Bears' reluctant Hester looks to shine on offense

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- The recruiting started a year ago, and all Devin Hester wanted to do was sprint the other way.

In the end, he couldn't outrun the call to offense.

The Chicago Bears' special teams standout will see time at wide receiver after setting and tying several return records as a rookie last season. The list includes a league-record six touchdowns -- one of which was a missed field goal he ran back 108 yards. Now, the Bears are easing Hester in on offense -- a move he was reluctant to make.

"I give all the credit to coach Lovie Smith," he said. "He's the guy who opened up my eyes and let me know that it's a position I could succeed a lot at."

Smith first broached the subject about a year ago and, for a while, would occasionally bring it up. During this offseason, it became a daily topic of conversation before Hester finally said yes.

And when someone mentions him, offensive coordinator Ron Turner can't avoid comparing the speedy Hester to a player he coached in a college All-Star game.

"A guy named Steve Smith," Turner said. "I didn't know much about Steve Smith, and I saw him catch a pass in that game, a 10-yard hook. He caught it, and the next thing I knew it was an 80-yard touchdown."

The transition to offense is not an easy one.

Hester can't simply rely on his speed; precision is essential when running routes. He figures he knows about "65 to 70 percent" of the offense and has leaned heavily on veteran Muhsin Muhammad, constantly asking questions.

"This is a cerebral game," Muhammad said. "He is fast, he is strong, but can he learn the game? That's going to be his challenge. He has all the other stuff."

The Bears drafted Hester in the second round in 2006 thinking he could play on either side of the ball, but they used him almost exclusively on special teams last season. When he played elsewhere, it was on defense. But it became clear early on just how dangerous Hester is when the ball is in his hands.

He returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown in the season-opener at Green Bay and never really stopped running toward the end zone.

Hester set a franchise single-game record with 152 punt return yards at Arizona on Oct. 16, including an 83-yard touchdown with less than three minutes left as the Bears rallied from 20 down to win.

Another addition to the highlight reel -- and league record book -- came a month later at Giants Stadium.

Hester caught Jay Feely's 52-yard field-goal attempt, paused and let out a burst of speed that took him all the way to the other end zone.

That dash came a day shy of the anniversary of teammate Nathan Vasher's 108-yard missed field goal return against San Francisco, leaving the teammates tied for the longest play in league history. It also cemented the Bears' 38-20 victory and put Chicago in control of the NFC North.

Hester wasn't finished, though.

He set an NFL record Dec. 11 at St. Louis when he ran back two kickoffs for scores, giving him six touchdown returns. He also became the first player to return the opening kickoff in a Super Bowl for a TD, when he ran it back 92 yards against Indianapolis - a play he has reviewed countless times.

"It was a crazy moment," Hester said. "It kind of doesn't seem real. But deep down inside, you know it's real."

By that time, the pitch to move to offense had intensified.

At first, Smith would approach Hester about once a month but he did it more frequently as the season wore on. Teammates got in on it, too.

When the offense and defense would split during practice, quarterback Rex Grossman would yell, "Devin, you're going the wrong way. You're supposed to go here."

Hester didn't want to bounce from position to position like he did at the University of Miami, where he started games at cornerback, nickel back, running back and fullback while seeing time at wide receiver in addition to returning punts and kickoffs. So he was reluctant to make another move.

He finally gave in just before offseason workouts, after consulting with friend Deion Sanders and agent Eugene Parker.

"(Smith) was just saying, 'Imagine getting your hands on the ball seven times a game instead of once or twice," Hester said. "I was like, 'You're right about that."'

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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