BOURBONNAIS — The Bears ended an era last April when they released veteran center Roberto Garza. Now, for the first time in more than 30 years, the team is tasked with staffing that vital position on the offensive line with a starter who wasn’t with the team the previous year or longer.
For the better part of the last 16 seasons the Bears went through myriad permutations of offensive lines. But throughout that stretch there was one anchor of continuity, that of the center position. That is changing in 2015.
For seven of those 16 seasons their centers represented the Bears in the Pro Bowl. Olin Kreutz, who won the starting job in 1999, went to six Pro Bowls, and Garza was selected as an alternate in 2011, his first year starting after Kreutz and the Bears separated over a contract impasse.
And even when Kreutz left, his successor — Garza — had been lined up to his right for the five previous seasons. That would be the epitome of “continuity.” Garza stepped in at center during the 2011 training camp in Kreutz’s absence, a move that became permanent in part because quarterback Jay Cutler instantly developed a liking for Garza’s handling of the position.
Garza retired last offseason, and the Bears were tasked with filling a need/vacancy that hadn’t existed for more than 30 years, back through Garza, Kreutz, Casey Wiegmann, Jerry Fontenot and Jay Hilgenberg.
The Bears acquired Oregon center Hroniss Grasu with a 2015 third-round pick — the same round in which the Bears drafted Fontenot (1989) and Kreutz (1998). This after first securing the position with some experience, signing former Denver center Will Montgomery this offseason to replace Garza.
“(Montgomery) is familiar with the system,” said coach John Fox, who saw Montgomery work in the system of then-Broncos and now-Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase. “There’s a lot to the center. He’s kind of the quarterback of the O-line. So we know how he fits that way and what his demeanor is.
“That’s why a lot of coaches and staffs move around, they bring players with them they’re familiar with. He’s adapted well. I think he’s helped the growth of our offensive line with that knowledge of the system.”
Montgomery has been ensconced as the starter since his acquisition. That has set him up with difficult matchups in Jeremiah Ratliff and rookie Eddie Goldman during much of practice. Grasu has worked against Goldman and Terry Williams, a 329-pounder. Grasu responded Monday with a stout stop of a bull rush by Williams, one of the surprise rookies of camp. Both have had wins and losses against some of the stoutest interior linemen in camp.
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The competition for roster spots got interesting on Monday as multiple backs produced impact plays. Diminutive Jacquizz Rodgers turned the corner and extended a sweep with quality moves on Kyle Fuller and Antrel Rolle. Quarterback Jay Cutler also went to Rodgers with a short flip that Rodgers took through traffic to the goal line. Rookie Jeremy Langford broke a run off the right side, got to the second level and reached the ball into the end zone for a score. That helped make up for being stuffed in the backfield by a power rush from defensive tackle Brandon Dunn.
Ka’Deem Carey is running with more confidence in his second training camp, hitting holes and executing blitz-pickup assignments like someone who has been in his playbook, which he said he has been. Daniel Thomas, the power back on the roster at 230 pounds, broke a run around the left side with a spin move that caused whiffs by two defenders who mercifully will remain nameless here.