BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — Khalil Mack rolled into Bourbonnais for the first time on Thursday having heard from teammates how much he’ll love life here for the next few weeks.
“I don’t know if it’s sarcastic or not,” Mack smiled, “but I’m looking forward to it.”
Mack, of course, missed all of training camp and preseason a year ago as a holdout while still with the Oakland Raiders. His first practice prior to the 2018 season came on Labor Day, less than a week before his game-wrecking debut against the Green Bay Packers.
Mack went on to total 12 1/2 sacks and force six fumbles over 14 games with the Bears, making a gargantuan impact on the league’s best defense. The Bears believe Mack can be even more impactful this year with the benefit of training camp practices during which coaches can line him up in different spots and see what works.
That’s a tantalizing possibility for someone who’s already one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. But no matter where Mack winds up, he’ll have the same motivation to be better than 2018.
“We're hungrier than we were last year,” Mack said. “I’m speaking for myself as well. I'm way hungrier than I was last year. It definitely wasn't good enough. Just looking forward to this year and getting better.”
Mack isn’t the only 2018 Bears defensive standout getting his first taste of Bourbonnais this summer. Roquan Smith arrived at Olivet Nazarene University on Thursday a year removed from holding out of all of training camp, after which he went on to rack up a team-high 121 tackles and five sacks.
For all the chatter outside Halas Hall of the Bears’ defense taking a step back without Vic Fangio around, the growth expected from Smith in Year 2 could be a counter to those regression-based thoughts. And Mack offered a lofty expectation for Smith and fellow inside linebacker Danny Trevathan on Thursday.
“Ultimately, I feel like he can be an All-Pro player along with Danny on the inside,” Mack, a three-time All-Pro, said. “I feel like those two should take over the All-Pro position for these year. You can say that's a large task for those guys, but I don't think it will be.”
Perhaps the most prescient point of the day was made by Hicks, who showed up wearing a Shaquille O’Neal Los Angeles Lakers jersey (other jerseys spotted: Tarik Cohen wearing a Walter Payton Bears jersey to honor the late running back’s birthday, and Allen Robinson sporting a Washington Nationals jersey with “OBAMA 44” on the back).
“There’s no question that I felt like with the team we had last year that we should have been in a better place,” Hicks said. “I’ve said this several times in the offseason, we were too good of a team to lose the way that we did.
“Our mission now is to do away with that, to do away with the possibility that we would have to be in a game where we going into the last few seconds having to rely on anything but what we had put together throughout the course of the game.”
Indeed, the Bears’ defense allowed the Philadelphia Eagles to score a go-ahead touchdown in the dying embers of January’s wild card game. That certainly doesn’t excuse Cody Parkey’s double-doink, but for the returning members of that defense — which is, essentially, everyone but Adrian Amos and Bryce Callahan — avoiding a similar situation sure sounds like an excellent motivator for 2019.
“I would definitely say there is a sense of urgency,” Hicks said. “You can’t get outside the box and start pushing yourself in different ways that aren’t effective, but you have to know that these opportunities to have good teams, teams that are playoff caliber teams, they don’t come around often.
“This is my eighth NFL season and I’ve been the playoffs three times. That’s more than a lot of guys but that’s still not a lot. … You have to take advantage when you got it.”Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears and stream the ‘Football Aftershow’ easily on your device.