BOURBONNAIS — Khalil Mack recently returned to his University of Buffalo stomping grounds to visit younger brother LeDerius, who’s attempting to follow in Khalil’s footsteps as a defensive end for the Bulls. Little did Khalil know, the trip doubled in helping the Bears’ All-Pro outside linebacker ready for his first training camp at Olivet Nazarene University.“Yeah, man, it reminded me of UB, man,” Mack said Thursday on the first day of camp of his ONU sleeping situation. “It’s a wooden bed with the little — I might have to get another layer of cushion on there. … But it should be smooth.”
After operating nothing if not smoothly in his debut year in Chicago, despite arriving via blockbuster trade on the eve of Week 1, roughing it or not, Mack sounds eager to partake in the camp camaraderie building he missed last year. Lest we forget, the best defender on the NFL’s premier ‘D’ authored one of the top individual seasons in franchise history, all without the benefit of having a playbook more than a week in advance, never mind the preseason.
“Ultimately I knew whatever happened, I was going to hit the ground running,” Mack recalls of being in limbo as a contract holdout with the Oakland Raiders last August. “I’m glad the Bears gave me that opportunity. I’m still trying to make the most of it.”
Having not only Mack but Roquan Smith — who missed his first NFL camp in a contract holdout — in Bourbonnais are two reasons that don’t seem to be mentioned often enough for why the Bears ‘D’ might not regress as much as some expect. Heck, with all the offseason Leonard Floyd love seemingly from every corner, Smith largely has flown under the radar after coming within two tackles of matching Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher’s franchise rookie record.
“Ultimately, I feel like [Smith] can be an All-Pro player,” Mack said. “Along with Danny [Trevathan] on the inside. I feel like those two should take over the All-Pro position this year. You can say that’s a large task for those guys. But I don’t think it will be.”
No Bears defender missed out more narrowly on an All-Pro nod last year than Akiem Hicks, the first-time Pro Bowler and catalyst 1B alongside Mack in Chicago’s explosive front seven. Thursday marked the start of Year 4 with the Bears for the former journeyman from Regina. But, like the rest of his Bears brethren, it’s Hicks’ first year working with new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano.
“It’s like dating, man,” Hicks said of attempting to build a rapport with Pagano similar to that of Vic Fangio, who oversaw Hicks’ NFL breakout over the past three seasons and whom Hicks credits for fully unlocking him as a player. “You can’t just rush in, you know? You got to let it grow, you got to let it mature. One day we’re probably going to have a beautiful relationship — and we’re getting to that point. So I think at this point we’re just learning each other. We have a great deal of respect for everybody on that unit, right? We’ll see where it goes.”
The direction of the defense under Pagano after it led the NFL in fewest points allowed, fewest yards allowed per play and easily paced the league in takeaways under Fangio en route to 12-4 and an NFC North title is the Bears biggest storyline after kicker and the growth of Mitch Trubisky in Year 3.
Mack said it’s too early to talk schematic changes under Pagano, who’s expected to tinker more with Mack and Floyd, among others, and ramp up the blitzing, but offered the highest of praise for his new coordinator.
“All around, when you think about a great person and being around good people in the business and having been in the business for five years … you’re talking about one of the best people that I’ve had the chance to work with, and that’s what I’m looking forward to this year.”
Mack alluded to the importance of these camp practices to learning Pagano’s scheme, in which Hicks admitted on the final day of the offseason still requires much sharpening. They each sound confident it will set them up for success.
“If there was anybody that was going to replace Vic, it was Chuck” Hicks said. “He’s a great team guy. He’s a great players coach. He is a great communicator. When you come into a situation like ours where we’ve already had a top defense, you have to come in and approach it like he has. I think he’s done a great job, and I can’t wait to put it out there on tape.”