Hroniss Grasu had everything going for him in training camp: a stouter body, a starting job, the trust of his teammates and the support of a mentor.
Saturday, the Bears’ center crumpled to the ground on a non-contact injury at Soldier Field. Sources told the Sun-Times he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, needs surgery and will likely miss the season.
The Bears will address his injury at training camp Monday in Bourbonnais, but it figures that veteran Ted Larsen, who has started 10 career games at center, is next in line. Cody Whitehair, who had been ahead of Larsen in the fight for left guard, has been taking snaps at center, but that might be asking a lot of the rookie.
Larsen said this week that playing center sporadically was “a little bit” difficult in practice.
“But you get enough work beforehand, with all those quarterback-center exchanges,” he said. “And that makes it a lot easier.”
Offensive line coach Dave Magazu called Whitehair a “silent assassin” on Friday.
“He can get after you,” he said. “And the one thing we’re looking at now is, ‘Hey it has to be every down, every play, every game.”
The Bears have backup center Cornelius Edison on their roster, too. Amini Silatolu, who started 28 games at guard for the Panthers the past four years, practiced for the first time Thursday since having ACL surgery of his own.
Neither of those names is as attractive as those who left Halas Hall in recent months. Eight-year veteran Manny Ramirez retired in June. A month earlier, the Bears cut Matt Slauson, preferring increased athleticism at guard in their zone running scheme. Slauson is now taking starting snaps at center with the Chargers.
Even before Grasu’s injury, their line depth had been depleted by the retirement of backup tackle Nate Chandler in July. The Bears figure to add at least one more veteran lineman soon.
They’ll have to wait at least another season to know what they have in Grasu, an undersized center drafted in the third round last year. Grasu struggled at times adjusting to NFL nuance — he played collegiately at fast-paced Oregon — but was forced into eight starts after Will Montgomery was injured last season.
Coach John Fox said earlier in camp he had “liked his growth and development during the off-season program.”
Last season, Grasu began talking to Kevin Mawae, one of the most successful small —centers ever, and was thrilled when the Bears added him to training camp as a member of the NFL’s Minority Coaching Fellowship.
Grasu, who had gained about 10 pounds in the offseason, said Friday he was trying to play the way Mawae did: “being nasty and being smart and being physical for his size.”
Mawae and Magazu were teaching him angles and steps — getting his stride exact, down to the inch — to help use leverage to his advantage.
“You teach him one thing,” Mawae said. “He wants to get good at it, and he works it.”
He’ll need that attitude now.