A 'fresh' approach for Hester

Never a fit at receiver, Devin Hester is focusing entirely on his return game this season. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

CHICAGO -- It's late on Thursday night in a crowded locker room. A preseason football game just ended and mammoth athletes are getting dressed in tight quarters as the disposable players try to dry off without getting hit by cameras and scurrying reporters.

But there in his usual spot, the locker closest to the door for a quick escape, Devin Hester dresses quickly and quietly.

He is smiling and making jokes.

With life as Jay Cutler's least favorite receiver now a thing of the past, Hester can focus on what makes him happy. And a happy Devin Hester is a confident Devin Hester. You know what he can do when he's happy and confident, and healthy.

Hester got the Bears good field position on their first drive of the game against the San Diego Chargers with a 45-yard return out of the end zone.

Starting at the Bears' 37, Cutler wound up getting sacked twice on the opening drive, but that's not Hester's concern anymore. He's just responsible for the good field position.

"A good way to start off fast," Hester said of his return. "I knew I wasn't going to get many today. Preseason, we know they're not trying to kick it out, so they're going to give us good returnable balls just to see where their coverage skills are. So I was able to get one in before I got snatched up. I don't want to show them too much. I don't want teams to be afraid to kick it."

Can Hester convince teams to kick to him while proving he's still dangerous enough to get a nice, new contract? That's the challenge this year.

At 30 (he turns 31 in November) Hester is likely near the end of his career, though he thinks he has a few good years left as a pure returner.

They might not be in Chicago. With the Bears under new management, he's one of 43 Bears with expiring contracts. Hester signed a $40 million extension in 2008 with the idea that he'd be a go-to receiver. He won't get anything close that money on a new contract. To make any serious money next year, he'll have to show the league, if not just the Bears, he's still the Big Hurt by the Lake.

Hester smiled when I called him the Bears' designated hitter.

"Oh yeah, that's what it's going to look like," Hester said last week. "Every time I'm up to bat, it's either going to be a strike or it's going to be a home run."

Even the NFL can't fine Hester for the kind of big hits he's planning.

His past, the dreams of being a No. 1 receiver and a Hall of Fame-caliber return man, are behind him. Now he's ready to evolve into the final stage of his career, where he focuses on one thing and one thing only.

Hester never meshed with Cutler -- his past two seasons were pretty miserable, he said -- and despite his reputation for running crisp routes, the results never matched the expectations.

For now, the key word for Hester is "fresh." No more running routes for exercise. No more getting pulled from kick returns to play wideout. His legs need rest and his mind needs clarity.

"Yeah, I'm going to be fresh," he said. "I'm not going to be tired when I'm out there. My legs are going to be fresh. That's the key thing, me being fresh. Returners have to be fresh. It's impossible to go 50-60 snaps on offense and try to return the whole game. I'm in the stage where I'm in a good mood to do what I love doing."

Of course, Hester is always in a good mood to start a season. Every offseason through training camp, Hester would talk glowingly of his prospects. When things go bad, he gets gloomy. He's not a closed book, that's for sure.

"This year, I'm going to be a playmaker, put it that way," Hester told me in April 2012 at a Nike event. "I'm going to make big plays. That's what I'm here for, to make plays. And that's what I'm going to do."

And last year was probably his worst as a professional. No return touchdowns, 23 catches for 242 yards and one score.

After Lovie Smith was fired, Hester was in tears talking to reporters as he cleaned out his locker. He mentioned retirement -- "I don't even know if I want to play again," Hester said. "That's been something on my mind for two years." He later told the Chicago Tribune he needed a "fresh start."

New coach Marc Trestman told reporters Hester would strictly be a return man in early March.

Now Hester talks about proving people wrong and playing for a new deal. Hester is getting paid $1.857 million in base salary with a $2.9 million cap hit this year.

"For myself, I can't speak for others, I'm more excited that this is my contact year," Hester told reporters when training camp opened. "I'd rather do my contract after the season is over, because the way I'm feeling now, I could boost my stock a whole lot from where it's at now. I'm not really paying attention to the contract. I'd rather have mine after the season, because what I'm planning on doing this year is going to help me out."

Hester famously raced a cheetah for a TV show in the offseason. But now his practices, not to mention games, are slow.

At training camp in Bourbonnais, Ill., as the offense and defense ran from individual drills to team work, Hester did his own thing, working with special teams and the JUGGS machine. He doesn't mind the downtime.

As he pointed out, he might be getting more work as a pure return man than he did in his hybrid role.

"I enjoy it," he said. "I know during the season I'm going to touch the ball five or six times a game. I mean, when I was playing offense I was only touching the ball once or twice on offense. If you add it up, I'll probably be touching the ball a little more and be fresher to do what I love doing."

Hester isn't exaggerating. In the past two seasons, he caught 49 passes in 31 games. That's a lot of work for such little results.

The problem, of course, with Hester trying to return his way to NFL prominence, is that being a returner is reliant on other people -- from the kicker to the opposing coach to Hester's own blockers.

"Even when Devin was having those big years, Devin had some big holes to go through," Bears special-teams coach Joe DeCamillis said. "We just got to do a better job of getting some holes for him at the start, and then, you know, he's gotta go and play better also. So it's a combination of all of those. I've got to help him schematically with what we're doing. Guys gotta block better, and he's gotta return better. That's what we've been working on all camp, and hopefully it starts to show up."

After setting the combined return touchdown record in 2010, while also adding record for single-season punt return average, he added two punt return scores and one kick return touchdown in 2011.

The Hall of Fame talked ended quickly last season as he was kept scoreless on returns.

But when he broke Brian Mitchell's record in Minnesota on Dec. 20, 2010, helping the Bears clinch the division, Hester was tearful and happy. He talked about being motivated after being labeled as a return man out of college.

"Just coming out of college, coaches told me I wasn't going to be nothing but a kickoff and punt returner," he said that day. "I wanted to earn a position in the league. But I'm here today to say I am a kickoff and punt returner, but at the same time, I'm the best that ever do it."

Hester has a chance to prove his doubters wrong all over again. Is he still the best to ever do it, or is that all past tense? Can he outrun the undisputed champ, time?

Like Hester, I'm optimistic every season too. So I say keep your eyes peeled for No. 23 this fall. He's the guy with "Any" stitched on one cleat and "Time" on the other.