‘He’s back’: Roquan Smith a big hit already

The Bears linebacker dropped running back David Montgomery for a loss on his first play of team drills since returning from a 24-day hold-in — an early sign he’s not only back, but all-in despite being unhappy with his contract.

SHARE ‘He’s back’: Roquan Smith a big hit already
Roquan Smith (58 with teammates Alec Ogletree and Khyiris Tonga last season) has recorded 100 or more tackles in each of his first four seasons with the Bears.

Roquan Smith (58 with teammates Alec Ogletree and Khyiris Tonga last season) has recorded 100 or more tackles in each of his first four seasons with the Bears.

Alex Menendez/AP

It didn’t take Roquan Smith long to make his presence felt. 

On the first play of 11-on-11 team drills at practice Tuesday, Smith — showing off his trademark speed and quickness — burst through the line to drop running back David Montgomery for a loss with one of the biggest hits of training camp. The play drew a spirited response from the defensive sideline, with one player’s exclamation defining the moment: 

“He’s back.” 

Indeed, he is. Smith’s participation was the first time he was in full training-camp mode after doing mostly individual drills Saturday and Monday following his return from a 24-day holdout that cost him 15 practices and two preseason games. And he quickly gave coach Matt Eberflus, defensive coordinator Alan Williams and several new teammates on a defense that really didn’t know what they were missing without him a sample of the kind of lift he can provide.

From his smile to his style, Smith has an infectious impact on those around him — and a positive effect on the Bears’ defense that could increase exponentially now that he is the unquestioned leader of the unit rather than a standout player surrounded by proven veterans such as Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and Danny Trevathan.

“Everybody has a different sense of confidence when he’s out there,” cornerback Jaylon Johnson said. ‘’There are some things that are kind of unspoken, and we don’t always have to communicate certain things. We just kind of see things the same. We don’t have to say too many words.

“It’s just the sense of security when you have a guy like him, knowing his intelligence of the game, how he plays the game physically. I mean, he’s a monster. But just his leadership and the IQ he brings to the defense is definitely a big jump.” 

The big hit and the reaction it elicited perfectly illustrated the significance of Smith’s return — he’s not only back, he’s all-in. The Roquan Smith on the practice field Tuesday — the disgruntled player who lashed out at general manager Ryan Poles and is frustrated by the “distasteful” process of his failed contract negotiations — is the same Roquan Smith who has been a second-team All-Pro the last two seasons. 

It’s a testament to the addiction of football and the teamwork it takes for even the best players to excel at it. Yeah, he’s out there because he’s under contract. But he’s going to bust his behind for the Bears again this season because his desire to be a good teammate trumps his anger at feeling disrespected by the Bears’ organization. That’s what makes football great and a living hell at the same time. 

Be that as it may, Smith’s return could be the best thing for him, as well. As miffed as he is at the Bears, Smith shouldn’t ignore the possibility that playing in Eberflus’ defense could be as much of a benefit for him as he is for it. Shaquille Leonard — taken 28 picks after Smith in the 2018 draft — became a star in Eberflus’ defense with the Colts. He created 30 takeaways in four seasons. 

Smith, who has created only six takeaways in his four seasons with the Bears, is in a prime spot to take his game to that level, playing the same weak-side linebacker position as Leonard.

“It’s about techniques and fundamentals,” linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi said. “You just keep working. Tackling. Block protection. There’s no perfect layer. So you just keep [working on] technique and fundamentals.” 

But six takeaways in four years — how do you fix that? Again the answer was simple.

“Talk about it every day,” Borgonzi said. “Just keep preaching it, have it on their mind.” 

And according to Borgonzi, it’s not like Smith has to reinvent himself to get there. 

“He’s just got to play football,” Borgonzi said. 

For Smith, that has always been the easy part. Once he’s on the field, it’s full speed ahead.

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