Bears eager for Khalil Mack's encore season

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack’s debut season in Chicago was a smash hit without the benefit of a single training camp practice.

On Thursday, Mack, acquired via trade from Oakland prior to Week 1 last year, stepped foot on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University in downstate Bourbonnais, Illinois -- the site of Bears training camp since 2002 -- for the first time.

“[My teammates] told me I’m going to love [Bourbonnais],” Mack said. “Everybody told me yeah, you’re going to love it. I don’t know if it’s sarcastic or not, but I’m looking forward to it.”

The off-the-field enjoyment level at any NFL training camp held outside the team’s usual facility is debatable, but Mack’s presence and participation in the Bourbonnais portion of the preseason is critical.

Mack, who last season signed a six-year deal with Chicago that guaranteed him $90 million, helped the Bears' defense become one of the league's best.

In 14 games with the Bears, Mack recorded 47 tackles, a team-high 12.5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, six forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception, which he returned for a touchdown.

Mack was voted NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September and earned All-Pro honors. Expectations are even higher in 2019 for Mack, who didn't have the benefit of attending any of the Bears' offseason program or training camp before joining the team last year.

This past offseason, Mack was a fixture at Chicago's voluntary workouts.

Mack’s sterling offseason attendance was of vital importance after the Bears lost revered defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to the Broncos and replaced him with former Colts head coach Chuck Pagano.

“All around, when you think about a great person and being around good people in the business and having been in the business for five years … you’re talking about one of the best people [Pagano] that I’ve had the chance to work with and that’s what I’m looking forward to this year,” Mack said.

Whether Pagano can replicate Fangio’s success is one of the Bears’ main storylines in 2019.

Under Fangio in 2018, the Bears' defense ranked No. 1 in the NFL in in yards per play (4.78), points per game (17.7), takeaways (36) and interceptions (27).

“If there was anybody that was going to replace Vic, it was Chuck,” Bears defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said. “He’s a great team guy. He’s a great players' coach. He is a great communicator. When you come into a situation like ours where we’ve already had a top defense, you have to come in and approach it like he has. I think he’s done a great job, and I can’t wait to put it out there on tape.”

Mack stressed that until the defense masters Pagano’s scheme, every training camp practice takes on a heightened sense of importance.

“You have to think about it in terms of being a student of the game, doing the different calls, the different terms we’re going to use instead of what we used last year,” Mack said. “Just getting used to those is always going to be important.”