw attention to himself at a position where the good ones often make plays without any noise at all. Turnovers are a cornerback's time to shine. The Walter Payton Center got its loudest on Wednesday when Al Louis-Jean took a tipped pass to the end zone in team practice. A similar reaction took place when Demontre Hurst reeled in a tipped pass later in the sequence.
“For us defensively, that's a function of what we do – we're always trying to find a way to get guys to get the ball,” defensive backs coach Jon Hoke said. “In training camp, (Frey) had a ton of takeaways, and it just didn't translate in the games for whatever reason. We've got to coach him better. That's all we're trying to do."
Frey’s last takeaway in a regular-season came in 2011 during his senior season at Nevada, when he recorded five. In 2012 with the Bears, he did intercept a pass in the endzone late to preserve a 20-16 win over the Giants – but that was in the preseason.
As a sixth-round pick in 2012 who was later relegated to the practice squad, Frey had to work just to get on the field. That finally came last season. Now, he’s ready for the turnovers to count.
But in a tight position battle, he recognizes he can’t afford to sacrifice the other parts of being a nickelback. When defensive coordinator Mel Tucker outlined what he hopes to see out of the team’s man in nickel, he seemed to mention everything but turnovers.
“You want a guy who has a very high football IQ, good instincts, and a guy who has a good demeanor in terms of poise inside,” Tucker said. “You need a guy that can play tight man coverage. … A guy who can break on the ball in zone and match patterns in zone, and you’d like a guy who can give you something as a blitzer.”
Frey is targeting those areas most, he said. He’s added “five or six” pounds to reach his target weight of 191, which he says offers the balance to size up tight ends on the line and to track down receivers in the slot.
He said he held up fine in position drills with his new larger frame. Matched up with Hayden in 1-on-1, Frey mirrored him at the hip for 30 yards until the pair met up with starters Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. Then came a break in the action, leaving the four men who shuffled in and out of the Bears' secondary with injuries standing together, each ready to separate from the pack.
“I just have to go out there and show my worth to the team, whether that’s special teams, playing corner or nickel,” Frey said. “That’s the best thing about playing in the NFL – you want to be able to show your versatility. If I’m able to do that, I think I’ll be OK.”