Akiem Hicks is glad to be back on a football field — for the most part. It’s still May. The work is relatively rudimentary. And he has been here many times before.
“There’s always a little bit of drudgery in OTAs,” the Bears’ Pro Bowl defensive end said Wednesday after the team’s second OTA (organized team activities) practice at Halas Hall. “But I will say this: It’s fun to be back. The further you go and the older you get, the more you appreciate just being out there with your guys. [But] it’s about work. And no matter how much fun you have, if you’re not putting the work in, you’re not going to be anybody.”
Coming off a 12-4 playoff season, the optimism of taking another big step in 2019 easily overwhelms any bit of drudgery that comes with May practices. The Bears are eager to see how much better they can get.
Nobody is feeling that emotion more than new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. The veteran NFL coach was thrilled to be back on the NFL scene when the Bears hired him to replace Vic Fangio in January. And — albeit at an early juncture of his return — coaching is as enjoyable as he thought it would be.
“As much as it ever has been for me,” said Pagano, who was the Colts’ coach for six seasons from 2012 to ’17 and went to the playoffs three times. “When you get it taken away from you — it was great to have time off to do some things I haven’t been able to do in 33 years — [but] you ask any player that’s been let go or put on the street and then -given another opportunity with another team, another locker room, [with] coaches to be around, players to be around, [you] come out here and run around like a kid again. There’s nothing better.”
After a year off, Pagano’s comfort zone as the Bears’ defensive coordinator is undeniable. He’s not downplaying high expectations for a defense that arguably was the best in the NFL last season. He’s unconcerned by transition issues. In fact, he’s -embracing much of Fangio’s handprint in building this defense. He’s not afraid to compare this defense to the Ray Lewis-led defense he had in Baltimore in 2011.
“There’s a ton [of similarities],” he said. “You’ve got speed, athleticism at all three levels. They work great together. Communicate well together. … Pass rushers, corners who can cover; guys that can run and hit. We’ve got that. A lot of parallels there.”
He’s even comfortable taking head-coach questions, such as one Wednesday about the quarterback.
“I like Mitch [Trubisky],” Pagano said. “Mitch is a smart guy. Mitch puts a tremendous amount of time in. Like Danny [Trevathan], that signal-caller — he’s the first guy in the building and the last to leave.
“He’s making great decisions. He’s getting the ball into open receivers’ hands. It looks like he’s real comfortable with the system and where he’s at and only going to get better.”
The Bears are just two days into the on-field portion of their offseason program. But obviously there is a lot for Pagano to feel pretty good about. He has a defense loaded with proven playmakers. The Bears return most of the -defense that led the NFL in points allowed last season, -including Hicks, All-Pro linebacker Khalil Mack, All-Pro safety -Eddie Jackson, Pro Bowl cornerback Kyle Fuller and three Pro Bowl alternates in linebackers -Leonard Floyd, Trevathan and Roquan Smith.
“There may be differences [in the coaching staff], but one thing there is no difference in is the guys on the field,” Hicks said. “We have a lot of great athletes. Sometimes when you see our front seven and our secondary, you say to yourself, ‘There are athletes all over the field.’ It’s a pleasure to play with those guys.”
Predictably, Pagano’s first glance at his defense on the field confirmed what he saw on television last year.
“High football character; football IQ is off the charts,” Pagano said. “Obviously, the talent is there. Vic and his staff did a phenomenal job last year. We’ve had great attendance. Great participation. They love each other. They just love playing the game. It’s been a real pleasure. We’ve got a long way to go, obviously. But they’re doing a great job.”
He knows his charge is to not mess it up, and he seems pretty confident he can handle that. At this point, a seamless transition doesn’t appear to be a major chore.
“You can tell we’ve thrown a lot at them — that’s on purpose,” Pagano said. “We’re throwing a lot of mud at the wall and seeing what sticks. But they’ve done a great job. There’s good retention. You don’t see a lot of mental errors.
“We want to see how much they can grasp. Don’t panic, come out here [on the field], it’s now an opportunity. Now that we have an opportunity to line up across from somebody, we’re just figuring out where we’re at and what we have.”
So far, so good.
“Pretty seamless,” Hicks said. “[Pagano’s] a really good guy. He’s very sociable. He brings you in and you feel instantly close to him. It’s fun to be out there.
“He’s just super in-touch. And you feel like he understands you and gives you a chance to understand him and what he wants from you. We appreciate that.”