After 11 NFL seasons and a cluster of Pro Bowls, Jeremiah Ratliff doesn’t impress easily. After spending some of Thursday’s practice against rookie center Hroniss Grasu, the Bears veteran defensive lineman was impressed.
And not only by what Ratliff saw when the two faced each other occasionally in practice, but also afterwards, when the rookie sought advice from not only coaches and fellow offensive linemen, but also a long-time top defensive lineman.
“The thing you can’t measure is the fight in a man’s heart and he has that,” Ratliff said. “He has that willingness to learn, always asking questions, wanting to succeed, and really wants to do well.
“As far as his size, I’m not worried about that. As long as he’s working the way he’s working, he’ll get it done.”
With swing lineman Patrick Omameh sitting out a second day of practice with an ankle injury, Grasu’s chances of beginning his NFL career as the Bears starting center next Sunday in Kansas City have taken two steps toward reality.
Omameh has been in meetings but neither he nor left tackle Jermon Bushrod attended practice Wednesday or Thursday. Charles Leno is the presumptive starter at left tackle if Bushrod remains out with a concussion.
Ratliff and the Bears do not appear concerned if Grasu opens at center against the Chiefs. Coach John Fox started Ryan Kalil for three games as a rookie center while in Carolina and Kalil, 299 pounds out of USC, another Pac-12 program, went on to earn four Pro Bowls and one All-Pro designation.
“I think he’s athletic, he gets to the second level, he’s smart, he’s played in a winning program [Oregon],” said Fox. “We liked a lot of his football character. To name a few. He’s not deficient in any area. As far as what offense they’re playing in college, it doesn’t really matter. They have to come in and how they adapt to what we’re doing.”
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One key is the comfort level of quarterback Jay Cutler with Grasu, since the two rarely worked together through the offseason, training camp or preseason. With his time at Oregon, Grasu has worked extensively with snapping in the shotgun but considerably less in the direct-snap world of the NFL. That said, the Bears ran 47 of their 75 plays in the Oakland game from a shotgun set.
“With Hroniss you just know that there are going to be some mistakes out there,” Cutler said, adding quickly, “with ‘Slau’ though, too. There are going to be some things that they just haven’t seen. They’re going to experience it. But I know those guys are going to give me everything they’ve got and that’s all I can ask for.
Grasu would be the youngest center Cutler has ever played with, going back to veterans Tom Nalen and Casey Wiegmann in Denver, then Olin Kreutz, Roberto Garza, and then Will Montgomery in Chicago.
“I’ve always had older centers who make your life a little bit easier,” Cutler said. “So Hroniss would be the youngest guy, but it’s fine. He’s going to go out there and he’s going to play his butt off. If we go with Slau, we already have one game under our belt.”