Hester's ready for takeoff
Individual workouts with former star Bruce have him poised for breakout year at WR confident
July 30, 2010
BY SEAN JENSEN sjensen@suntimes.com

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Devin Hester has never lacked confidence.

He starred at multiple positions for the Miami Hurricanes, and he earned Pro Bowl honors as a return specialist in his first two NFL seasons.

But Hester said his 16-plus individual workouts with four-time Pro Bowl receiver Isaac Bruce this offseason have emboldened him.

''It's on a whole different level now,'' Hester said. ''I've got a swag now. This is going to be my breakout year. I'm going to shock a lot of people.''

After signing a four-year, $40 million extension two years ago, Hester was expected to be the Bears' No. 1 receiver, especially after veteran Bernard Berrian's departure.

But Hester wasn't ready for that role, something the Bears surely recognized.

He was drafted in 2006 as a playmaker, scoring a combined 13 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Hester started the transition to receiver in 2007, but he didn't start his first game at the position till 2008. In 2009, he improved on his 2008 statistics, in terms of catches and receiving yards, but he missed three games because of assorted injuries.

Hester fell 243 yards short of 1,000 receiving yards, and his season was labeled a disappointment.

Yet his relative newness to the position seems overlooked.

It takes awhile

Hester started focusing on receiver while in the NFL.

Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson and Randy Moss earned Pro Bowl distinction in their first or second NFL seasons.

But they're the exceptions.

Consider instead the timetable of other 2010 Pro Bowl receivers.

Miles Austin, Roddy White, Vincent Jackson and Wes Welker needed at least four NFL seasons to reach that status. And although he has been named to four consecutive Pro Bowl teams, former Hurricanes standout Reggie Wayne made his first all-star roster in his sixth NFL season.

Hester said his God-given talents helped him quickly get a handle on the basics. But he added that he learned a lot about the nuances during his workouts with Bruce, who thrived in Mike Martz's offense in St. Louis.

For instance, Hester learned how to run routes at different speeds, pointing to NBA guards Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade as examples.

''Every route is not meant to be run full-speed,'' Hester said. ''Sometimes you got to change it up.''

Obviously, Hester needs to perform to back up his bold breakout prediction. But he has done all he can to put himself in the best possible position.

He was a fixture at Halas Hall during offseason workouts. He proactively reached out to Bruce, who also lives in south Florida. And Hester, after his long-planned marriage, postponed his honeymoon to avoid missing too many two-hour sessions with Bruce.

His teammates have noticed.

''He's a lot more focused, and you can see the passion and the fire he has for the game,'' Bears receiver Earl Bennett said. ''I mean, being around a guy like Devin makes you want to compete hard and work a lot better.''

In fact, Bennett said he immediately planned to pick Hester's brain on what he learned from Bruce.

Of course, Bruce helped Hester refine his pass-catching and route-running. But, more than anything, Bruce empowered Hester, reinforcing what he was doing on the practice field.

Before each drill, Bruce instructed Hester to say, ''I'm the best route runner in the NFL,'' or ''I'm the best receiver in the NFL.''

''Stuff like that to encourage yourself and build your confidence up,'' Hester said. ''Being a receiver, it's all about confidence.''

But Bruce also tempered Hester's expectations. The retired receiver, who had 91 career touchdowns, explained that it takes a long time to really understand Martz's complex offense.

''I asked him, 'How long did it take?''' Hester said. ''He said it's at least a 2½-year process, where you feel comfortable and it's second nature.''

Pumped up about 2010

Hester is usually even-keeled. But he got fired up as he talked about his hopes for the 2010 season.

He not only hears questions about whether he's a No. 1 receiver, Hester actually goes searching for the critics.

''I go online on Google and see what people are saying about me,'' he said. ''You're always going to get negative stuff.''

Asked if he's motivated to help coach Lovie Smith, Hester said, ''You got to go out and play with a free mind.

''I don't know what's going on with [Smith's] situation. But I'm going to go out and play football as hard as I can. You can't go out and have in the back of your mind, 'I'm going to play this game hard because if we don't win this game, somebody's going to get fired.' You can't play like that.''