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.

Under Center Podcast: Drew Brees, Akiem Hicks and Allen Robinson discuss Colin Kaepernick

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USA TODAY

Under Center Podcast: Drew Brees, Akiem Hicks and Allen Robinson discuss Colin Kaepernick

In wake of the murder of George Floyd, the Under Center Podcast crew of Laurence Holmes, JJ Stankevitz and Cam Ellis have a deep and meaningful discussion on social justice and racial inequality in America, with added comments from Drew Brees and current Bears Akiem Hicks and Allen Robinson.

(29:57) - Hicks on being fearful of losing his career if he took a knee

(36:57) - Bress on Colin Kaepernick's silent protest

(51:45) - Robinson on making sure this passion for equality continues

(1:02:30) - Hicks on having to make other people feel comfortable around him

Listen here or below.

Under Center Podcast

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Bears' raw, emotional team meeting struck genuine chord with those involved

Bears' raw, emotional team meeting struck genuine chord with those involved

Matt Nagy did an important thing to begin this week. He listened. 

He listened to upward of 40 members of the Chicago Bears talk on a Zoom call for two hours (all that’s allotted by the NFL during OTAs).

Nagy is the white coach of a majority Black team. 

He will never understand what it’s like to be defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, who as a 6-foot-4, 350-pound Black man said he’s often viewed as an aggressor because of his size. Or what it’s like to be linebacker Danny Trevathan’s mother, kissing her child -- who's now a parent himself -- on the head before he left the house because she feared her son would never come back. 

But Nagy made sure not only he listened, but the 139 people on the call listened. 

“There was a lot of anger,” Nagy said. “There was a lot of fear in the conversations. There was disgust. There was sadness. There was compassion, hurt, and then there was even at times some stories that I know, surprise.”

MORE: Is NFL ready to support more Kaepernick-like protests in 2020?

A few players posted to Twitter after the meeting:

But what made the meeting notable is how genuine it felt to those involved. Take it from Hicks, who’s been in the NFL for eight years and knows how disingenuous things like it can sometimes be. 

Here are Hicks’ comments, in full, on the meeting (please take the time to read the entire transcript of Hicks’ 30 minutes with Chicago media on Wednesday, too): 

“To be completely honest with you, I didn’t have much feeling towards it. I wasn’t excited to get on that call,” Hicks said. “I didn’t think anything positive was going to come from it. I didn’t know why we were having this moment where we were singing kumbaya and trying to get over what’s really happening in the world. I felt like it might be a control situation where they want to control the narrative and point us in a direction so when we talk to you guys there’s only going to be a certain message that you guys hear. 

“It was the complete opposite. It was totally different. 

“I watched young black men, young white men, older coaches from all across the United States and watching everybody rebuild themselves in a way that isn’t common in sport or masculinity in general, and express their real feelings. Out in the open. Out in positions where you feel like somebody could start pointing at you and say, ‘Oh, I don’t know if that’s a good guy. I don’t know [if] we want him or that’s the type of person we want around the building.’ 

“Everybody let those feelings go and shared from the heart and shared their real experiences. There was some hurtful stuff in there. There was some stuff where people were changed and altered for life. And I won’t speak on it because that’s their story, and that’s what they’re dealing with. 

“But I will say this: As a team, there was a level of healing involved in that call, and there was a level of us just coming together. We just got a little bit tighter because we had this experience together. It was a positive call and I think it changed the lives of some of the young men on the team, and it changed mine. It changed my perspective on life.”

The conversation the Bears, as a team, had on Monday was also not done just so a few people could feel good doing it, and then doing nothing about it. Nagy said he wants to begin every meeting in the future with continued discussion so his team can keep thinking about things much bigger than football and how they can help, collectively or individually, make a difference. 

“When you see any kind of stereotypical being done or any kind of discrimination happening, I think that everybody, if they continue to speak up and not be silent or not turn a blind eye to it, I think that we'll continue to make this world a better place,” wide receiver Allen Robinson said. “I think that's the biggest thing. And that's that people who are actually living in it, like myself, like my family, like my teammates, for guys to continue to get in the community and to continue to impact the community. I think that's the biggest thing to be able to not right now just when all this is going on, to try to impact how you can. 

“I think it's to impact things when this isn't going on to continue to be able to transcend things going in a positive direction on an every day basis, rather than just sparingly when events like this happen.” 

Both Robinson and Trevathan said they felt the conversations with their white teammates were productive, too. 

“I have yet to meet Nick Foles but just to see his aspect of him speaking up, that made me feel like this is a guy I’d go to war for, this is a guy I want to fight for,” Trevathan said. “We have plenty of people speaking up. Mitch (Trubisky). Cody (Whitehair). Pat O’Donnell. And it’s not easy because they have a different voice than the voice I have. It’s reaching different areas. When you have a team that fights together and not just talk about that stuff, not just talk about it but really does something about it — they care for one another. And it makes you want to fight for those guys a lot harder.”

MORE: Why Mitch Trubisky broke his social media silence

The issues of racial injustice, police brutality, white privilege, etc. — these are not easy issues to discuss. Not everybody in a crowd of 139 people is going to be on the same page. You don’t have to guess how some of Drew Brees’ teammates felt about him saying this on a Yahoo! show a day after joining in on #BlackOutTuesday. 

But progress for the issues facing Black Americans, hopefully, can start with people from different backgrounds listening to and hearing what Black Americans are saying (it seems Brees needs to do more of that), and then doing something about it not just once or a few times. The Bears managed to foster those discussions and conversations for two hours on Monday. 

Maybe, just maybe, it’d be a good thing if the rest of the nation started where the Bears did. By listening. And then acting. 

“I think it means a lot for everybody to acknowledge what’s going on, and acknowledge the rights and wrongs of the world,” Robinson said. “The challenge is to continue to acknowledge that. It’s not so easy. To continue to challenge, and go against the grain. Whether that’s somebody that somebody knows, or an old friend or a current friend. If they’re doing saying something that’s (not) right, continuing to challenge them on what’s truly acceptable or not. I think that’s where the challenge lies. 

“Again, being able to see that across the country and across the world in different countries, and everybody coming together, and everybody acknowledging that, I think that’s very good to see. And again the challenge lies in continuing to keep that effort going forward.” 

 

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