‘MON­STER’ OF THE MID­WAY

Hicks’ re­turn to prac­tice af­ter quadri­ceps in­jury a boon for Bears’ de­fense

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - PA­TRICK FIN­LEY pfin­ley@sun­times.com | @patrick­fin­ley

The Bears’ de­fense got its ‘‘mon­ster’’ back. De­fen­sive line­man Akiem Hicks re­turned to prac­tice Thurs­day, ex­actly two weeks af­ter hurt­ing his quadri­ceps. While coach Matt Nagy was care­ful to point out it was a short, light prac­tice — Hicks un­doubt­edly wasn’t asked to do a tremen­dous amount of work — it was a good sign as the Bears hur­tle to­ward the sea­son opener Sept. 13 against the Lions.

‘‘Just pre­par­ing for foot­ball, man,’’ Hicks said. ‘‘You know, this time of year and this sit­u­a­tion that we’ve been in have been tax­ing on ev­ery­one.

‘‘The big­gest bat­tle is mak­ing sure that you re­mem­ber what you’re fo­cused on or what you’re push­ing to­ward, and that’s com­ing out Week 1 and play­ing good foot­ball.’’

The Bears play bet­ter foot­ball with Hicks than with­out him. Out­side line­backer Khalil Mack and the team’s pass cov­er­age suf­fered when Hicks sat out 11 games last sea­son, 10 with a grisly dis­lo­cated el­bow and one with a knee in­jury.

Nagy had been vague about Hicks’ quad in­jury, other than to say it wasn’t the re­sult of a fun end-of-prac­tice drill two weeks ago in which Hicks caught a punt and cel­e­brated by kicking the ball. Hicks re­it­er­ated he didn’t hurt him­self that way.

It’s hard to over­state the im­por­tance of a healthy Hicks against the Lions. His re­turn is one of the ma­jor ar­gu­ments for the Bears’ de­fense re­sem­bling their 2018 in­car­na­tion more than their 2019 ver­sion.

‘‘Any­time you see [No.] 96 out there, that’s a good thing,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘We like that; we know op­pos­ing of­fenses don’t. We want to make sure we have him out there, so it was good.’’

The Bears have a dif­fer­ent edge when Hicks is on the field. Ear­lier this sum­mer, de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Chuck Pagano re­ferred to the old E.F. Hut­ton com­mer­cial — when he talks, peo­ple lis­ten — when try­ing to de­scribe pre­cisely what Hicks pro­vides. He’s wise, Pagano said then, and is will­ing to share with his team­mates. ‘‘You can’t re­place him,’’ Pagano said. Mack long ago be­stowed upon Hicks the nick­name ‘‘Mu­fasa,’’ Simba’s pow­er­ful, wise fa­ther from ‘‘The Lion King.’’

Nose tackle John Jenk­ins ar­gues Hicks is like ‘‘Sully,’’ the fuzzy blue gi­ant from the ‘‘Mon­sters, Inc.’’ fran­chise. And he should know. Hicks and Jenk­ins played to­gether in 2013-15 with the Saints, in 2017 with the Bears and again this sea­son.

‘‘Akiem is the same Akiem I’ve known since New Or­leans,’’ Jenk­ins said. ‘‘This is my guy. He’s been the same: full of en­ergy, a pow­er­ful guy, a force to be reck­oned with on the field.

‘‘And I look at him as that blue [mon­ster] from Mon­sters, Inc, you know? . . . [He] was the scari­est mon­ster, but when he got around the lit­tle girl, he was a sweet­heart.

‘‘That’s how he is off the field. But when he’s on the field, he’s a mon­ster.’’

De­spite the quad in­jury, Hicks might feel more at ease in the first game of 2020 than he did in the opener of 2019, when the Bears’ de­fense still was learn­ing Pagano’s de­fense.

‘‘I would say this: Ev­ery­body’s a lit­tle bit more com­fort­able,’’ Hicks said. ‘‘We have some things that we’ve been fa­mil­iar with over the past year, so any­time that you get that con­ti­nu­ity from your [co­or­di­na­tor], guys just feel more com­fort­able.

‘‘So I think that go­ing into this sea­son, we’re go­ing to be just a lit­tle bit more sharp on some of the things that we’ve tried to in­stall and do over here for the past cou­ple of years.’’

With no pre­sea­son games this year, the Bears have been able to test them­selves only with phys­i­cal prac­tice drills. Hicks in­sisted he’s ready for game ac­tion.

‘‘When we get to the reg­u­lar sea­son and you get to un­load on some­body that you don’t have to see in the locker room, that’s when the real plea­sure comes,’’ he said.

KAMIL KRZACZYNSK­I/AP

The Bears’ Akiem Hicks (right, with fel­low de­fen­sive line­man Trevon McSwain on Thurs­day at Halas Hall) says he’s ready for the sea­son to be­gin.

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