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Few happy returns post-Devin Hester, so Bears turn to draft picks

Rookie Eddie Jackson could return punts for the Bears. (AP)

On Nov. 9, 2014, the Bears were wallowing in the abyss early in the fourth quarter. The Packers had scored to go ahead 55-7 in a game that eventually would sound the death knell for the Marc Trestman and Phil Emery regimes.

But then, a footnote: With 10:41 to play, former Canadian Football League star Chris Williams caught a Packers kickoff a yard deep in the end zone, broke right at his 10-yard line, cut between two blockers, juked Mason Crosby to the ground at his 44 and sprinted down the right sideline for a 101-yard touchdown.

“Shades of Devin Hester!” announcer Cris Collinsworth said, probably excited to have something interesting happen on the field during a blowout.

Three years later, though, the Bears are still searching for Hester’s heir apparent.

Williams’ play remains the Bears’ only kick-return touchdown since they let Hester leave via free agency at the end of the 2013 season. They’ve returned 101 kickoffs since Williams’ garbage-time touchdown — none for a score.

Their punt-return success barely has been better. When Eddie Royal returned a punt for a 65-yard score in last season’s home opener against the Eagles, it was the Bears’ first such score since Hester’s departure. In the span between the touchdowns, the Bears had been punted to 97 times.

Consider that they were trailing the Eagles 29-7 with about five minutes left, and the Bears haven’t posted a relevant return touchdown since Hester’s last one wearing the wishbone C — an 81-yard punt return to tie the Redskins on Oct. 20, 2013.

Since then, the Bears’ return game has been nothing special — far from the game-changing advantage they enjoyed with Hester, who returned five kicks and 13 punts for scores in the regular season from 2006 to ’13. Hester, whose last Bears kick-return score was Oct. 16, 2011, is out of football after playing for the Ravens and Seahawks last season.

The Bears’ 21.4 yards per kickoff return last year ranked 18th in the league, and their eight-yard punt-return average was No. 19.

Touchdowns are about more than the man catching the ball — blocking and situational awareness play meaningful roles — but the Bears are turning to rookie returners to change the narrative.

Former Alabama safety Eddie Jackson figures to enter training camp as the odds-on favorite to return punts after bringing back 11 for 253 yards and two touchdowns as a senior.

“I have good vision,” Jackson said. “I’m able to see things and my team, as well. They played a big part in that when I was at Alabama. Setting up blocks. Seeing what alley you can take and what not to take, which way to go. When to burst full speed and when to slow it down, just things like that.”

Jackson, who has a rod in his left leg after surgery in October, will have growing pains. The Bears are training 2016 seventh-round pick Daniel Braverman to return punts, too, after he struggled last preseason.

“Anytime that you have a rookie returner or anytime you have an inexperienced guy, there’s things that you gotta go through,” said Jeff Rodgers, who was hired as the Bears’ special-teams coordinator one year after Hester’s departure. “The guys who are veteran returners — you’re going through the same thing with them, but somebody else has told them or you’ve told them the previous year.

“You know, there’s an accumulation of that knowledge. So there are things we’re going to have to go through with those guys. We do it every year, and hopefully we learn it quickly.”

Jackson’s fellow fourth-round pick, North Carolina A&T running back Tarik Cohen, will be in the mix to return kicks — and maybe punts — regularly for the first time since high school. The 5-6 Cohen estimated he had “eight or nine” return touchdowns in high school before playing offense exclusively for the Aggies, an FCS team.

“I want to do it a lot,” Cohen said. “I didn’t get a chance to do it in college. . . . My coach also didn’t want me to get hurt.”

His growth curve, then, figures to be steeper than Jackson’s.

“So far, so good,” Rodgers said. “It’s a little bit different when there’s 70,000 people in the stands and guys are running full speed at you. You can protect yourself, fair catch and stuff, but that pressure environment, that’s why you have preseason games. That’s why you have practices: to try to put those guys in those environments and try to get those questions answered before it really means something in terms of win-loss record for your football team.”

Cohen won’t be alone. The Bears also have two veterans who’ll compete for the kick-returner job: Deonte Thompson, who had 35 of the Bears’ 42 kickoff returns last year, and former Rams running back Benny Cunningham, whose 2,575 kick-return yards are the fourth-most in the NFL over the last four years.

Rodgers praised Cunningham’s contact balance — his ability to stay up after a hit — and called him a smart, hard worker.

“There’s a lot to like about what he does,” he said.

And a long offseason to figure out who does it best.

“The guys that we’ve added off our team [as rookies], it’ll be a good competition,” Rodgers said. “The most important thing is [to] not define but realize what these guys do well and be able to move toward those returns that lend to their skill set.

“Some guys are downhill, inside returners. Some guys more perimeter, misdirection. Whatever those things are, as camp goes on and things start to sort themselves out, we’ve got to make sure that the rest of our guys can get used to blocking those types of schemes.”

Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley.

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com

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