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." 

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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.

Postcards from Camp: Defense predictably ahead of offense but “D” already being challenged by changing “O"

Postcards from Camp: Defense predictably ahead of offense but “D” already being challenged by changing “O"

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – An open postcard from the Bears “D”:
 
Yes, we know we need more interceptions. And we’re doing something about it, even if Mitch doesn’t like it – quarterbacks never do. Tru’ probably wasn’t in a great mood after Nick Kwiatkoski picked his way through traffic, then deflected and grabbed a pass of Mitch’s for one pick, this after Kyle (Fuller) had snagged one of 10’s in 7-on-7. So after Cre’Von LeBlanc broke in front of Adam Shaheen to intercept one of Chase Daniel’s throws, Mitch and Prince (Amukamara) did a little jawing. But hey….
 
Kwit is having a great camp, running the offense with Danny Trevathan nursing a hamstring problem and Roquan Smith still not signed. Coach Nagy has told us, and said it again on Sunday, that you have to win your job, no gimmes here, and Kwit isn’t giving anything away.
 
We all were kind of causing problems for the offense. Prince broke up a Mitch throw to Kevin White and then defensed another two snaps later against Josh Bellamy. Kyle broke up a long try to White, too, and even in 7-on7, the QB’s were having to hold onto the ball longer because of good coverage.
 
(Kevin had a spotty day. He burned us with a long TD catch against double coverage but also dropped another Mitch Trubisky deep heave with no one closer than five yards away, and had the football come out when he hit the ground after another catch.)
 
We even created a “problem” for coach Nagy, who’s an offensive guy, an ex-QB himself and a former O-coordinator, but now has to pretend be at least a little happy when we do something on defense. Like he said Sunday, ‘The biggest difference [as a head coach] is you can't veer too much, either way. You're right down the middle. So, if Mitch throws an interception, it's good for our defense. Right? It's not good for Mitch. So, how do you balance that?”
 
Really, we should be ahead of the offense. Two reasons: First, the offense is still learning its playbook and a lot of new guys; and second, as Eddie [Jackson] was saying, “I just know that we’ve got better chemistry from having players here last year. It’s like the biggest thing that you can see. But the offense is doing a great job. They come out there and give us good looks.”
 
The pads were on for Sunday’s practice, so there was more hitting. The offense’ll be catching up more and more, so we’ll just enjoy the edge while it lasts.
 
Sincerely,
 
The “D”
 
P.S.  High-fives to all you fans who came down to watch practice and stayed through all that rain. We’re getting paid to be out there but you’re there because you’re Bears fans. Thanks

 
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Let’s make if official
 
Play during practice Sunday was sloppy at times, understandable given the repeated downpours as well as the inevitable early-camp learning curves.
 
But the practice was run using NFL officials, making their annual camp visits to review and explain new rules, and the Bears committed too many penalties to leave coaches satisfied.
 
Rookie wide receiver Anthony Miller was flagged for offensive pass interference on an early 7-on-7 rep and a handful of other Bears brought out the yellow laundry from the officials. One defensive offsides, a couple of false starts and other interference penalties—all part of those things to be “cleaned up” before the flags start to count.
 
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A-Rob impact—and workload—growing
 
The No. 1 question of anyone who’s been watching training camp is “How’s Trubisky look?” Not far behind that, though, is “What about Robinson? His knee ok?”
 
If early camp performances, including Sunday’s in full pads, are any indicator, and a handful of practices aren’t ever definitive, then the answers on the hoped-for franchise wideout are clear positives. The top free-agent signing of the Bears this offseason has turned in repeated strong plays and has been targeted enough in the course of Trubisky’s progressions to be satisfied at his ability to get open and to earn his quarterback’s confidence.
 
Robinson turned in a difficult sliding catch on Sunday and was denied a deep catch later only by an outstanding pass breakup by safety Adrian Amos. Robinson is coming off season-ending knee surgery of a year ago and likely has a handful of rest days built into his plan, as the Bears are doing with guard Kyle Long. 
 
“We want to be able to monitor and make sure we don’t overdo anything,”said coach Matt Nagy. “There’s no need to do that. He’s worked really hard to get to this point so for us, just to keep an idea where he’s at, how many reps he’s getting, and coach [Mike] Furrey’s done a good job of that.”
 
 
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Fan favorite…sort of
 
This writer was departing O’Hare some weeks back and at an adjacent gate was Bears running back Tarik Cohen. Just time to exchange a few pleasantries and I was leaving. But the notable part of the moment was that no one – no…one —recognized Cohen. No. one.
 
Then came Saturday morning and the first day of fans attending a training-camp practice. The biggest ovation went to quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Not far short of that, however, was the welcome for Cohen, a hint that the second-year ultra-back (with apologies to Raymont Harris, the original Ultraback) won’t go unnoticed at too many more O’Hare gates.
 
“A couple people knew me in the airport,” Cohen said. “I was just keeping my head down, keeping it moving. Airports are congested places.”
 
An ovation coming out to practice “feels great,” Cohen said. “It’s like seeing your hard work pay off a little bit. But I’m looking for a bigger ovation coming out for the games.”
 
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Sick bay
 
Rookie linebacker linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe was added to a defense-heavy list of injured absentees, out with what coach Matt Nagy reported was a shoulder injury. He joins linebackers Aaron Lynch and Danny Trevathan and cornerback Sherrick McManis, all with hamstring strains.
 
Tight end Daniel Brown is still out with an ankle injury.
 

Training Camp Daily: Defense still “picking” on Bears QB’s in rainy practices

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USA TODAY

Training Camp Daily: Defense still “picking” on Bears QB’s in rainy practices

Training Camp Daily: The Bears put the pads on for Sunday's practice on another wet day in Bourbonnais. Bears insider John 'Moon' Mullin & producer Paul Aspan discuss Mitchell Trubisky's accuracy, which continues to be a work in progress. Plus Anthony Miller & Kevin White turn heads, while Aaron Lynch suffers yet another injury setback when the Bears are already thin at pass rusher. 

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below: