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.

Bears training camp preview: Three burning questions for the offensive line

Bears training camp preview: Three burning questions for the offensive line

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears’ position groups heading into Bourbonnais. Friday's unit: the offensive line. 

1. Will Kyle Long and Josh Sitton flip spots, and will it be effective?

One of the more intriguing storylines to come out of the Bears’ offseason program was the possibility of a Kyle Long-Josh Sitton guard swap, with Long moving from right to left and Sitton to left to right. The prevailing wisdom is that Long’s athleticism would be better suited for the pulls needed at left guard, while Sitton has made Pro Bowls at both positions. But is it prudent for the Bears to make this switch with Long still recovering from November ankle surgery and some nasty complications that came after it? He’s shown he’s skilled enough to already make one position switch on the offensive line (from right tackle to right guard), so there’s no reason to doubt he couldn’t handle another so long as he’s healthy. We’ll see where he is next week. 

“You want flexibility,” coach John Fox said. “You don’t want as much flexibility as we had to use a year ago because we had to play so many guys due to injury. But we’re messing around with (Sitton) and Kyle both playing opposite sides, whether one’s on the left, one’s on the right. We’ll get those looks in camp, we got plenty of time.”

2. Can Charles Leno Jr. capitalize on a contract year?

Leno has been a pleasant surprise given the low expectations usually set for seventh-round picks. He started every game in 2016, checking off an important box for John Fox — reliability. Whether Leno can be more than a reliable player at left tackle, though, remains to be seen (if the Bears thought he were, wouldn’t they have signed him to an extension by now?). He has one more training camp and 16 games to prove he’s worthy of a deal to be the Bears (or someone else’s) left tackle of the future. Otherwise, the Bears may look to a 2018 draft class rich in tackles led by Texas’ Connor Williams and Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey. 

“I know if I take care of my business out here, everything else will take care of itself,” Leno said. 

3. Will Hroniss Grasu survive the roster crunch?

A year ago, Grasu was coming off a promising rookie season and was in line to be the Bears’ starting center. But the Oregon product tore his ACL in August, and Cody Whitehair thrived after a last-minute move from guard to center. If the Bears keep eight offensive lineman this year, Grasu could be squeezed out: Leno, Long, Whitehair, Sitton and Bobby Massie are the likely starters, with Eric Kush and Tom Compton filling reserve roles. That leaves one spot, either for fifth-round guard Jordan Morgan or Grasu. The Bears could try to stash Morgan, who played his college ball at Division-II Kutztown, on the practice squad and keep Grasu. But Grasu doesn’t have flexibility to play another position besides center, which could hurt his case. 

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears’ position groups heading into Bourbonnais. Thursday's unit: the tight ends.

1. Will Zach Miller make the 53-man roster?

Miller didn’t play a single down from 2012-14, and has missed seven games in two seasons with the Bears, but he’s been productive when on the field: 110 targets, 81 receptions, 925 yards and nine touchdowns. But the Bears signed Dion Sims to an $18 million contract and then drafted Adam Shaheen in the second round of the draft, moves that seemingly put Miller in a precarious position heading into Bourbonnais. Not helping Miller’s case is the Lisfranc fracture he suffered last November, which kept him sidelined through OTAs and veteran minicamp in May and June. He’d be a valuable player for the Bears to keep around, but at the same time, training camp could be a perfect storm for Miller to be among the cuts.

“They’re going to cutting it close for training camp,” coach John Fox said of Miller (and Danny Trevathan) in June. “But right now they’re right on target and that’s kind of what we expected all offseason.”

2. What can we expect from Adam Shaheen?

Shaheen was among the bright spots during May and June, hardly looking like someone who played his college ball at Division II Ashland while going against NFL defenders. But those were just shorts-and-helmets practices without any contact, so it’d be premature to project anything about Shaheen off of them. The real test for Shaheen will be when he puts the pads on in Bourbonnais and gets his first experience with the physicality of the NFL after a few years of being head and shoulders — literally — above his competition in college. It’s unlikely Shaheen will live up to his “Baby Gronk” hype in Year 1, but if he handles training camp well, he could be a valuable red zone asset for Mike Glennon as a rookie. 

“You don’t know until you put the pads on,” Shaheen said. “That’s what I’m excited for.”

3. How productive can this unit be?

Between Sims — who had a career high four touchdowns last year with the Miami Dolphins — and Shaheen, the Bears have two new, big targets for an offense that tied for 24th in the NFL with 19 passing touchdowns a year ago. If Miller sticks around, this group would have enviable depth. But even if he doesn’t, the Bears liked what they saw from Brown last year (16 receptions, 124 yards, 1 TD in six games). There are fewer questions about the tight ends heading into training camp than the receivers, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Glennon leans on this unit, especially early in the season.