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Whitehair, Leno take leadership roles on O-line

It remains to be seen if the Bears’ offensive line and running game will be better under Juan Castillo. Even coach Matt Nagy conceded he won’t know for sure until the Sept. 13 opener against the Lions.

Chicago Bears v Arizona Cardinals
Center Cody Whitehair (65) is emerging as a leader on the Bears’ offensive line under new line coach Juan Castillo. “Cody is very smart. He has a God given ability ... he’s tough as nails [and] he’s a good family man. I think all those things are very important.”
Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Every offensive line coach ever has focused on fundamentals. But Juan Castillo’s fanatical belief in them takes it to another level.

The Bears’ first-year line coach’s ground-floor approach to fundamentals is the offensive line version of Vince Lombardi’s famously simplistic opening-day approach to coaching in general: ‘‘Gentlemen, this is a football.’’ He starts with the most basic of the basics.

When Bears practice starts at 9:20 a.m., Castillo’s offensive linemen are out there at 9, doing hand-placement/punching drills on a special five-position sled and footwork drills on the practice field. And Castillo isn’t even there. While he does his own core workouts, center Cody Whitehair and left tackle Charles Leno lead the drills. So he’s working his players on fundamentals, getting himself into shape and developing leadership by delegating authority at the same time. And then practice starts.

‘‘It’s just like a boxer,’’ Castillo said. ‘‘A boxer works on two things, if you think about it: his punching with his hands and, [with] his feet, his footwork. So that’s basically what we’re doing is working on different combinations: hand combinations for punching, for pass protection. . . . They end up getting about 50 to 60 punches you wouldn’t normally get in a normal practice.’’

The footwork is just as important.

‘‘Just like a boxer; [Muhammad] Ali comes to mind,’’ Castillo said. ‘‘But it’s the same concept as boxers: You work your feet. [But] it’s not about jumping rope for us; it’s doing the actual things that happen in a game. We do it over and over so that it becomes natural for your body, so you don’t have to think about it, so you can focus on defeating your opponent.’’

Of all the Bears’ new coaches, Castillo talks the best game. His enthusiasm is so over-the-top that he often can’t finish a thought without switching gears. It’s the kind of live-wire approach that often has an immediate impact, which is just what coach Matt Nagy and the Bears are looking for. The big question is how long those messages and that approach can be sustained.

But first things first. In an abbreviated training camp after a remote offseason program — and with no preseason games — it remains to be seen whether the Bears’ offensive line and running game will be better under Castillo than they were under Harry Hiestand in 2018-19. After one week in pads, it’s still too early to know.

Nagy said he got a better indication from watching the tape of the scrimmage Saturday. Starters on offense and defense competed in ‘‘thud’’ sessions, in which ball carriers aren’t tackled.

‘‘I thought our line did a really good job of opening up some lanes,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘Now, we went 1 [versus] 1 and it was thud, so it’s not quite the same for both sides. But it’s still good to see the angles they take and where the backs are at with their vision. So I liked that part.’’

Without preseason games, however, Nagy acknowledged all bets are off until the Bears play the Lions in the season opener Sept. 13 at Ford Field.

‘‘We’re not going to know fully until we get into it how effective or how much better our run game does get — or our offense in general,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘So I’m excited about that part. There’s just so much going on right now [in installation/preparation], and we’re just trying to trust each other. That’s where we’re at.’’