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Training Camp Report

Bears' field-goal operation making smooth transition

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The majority of Bears starters no doubt will be on the bench by the fourth quarter of Saturday's preseason opener against the Chiefs. But there likely will be at least three exceptions.

Because they're the team's only players at their respective positions, kicker Cairo Santos, rookie punter Trenton Gill and long-snapper Patrick Scales figure to go wire-to-wire.

And that's no coincidence. With Gill replacing Pat O'Donnell as Santos' holder on field goals and extra points, the Bears wanted to give the three-man operation as many reps together in training camp and the preseason as possible.

"Especially with a new holder this year, we felt like those guys really needed the work and they needed to work together," said special teams coordinator Richard Hightower.

The transition from O'Donnell to Gill so far has been seamless. The operation was flawless during Tuesday's Family Fest practice at Soldier Field, with Santos making every kick he attempted.

“Those guys are working really well now in sync. I’m happy where they are.” Bears special teams coordinator Richard Hightower on field-goal operation

The process begins with Scales, who is back with the Bears for a seventh season.

"Everything starts with the snaps," Hightower said. "We like the snap between 10 and 2, if you're looking at a clock. If you can get the laces between 10 and 2, that's only like a quarter turn or less than a quarter turn for the holder, and the kicker wants the laces to be facing out.

"Usually, Scales has been on the money, like he's been 11, 12 o'clock. So that's easier work for Trent, and Cairo can stay in rhythm and be fast. If those laces aren't correct or if the ball's tilted the wrong way, it's got no chance to go through the goal posts. We're talking about minute inches off.

"Those guys are working really well now in sync. I'm happy where they are."

Santos has resurrected his career with the Bears after it was derailed by injuries. He has eclipsed Robbie Gould as the franchise's most accurate kicker, making 89.1 percent of his field goals (57 of 64). Santos has connected on 1 of 2 in two games with the Bears in 2017, 30 of 32 in 2020 and 26 of 30 in 2021. He converted 40 straight field goals bridging the 2020 and 2021 seasons, a team record that's tied for the third longest streak in NFL history.

When the Bears allowed O'Donnell to leave via free agency and then selected Gill in the seventh round of the draft, Santos conceded that he was a little worried about adjusting to a new holder. But Gill quickly allayed those concerns.

"It's exceeded my expectations when dealing with a new guy just because I've bounced around and had to do workouts with different holders and with different teams and getting adjusted," Santos said.

"As soon as Trent came in, I was able to watch him a little bit and see how he is with his hands. He's very athletic, very comfortable when he's holding. And I knew having Scales back after him being a free agent was going to be huge for our operation. [He's] somebody I trust, somebody who I think is one of the best in the league. Good laces control, which makes it easier for the holder to just catch the ball and put it down the way I like."

Gill honed his skills as a punter and holder at North Carolina State.

"There are guys that just don't quite have the hands as good as others," Santos said. "But Trenton already had that skill, and Scales makes it super easy, too, because he's so consistent with the laces. The majority of the time, Trenton doesn't even have to mess with it, he just kind of feels it and knows where he is, knows where I want to point the laces to and that's it. Scales helps and Trenton already is a great holder, so I think that helped just get going sooner and let us have a great offseason and training camp."

Santos said that Gill has been "really molding the ball the way I like with the lean and stuff, especially when dealing with the wind."

"There's all kinds of ways that I like the ball to be pointed at and held," Santos said. "And it was just like a little next level that we kind of taught him, that it's not just about catching and putting it down. On the way down to the ground, he's already kind of molding the ball so I see less of a spinning ball if the laces aren't perfect. When the ball's on the ground is really when we get to see it, so if it's spinning, it kind of distracts us a little bit, so he's already molding and doing the movement before he puts it down. That's what really separates the great holders and he learned that really quick. And, yeah, we've been solid."

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