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Calling the shots: Bears test rookie LB Roquan Smith with defensive calls

Bears rookie linebacker Roquan Smith adjusts his equipment against the Broncos. | David Zalubowski/AP

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Bears’ plan for getting rookie linebacker Roquan Smith acclimated after his 29-day absence turned out to be a test in their joint practice with the Broncos.

Facing his first opposing offense in the NFL, Smith handled the defensive calls in his first padded practice since he played for Georgia.

Welcome (back) to the big leagues, kid.

“It feels great to be back out there in the middle of the defense,” Smith said Wednesday after practice at the UCHealth Training Center.

Only defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and inside linebackers coach Glenn Pires truly know if Smith handled everything “great” in the Bears’ first day against the Broncos. But it’s a starting point for him, and it’s apparent that the Bears want to challenge Smith after he missed the entire Bourbonnais portion of training camp because of his contract dispute.

Making Smith handle the calls was a message. He was drafted with the eighth overall pick to be the “quarterback” of the defense. He had better understand the significance.

“I remember a lot of the defense,” Smith said. “I had my tablet when I was back in Georgia, so I was watching a lot of film. It’s not like it’s my first time seeing some of the defensive calls.”

But Smith is still in “Fangio 101,” whereas other inside linebackers — namely starters Danny Trevathan and Nick Kwiatkoski — are handling the more advanced courses. As talented as Smith is, learning his place in Fangio’s defense — and everyone else’s — will take time.

Brian Urlacher’s ability to match wits with Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers and other quarterbacks made him a Hall of Famer as much as his natural skills. Urlacher didn’t start at middle linebacker until Week 3 of his rookie season in 2000. Lance Briggs didn’t make his first start until the Bears’ fourth game of the 2003 season.

“You know, it’s funny,’’ Trevathan said. ‘‘Sometimes when you try to get everybody else lined up, you forget your job. [But] you’ve got to be able to do that. So I was telling [Smith] not just to focus on yourself. When you’re drawing stuff up, draw everybody out there so you know how everybody fits in.”


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Smith downplayed how handling the calls will affect his learning process. He actually didn’t say much about the calls when asked. But if Smith didn’t feel tested Wednesday, that will change soon. Fangio certainly has more in store for him. Just ask Trevathan or Kwiatkoski. It can get complex.

“There are things that are [complex],” Kwiatkoski said. “We’ve worked enough where it’s not too bad. As an entire linebacker group, it’s something we work on as a group. You see a guy calling the play, but, really, both guys are calling the plays. We’re communicating. There’s definitely a lot that goes into it.”

Smith might have first-round instincts, speed and tackling ability, but he lacks the experience that Kwiatkoski talked about right now. He only took the field with the Bears’ backups against the Broncos.

Coach Matt Nagy spent the bulk of practice watching quarterback Mitch Trubisky and the offense, but he expects to hear some honest feedback from Smith after he watches film. Nagy knows he’ll get it from Fangio and Pires.

“No. 1, mentally, did he do the right stuff?” Nagy said. “And then we’ll talk to him, ‘How did you feel?’ [We’ll] see how that went, and we’ll kind of just see if we can maybe sprinkle in possibly the same [or] maybe a little bit more [on Thursday].”

That could include handling the calls again. Or not.

“[Smith] needs to be honest with us on how he was,” Nagy said. “Then we’ll take the defensive coaches and hear where they thought he’s at, all things considered.”