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Bears newcomers making splash on special teams

Bears rookie receiver Velus Jones Jr.
Bears rookie receiver Velus Jones Jr.

Through two preseason games, several first-year Bears players have contributed big plays on special teams.

Receiver Velus Jones Jr. made his mark on the unit last Thursday in Seattle. His 48-yard punt return, which led to a touchdown drive, is the third-longest in preseason games across the NFL.

Special teams coordinator Richard Hightower was impressed with Jones' speed and awareness on the play. Jones dropped back to field the punt at his own 19 before sprinting up the left sideline to reach the Seahawks 33.

"He can go from zero to 10 in a hurry," Hightower said. "He's got really good acceleration and he's got good vision. So, he's just gotta keep working at it and he'll get better the more he works at it. Those guys usually get more excited blocking for a guy they know has a chance to go to the house. They're gonna block anyway, but there's a little extra juice when you've got a guy back there that you know can make a play."

Hightower also credits the return team on creating a clear path for Jones. Early in the play, cornerbacks Kyler Gordon and Duke Shelley both made impactful blocks that allowed Jones to get to the sideline. 

"Usually anytime you have an explosive punt return like that, there's a lot of selfless guys blocking that don't get the credit," Hightower said. "But Kyler Gordon did an outstanding job outside along with, I believe it was Duke out there as well. They were great at the point of attack on that gunner. The guys on the inside did an outstanding job getting those guys held up. Anytime you can create separation and space for a guy like Velus that has 4.3 speed, it can be a mismatch and he definitely did what we expected him to do in that situation, and that was exciting to see. Just gotta keep getting better and we just gotta keep working, and every day is a learning day for us."

Rookie linebacker Jack Sanborn has been another major standout through two preseason games. In the first preseason game against the Chiefs, Sanborn's defensive skills were on display as he had an interception and forced fumble and made two tackles on special teams. Last Thursday in Seattle, he recorded two special teams tackles inside the 20 and another five tackles on defense. 

Hightower said the rookie's production in both phases right now is undeniable. The coach also credits assistant general manager Ian Cunningham, co-director of player personnel Trey Koziol and scouting assistant Ryan Weese for finding an undrafted talent like Sanborn. Hightower is hopeful the linebacker will continue to progress on defense and special teams.

Safety Elijah Hicks is another rookie making strides on special teams. The seventh-round pick scored a touchdown against Seattle after recovering a muffed punt near the end zone. Hightower called Hicks a "ball of energy" and said he is always sitting at the front during meetings and asking questions.

Matthew Adams is one of the more experienced players Hightower has liked on his unit. The fifth-year linebacker spent a lot of time with the first-team defense during training camp, but through his four NFL seasons in Indianapolis, he established himself as a reliable special teams player. 

"He's tough, he's physical, he loves contact," Hightower said. "He's a student of the game. He sits in the front in the meeting room, he's the first to ask questions and I'm talking about detailed, thought-out questions, not just raising his hand trying to be called on. Like he's done his study, and he's done his work. So we've gotten a chance to get a good look at him in practice, and he's played at the beginning of games for us this year. So we've got several years of tape on him."

With the 53-man roster deadline coming Tuesday, non-starters will need to find different ways to make the team. Hightower emphasized the importance of being able to help out on special teams when fighting for a spot with the Bears. 

"The reason why guys will be here will be if they can help us offensively, defensively and special teams," Hightower said. "And I always say guys gotta at least get 25 plays or more in one area to be able to basically to justify his right to be on the ball club. So, if a guy can help on the core four, then he should get 25 to 30 plays. That's just like half of offense or defense or at least a quarter of what they get, and then you deserve a roster spot at that point."