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Player to watch: Bears linebacker Josh Woods is getting the hang of his new position

The former safety at Maryland is thinking like a linebacker after a year of transition: “The game’s starting to slow down for me.”

Bears linebacker Josh Woods (55) had five tackles, one tackle-for-loss and a forced fumble in the preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers last week.
For the Sun-Times

Josh Woods was making a pretty standard textbook tackle on a second-and-one rush by Panthers running back Elijah Holyfield in the Bears’ preseason opener last week at Soldier Field, with a bonus. As he wrapped up Holyfield, his helmet hit the ball, it popped loose and teammate James Vaughters recovered it.

“I just saw the ball, and I hit the ball, and it popped out,” Woods said. “Good things happen when you do what you’re supposed to do.”

The big hit and forced fumble were more evidence that the 6-1, 204-pound Woods learns well. A converted safety from Maryland who made the practice squad as an undrafted free agent last season, Woods is out of the transition phase and thinking, reacting and playing like a linebacker.

Asked what he does better this year than he did last year, Woods quickly answered, “Everything. I feel a lot better just all around when it comes to playing linebacker. At this time last year, I felt like it was a whirlwind, and now the game’s starting to slow down for me. I feel like everything in my game has taken a step up because last year wasn’t good enough.”

The college safety-to-NFL linebacker conversion is an enticing one in today’s game, and Woods’ athleticism puts him in that mold. Woods has studied tapes of Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher, who set a virtually unreachable standard for the transition but is fun to watch. And he also has studied Steelers veteran Mark Barron, who played safety his first two-plus seasons in the NFL with the Buccaneers but became a solid starter at linebacker with the Rams.

“I’ve watched tape on guys that have moved from safety,’’ Woods said, ‘‘but really, I’ve just been trying to learn from [Roquan Smith] and Danny [Trevathan], how they do it. Because in the end, I’ve got to play like a linebacker.”

Woods is thinking like a different player this year. Last year, he remembers catching himself standing with the defensive backs on the sideline in practice.

“DBs stand behind the ball, so they can see the coverage,” Woods said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, wait, the linebackers are down here.’ I had to retrain my brain to see things differently, to move like a linebacker. So I just walk in Danny’s and Roquan’s footsteps.”

Still, Woods’ safety experience has come in handy at linebacker. That’s why the conversion is popular.

“He has a unique skill set because he’s a conversion from safety,” inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said. “The new age — he has cover skills and those [qualities]. But he’s also getting a lot better against the run, and I’m excited for the world to see that [in the preseason].”

It didn’t take long in the first preseason game for Woods to provide the evidence. He had five tackles against the Panthers, including one tackle for loss.

“I’m just trying to get better every day,” Woods said, “trying to keep the mindset that it’s never good enough because the competition is high in our room. There are only a certain number of spots.”

There’s the rub for Woods. He’s better-equipped for the position but in a tougher fight for a roster spot. With Smith and Trevathan starting and Nick Kwiatkoski and Joel Iyiegbuniwe behind them, Woods would have to pull an upset to make the 53-man roster and figures to be battling Jameer Thurman and Vaughters for a practice-squad spot.

“I have no control over what happens,” Woods said. “All I can do is take it to the next day, learn from my mistakes, don’t get too high on good plays and just stay levelheaded.”