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Bears ready for new kick return rules

BOURBONNAIS – Devin Hester has scored more kick and punt return touchdowns than any other player in the history of the NFL, so it stands to reason that he expects greatness again this season.

That’s why Hester has no concern that a new NFL rule will slow him down.

Opposing teams will be able to kick off from the 35-yard line, which is 5 yards closer than last season. That could lead to more touchbacks and fewer returns, which seemingly would hurt a great return team such as the Bears more than it would hurt other teams.

At least, that’s the theory.

Hester isn’t buying the argument.

“Honestly, I don’t think so,” Hester said. “We’ve proved that we’re capable of taking it to the dish, and I don’t think this rule is going to stop us. …

“With the genius that we have on our special teams staff, coach Dave [Toub], we’ve got some tricks up our sleeve. It’s not going to be a problem with that.”

Confidence is a key to success, and it’s in large supply among the Bears’ top returners of Hester and Johnny Knox. The Bears combined for 10 kick returns of 40-plus yards last season, which was three more than any other team in the league.

Even if this season delivers similar or better results, the path will not be the same.

Toub said the new kickoff rule likely would require the Bears’ returners to gamble more.

“It’s going to be a lot different,” Toub said. “We’re probably going to return a lot more kickoffs deep in the end zone because you have to keep pressure on the kickoff teams, keep them honest. You don’t want them just thinking that we’re going to take a touchback every time.

“With our returners, we have to be able to take some risks at times that we probably wouldn’t have last year. With the guys we have, we’re willing to do that. I think we can get it out past the 20 a lot of times, at least, if not a touchdown.”

That sounds fine to Hester. So does an increased role in the kick return game, which might be necessary because of his superior ability and the free agent departure of Danieal Manning.

Manning, who split kick returns last year, signed a deal with the Houston Texans this summer.

Hester shared kick return drills with Knox during the first week of training camp at Olivet Nazarene University. He also had plenty of practice repetitions with the punt return team, with others such as Earl Bennett and Dane Sanzenbacher also taking turns fielding punts.

“I’m that type of person where I’m ready for anything,” Hester said. “I’m always a team player. Whatever the coaches have in mind, I’m down for it.”

Here is a look at the Bears’ specialists heading into the regular season.

Robbie Gould, 7th year

Gould has made 85.5 percent of his field goals, which is the No. 5 all time in kicking accuracy.

Adam Podlesh, 5th year

Podlesh, 27, is an above-average punter who also will replace Brad Maynard as Gould’s holder.

Patrick Mannelly, 14th year

Mannelly has one job duty (long snapping), and he does it as well as anybody in the league.

Devin Hester, 6th year

Hester averaged 35.6 yards a kickoff return and 17.1 yards a punt return during a dominant 2010.

Johnny Knox, 3rd year

Knox averaged 22.8 yards a kickoff return after earning a Pro Bowl selection as a rookie in 2009.

Spencer Lanning, 1st year

Lanning, who punted for South Carolina last season, joined the Bears as an undrafted free agent.

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