Bears rookie Kevin Toliver fits the classic mold of a cornerback — the height, the arm length, the athleticism, the physicality — and especially the attitude.
“The last time I was scared or not confident was when I was on my way home after I got in trouble in elementary school to go meet my mom,” Toliver said Friday when asked about any trepidation he might feel going against record-setting Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers’ top-ranked offense Sunday. “Ever since then, I’ve had the biggest confidence on the field. And at corner, you’ve got to have that — especially at this level.”
Toliver remembers that confidence coming in handy in a similar situation as a freshman at LSU in 2015. “I was thrown into the fire — started about 80 percent of the season my freshman year,” he said. “I had to learn fast that you’ve got to have confidence.”
The stakes are a lot higher now, of course. And Toliver has to know that being brash and bold and talented can only get you so far in the NFL. After a 22-snap introduction last week against the Cardinals in place of injured starter Prince Amukamara, Toliver will be tested like never before against a Buccaneers offense that has been daunting and dominating through the air.
The danger for Toliver is obvious. Already, Fitzpatrick has five pass plays of 50 or more yards, including touchdowns of 75, 75, 58 and 50 yards. Fitzpatrick burned the Saints’ Marshon Lattimore — the defensive rookie of the year last season — for a 50-yard touchdown to Mike Evans. He victimized the Steelers’ Artie Burns, a former first-round draft pick, for a 50-yard pass play to Evans; and he torched the Eagles’ Jalen Mills — a Toliver mentor in that secondary at LSU in 2015 — for a 75-yard touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson. There’s no doubt they came in with a ton of confidence as well.
“It’s just an opportunity for me to showcase my talent, show what I’ve been working and doing in practice,” Toliver said. “It’s a good challenge to see where I’m at, see how I match up against the top offense in the league right now. Just go out there and execute the plan [and] do what my coaches say.”
In 22 snaps, Toliver was picked on by the Cardinals and burned for a 32-yard completion to rookie Christian Kirk, but the cost of that lesson was minimal.
“I thought he did fine,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “They obviously went after him a little. We helped him some. Sometimes we didn’t. And I thought he responded well. They caught some balls in front of him and he got double-moved [by Kirk], so it was a baptism under fire. But I didn’t see a guy out there who looked out of place. And I’m glad he got those reps, because I think it helps him for [Sunday].
The Toliver scenario provides an interesting test for a Bears defense fueled by Khalil Mack that is just as red-hot as the Buccaneers’ offense. Can Fangio, Mack & Co. — who will have their hands full as it is — be good enough to protect the rookie? And will they have to? This defense already has turned unsung players into playmakers — Roy Robertson-Harris, Aaron Lynch, Bryce Callahan, Sherrick McManis and Bilal Nichols among them.
Toliver could be next.