Can Nick Kwiatkoski continue the Bears’ strong linebacker tradition?

Bears second-year linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski was in the middle of answering a question about his rookie season when veteran Jerrell Freeman walked up, put his arm around him and listened in.

“I took a lot from [my rookie year],” Kwiatkoski said with a smile as he turned to Freeman. “I’d like to build on it.”

As Kwiatkoski finished, Freeman left for his own media obligations after the  second day of minicamp Wednesday. But their interaction is a sign of things to come.

When training camp opens next month at Olivet Nazarene University, Kwiatkoski and Freeman are expected to be the starting inside linebackers for Vic Fangio’s defense.

Bears linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski tackles Colin Kaepernick. (Getty)

Linebacker Danny Trevathan is in the middle of a long and arduous rehabilitation after suffering a torn patellar tendon in his right knee Nov. 27 against the Titans.

Trevathan’s absence will mean an uptick in responsibilities and expectations for Kwiatkoski, whose goals should extend beyond trying to build on his decent rookie year.

With a name that fits the Bears’ “Grabowski” identity, Kwiatkoski has an opportunity to prove that he can carry the proverbial torch when it comes to the team’s strong tradition at linebacker.

What has Kwiatkoski learned about being a linebacker in Chicago?

“It’s a big responsibility,” he said. “You do a lot for the defense. It’s a great defense to be in, and it’s a great team to play for to be a linebacker. The history, it’s a linebacker place.”

Freeman and Trevathan were signed in free agency last year to help restore that tradition. But Kwiatkoski could be the next homegrown talent.

The Bears have whiffed on linebackers in the draft in recent years. Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene are the most recent examples. Lance Briggs, a third-round pick in 2003, is the last traditional linebacker drafted to become a full-time starter.

Kwiatkoski’s rookie season had its rocky moments. He was out for more than a month after suffering a severely pulled hamstring early in training camp.

But Trevathan’s injury and Freeman’s four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy thrust Kwiatkoski into a take-charge role.

And in the end, Fangio was especially impressed.

Kwiatkoski was one of two players Fangio named — the other being defensive lineman Akiem Hicks — when he was asked late last season for reasons to be optimistic about the future.

For every tackle Kwiatkoski missed or coverage assignment he blew, he also flashed potential. Kwiatkoski ran over offensive linemen on his pass rush on multiple occasions; he had nine solo tackles against the 49ers; he impressively shut down a screen play against the Packers; and he finished with five tackles for loss, a sack, two pass breakups and a forced fumble.

“I saw growth in him from the first time he was out there playing with me until the end of the season,” Freeman said. “He’s grown a lot in being more comfortable out there playing. He’s not wide-eyed or anything.”

Kwiatkoski, one of the Bears’ three fourth-round picks a year ago, said he’s fortunate to be able to learn from Freeman and Trevathan. He said he’s close with Trevathan.

“Camp is not going to wait for Danny, but I hope he’s ready,” Kwiatkoski said. “But if not, he’s definitely going to be there helping us along the way.”

Kwiatkoski, who added more muscle this offseason, will only benefit from it. He already feels more comfortable in Fangio’s defense.

“I’m just thinking of things quicker, processing things quicker and making my calls quicker,” he said.

Kwiatkoski said it allows him to be more patient and confident on the field.

“Last year as a rookie, my head was spinning when I was trying to do things,” Kwiatkoski said. “[This year] will be way different than last year.”

Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns.

Email: ajahns@suntimes.com

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