Chicago 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.

Can Markus Wheaton fix what ails the Bears’ offense?

Can Markus Wheaton fix what ails the Bears’ offense?

Markus Wheaton was a full participant in practice on Wednesday and wasn’t on the Bears’ injury report Thursday, signaling that the 5-foot-11, 189 pound speedster will make his Bears debut Sunday against his former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. He’s not the solution for the Bears’ offense, but he could be part of it. 

For an offense that’s woefully lacked someone who can reliably stretch the field, Wheaton can at least provide the threat of going deep. Two years ago, while with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Wheaton averaged 17 yards per reception. Mike Glennon’s longest completion this year went for 22 yards. 

“It definitely adds another dimension,” Glennon said. “It’ll be great having Markus back.”

But Wheaton only played in three games last season (four catches, 51 yards) and, at his best, averaged 48 catches, 696 yards and four touchdowns a year from 2014-2015. Is it fair to expect Wheaton to be a big part of the Bears' offensive solution given he hasn't played much recently, and was limited to only a handful of reps in training camp and preseason practices due to a pair of freak ailments?

Maybe not, but with the Bears 0-2, he's the best hope they have at a skill position. 

Wheaton needed an emergency appendectomy the first weekend the Bears were in Bourbonnais — “I thought I had to poop,” Wheaton said, maybe providing too much information, before realizing the excruiating pain in which he was in was something worse. Shortly after returning to the practice fields at Olivet Nazarene University, Wheaton fractured his pinkie finger in gruesome fashion (he said the bone was sticking out) when he was awkwardly grabbed while trying to catch a pass. 

That Wheaton broke a finger wasn’t only significant for his ability to catch passes. Consider what his former quarterback — Ben Roethlisberger — had to say about what makes Wheaton an effective deep threat:

“He’s got a very good ability of using his hands,” Roethlisberger said. “When you’re trying to stretch the field, you’ve gotta have some little techniques to help you get open because DBs can run as much as receivers can. So you gotta be able to use your hands to swim, kinda, get some swiping, get the hands off, I thought that he really had some good technique when it came to the deep ball and getting away from DBs.”

Roethlisberger and Wheaton shared a good rapport in Pittsburgh, with the quarterback clearly communicating to the receiver what he expected timing-wise in his routes. It’s been a challenge to develop something similar with Glennon given the lack of practice time, but Wheaton said putting in extra work after practice has helped. 

If Wheaton and Glennon can get on the same page, perhaps that can lead to at least some deep ball attempts. The Bears have to find a way to prevent opposing defenses from stacking the box and focusing on stopping Jordan Howard, who only has 59 yards on 22 carries this year. 

“We're going to face overpopulated boxes, we know that,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “There's going to be seven, eight guys in the box every time and we have to execute better and it comes down to that.”

According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, only three of Glennon’s 85 pass attempts have traveled 20 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The only completion of those was Sunday’s garbage-time touchdown to Deonte Thompson, which was caught near the back of the end zone. 

The threat of Wheaton going deep won’t be enough, though. Glennon still has prove he can complete those deep balls — the last time he completed a pass of 25 or more yards was on Nov. 2, 2014 (though he’s only attempted 96 passes since that date). 

But Wheaton feels ready to go and is confident he can do his job — which, in turn, could, in a best-case scenario, help his other 10 teammates on offense do their jobs, too. 

“It’s been a long time coming,” Wheaton said. “I’m excited and hopefully this is the week.”

Kris Bryant is all aboard the Mitch Trubisky bandwagon

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AP

Kris Bryant is all aboard the Mitch Trubisky bandwagon

Count Kris Bryant among the Chicagoans who are calling for Mitch Trubisky to start at quarterback for the Bears.

OK, that may be a bit extreme as Bryant simply said he would supporting giving Trubisky a "shot", but still:

After a rough game for incumbent starting QB Mike Glennon last week, most of Chicago has been clamoring for the No. 2 overall pick to get some snaps under center.

Why wouldn't the crown prince of Chicago baseball get in on the noise?