Bears

Bears new wideout coach hopes to bring best out of Kevin White

Bears new wideout coach hopes to bring best out of Kevin White

Zach Azzanni's been on the Bears coaching staff less than three months, the same length of time he's been an NFL coach. 

What's that name again?

The one-time wide receiver from Central Michigan had been in the collegiate coaching ranks in the 18 years since graduating, covering seven stops (most recently the past four years at Tennessee). But as John Fox's third wide receivers coach in as many years here, the hope is the third year, and position coach, is the charm for the man who becomes Azzanni's pet project, 2015 first rounder Kevin White.

"His past two position coaches (Mike Groh and Curtis Johnson) probably haven't been able to develop him as they would've liked because of the injury setbacks (four games in his first two seasons)," Azzanni said Friday afternoon in Lake Forest. "So I get to almost start from Square One. Nothing against those guys, they just weren't able to get him out there a lot. So some of the bad habits he may still have from college I get to come in and try to break those habits."

"It's a fresh start for him in a lot of ways. My man's got a new number (switching from an apparently unlucky 13 to 11), he's got a new coach, he's healthy. So, knock on wood, good things for him right now." 

But with health must come a rebuilding of White's confidence and growing what was a limited route tree at West Virginia, which hasn't been able to grow much in two injury-plagued years.

"We met the other day and I asked him, 'Look what do you think you are?' He said, `I'm a big physical guy. I'm aggressive with the ball in the air...' So I said, `OK that's what we have to be. When I press play I wanna see a big physical guy that's strong with the ball in the air.' And some of those things you saw last year, saw some flashes.

"The other thing I liked about him (in reviewing last year's limited tape): He made a catch on the sideline (in what would his last game, versus Detroit) and he got up, and I finally saw some emotion, some of that `Dawg' came out in him - and I don't know if he's had that the last two years.  If he can play like that, he'll be pretty hard to stop, but he has to play like that all the time." 

[BEARS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

The rest of the receiver room

Yet looking around the group he inherits, there's not a lot of NFL game-level wideout experience he inherits, and the two with the most are free agent signees Markus Wheaton and Kendall Wright.

"Deonte Thompsin actually played for me at Florida so it's kinda nice to have that guy in the room who can co-sign for me," Azzanni said. "Y'know like `Hey, I know this guy may seem a little crazy and do things differently, but I'm tellin ya it works.' He can lead by example because he knows what I'm looking for. Same thing with Josh (Bellamy, the other longest-tenured, vocal Bear in that position group)." 

The speedy Wheaton started 19 games for Pittsburgh in 2014 and 2015 (averaging 49 receptions) before a shoulder injury limited him to three games a year ago.

"I coached Antonio (Steelers Pro-Bowl seventh-round wideout Brown) in college so I called him up and asked him, `Tell me what Markus does well, his practice habits.' I called him and got the skinny. He's brought a professionalism to the group. He's a pro, very diligent. He's in that trainers room every morning at 6:30 making sure that shoulder's good from last year. He beats me in here. He brings a level of calmness. Not a `rah-rah' guy. Steady Eddie. That's good. We need that." 

With Eddie Royal waived this week and 2016 seventh rounder Daniel Braverman not ready for much game action a year ago, Wheaton, Bellamy and Wright figure to compete, even though Azzanni may hope for the group to be interchangeable so he can put the best three out there. That may be a tough task, given all the moving parts in the Bears' offense, outside of the line and running back Jordan Howard.

"You know what Kendall was in college and what he was when Dowell (offensive coordinator Loggains) had him, so we're trying to get him back to that, see if he can do that," Azzanni said, referring to the former first-rounder's single-season Titans/Oilers franchise mark of 94 catches in 2013, when Loggains ran Tennessee's offense.

"He's getting back in shape (from rib and knee injuries last season) and hopefully we can get him back in that same mold he was two, three years ago." Azzanni said.

Azzanni also says last season's leading receiver, Cam Meredith, can go "as far as he wants it to go. He's a talented young man, and C.J. (Johnson) and I actually talked about him in the offseason when we were at a Pro Day, and his development thru the year. He's big, he's tall, he's loose. He can make all the catches. Now he has to go to the next level. He's gotta be tougher, can't put the ball on the ground, must make contested catches and get himself in better condition so he can run all day. He's willing, but I'm not really letting him breathe so I don't know if he likes me now." 

As for his new gig at the highest level after coaching since 1999 (Valparaiso) in the college game?

"The rules are different that's all," Azzanni said. "Football's football. Everyone asks how I'm gonna coach pros. Listen, a lot of these guys are now grown men. If the meeting ends at noon, it ends at noon. You can sneak time in college, things like that. You have to be efficient with their time but they want to get better. I have a good room, willing to buy in to the culture. I wanna push these guys a little bit. I wouldn't want it any other way." 

"I don't have a high-priced nine-time Pro Bowler in that room. I don't have the superstar. I have a bunch of guys that have a lot to prove. Hey sshhh... don't tell anybody, but nobody thinks we can do anything in this room. Perfect." 

Azzanni really has no choice, and can make a bigger name for himself if his students find a way to do the same. It looks like at least the name tags have been removed.

Bears-Lions prediction: Will special teams continue John Fox's NFC North woes?

Bears-Lions prediction: Will special teams continue John Fox's NFC North woes?

Only three of John Fox’s 12 wins as Bears coach have been against NFC North opponents, while 12 of his 29 losses have come against divisional opponents. 

That’s a recipe for back-to-back-to-back last place finishes in the NFC North. And if the Bears can’t beat an Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers team, why could it beat a Detroit Lions team that has a healthy franchise quarterback?

The positive end of that answer is the Bears do have wins over two playoff teams (Pittsburgh and Carolina) while six of their four losses have been by eight points or fewer. Sunday’s game will probably be close, again (if it’s not, and the Bears are on the losing end of it, it would raise some significant concerns about the state of Fox within the locker room). 

So if the game is decided by one possession or less, this could be the difference: Detroit has one of the best special teams units in the NFL, ranking second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, while the Bears are 28th by the same measure. 

Getting Sherrick McManis back this week should help solidify Jeff Rodgers’ special teams units, but Jamal Agnew has two punt return scores and is averaging 18.3 yards per return. 

“Tough guy — he’ll return inside and outside,” Rodgers said. “He’s got multiple longer returns against people this year. it’s not just, ‘I had a long return in Week 2 or Week 1,’ and kinda held onto that. he’s been productive in a lot of games. certainly a guy that we’ve gotta do a good job against.”

If the Bears don’t do a good job bottling up Agnew, though, he could be the reason why the game flips to Detroit — or, at least, why the Lions keep the Bears at arm’s length. 

Prediction: Lions 24, Bears 16

SportsTalk Live Podcast: How hot is John Fox's seat?

10-22johnfox.jpg
USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: How hot is John Fox's seat?

Seth Gruen (Bleacher Report/”Big Ten Unfiltered” podcast), Chris Emma (670TheScore.com) and Matt Zahn (CBS 2) join Kap on the panel. If the Bears lose badly to the Lions, should Sunday be John Fox’s last game? 

Plus Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill joins the panel to talk Bulls as well as the Niko/Portis cold war.

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live Podcast right here: