Hester making steady improvement at wide receiver position

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Devin Hester has blossomed on offense in recent weeks, catching 17 passes for 250 yards in his last four games—the most productive stretch in his two seasons as a Bears wide receiver.

“He’s improved a lot really throughout the year,” said offensive coordinator Ron Turner. “But the last few weeks you can really see he’s playing a lot faster, he’s playing with a lot more confidence and he’s not thinking as much. He’s just playing and reacting, which is a natural transition for someone learning to play the position.”

After he entered the NFL as a cornerback in 2006, Hester was switched to receiver and responded with 20 receptions for 299 yards and 2 touchdowns last season. A year later, the dynamic playmaker has 43 catches for 568 yards and 3 TDs with two games remaining.

The familiarity that comes with playing the same position for a second straight season has benefited Hester, who played cornerback, receiver and running back at the University of Miami.

“It’s got to be tough when you go through college being flip-flopped around and then you get to the NFL and get flip-flopped around,” said tight end Desmond Clark.

“But from last year to this year, it’s a huge difference. He knows the playbook for one. He’s not out there thinking about what he has to do. He’s out there just playing. He can go out and just let his athletic ability take over instead of thinking about what he’s got to do.”

A record-breaking return specialist in his first two seasons with the Bears, Hester has flashed the same big-play ability on offense in recent weeks. Four of his six longest receptions this year have come in the last four games, highlighted by a 65-yard touchdown at Minnesota.

“He’s improved quite a bit in all phases as far as being a receiver,” said coach Lovie Smith. “It’s hard to just move over there in a year and expect a guy to have everything down, but he has made improvement each week. He’s becoming the threat we thought he would become.”

“This being his second year in the offense, it usually takes about that long before you get comfortable with any offense because you’ve got to think about learning an offense like learning a foreign language because of all the different terminology you’ve got to know,” Clark said.

In last Thursday night’s 27-24 overtime win over the Saints, Hester caught four passes for 46 yards while also setting up a touchdown and the winning field goal by drawing pass interference penalties of 38 and 39 yards. 

The Bears (8-6) hope that Hester will build off that outing Monday night when they host the Packers (5-9).

“He has been making [steady] improvement, but the last three or four games he’s really come on and made plays down the field,” said quarterback Kyle Orton. “He has a confidence in his route running, and it’s helped. He’s made big plays and we need him to make some this week.”

Hester’s productivity on offense increased as soon as he was replaced by Danieal Manning on kickoff returns, but Turner doesn’t believe there’s a connection.

“Not at all,” he said. “I just see it as having to do with getting more reps. He’s still a very young receiver, and it’s just getting reps. At some point for those guys playing that position it starts to click, and it started to click a few weeks ago.”

Whether or not Hester’s recent performance on offense is related to his removal from kick returns, many feel that the 11 kicks he returned for touchdowns in his first two seasons created unrealistic expectations for him as a receiver.

“When you saw what he could do on special teams and then when people thought about him as a receiver, they just automatically thought it was going to transfer over to receiver,” Clark said. “But there are a lot more things that go into playing receiver than meets the eye. 

First of all, you’ve got to know the offense and it takes a while to get that. The first year that Ron had this offense here [in 2005], we were terrible because we didn’t know the offense as well. It takes a little while and it’s unfair to expect him to do what he did as a returner at receiver.”

“I think what weighed on Devin was probably just the type of success he had the first two years as much as anything,” Smith said. “He’s spoiled all of us where if he’s not scoring every time he touches the ball, it’s ‘What’s wrong with Devin?’

“I see a guy that’s developing his entire game. Returns haven’t been exactly the way we would like, but as a receiver we’re getting 1-type receiver play, which is good. Hopefully we’ll see him take another step this week.”