One of the most surprising developments over the first two weeks of Chicago Bears training camp has been the emergence of a legit competition between Tyrique Stevenson and Terell Smith for the second starting cornerback job. When the Bears traded up to draft Stevenson in the second round of this year’s draft, the expectation wasn’t that the Bears were going to hand him a job, but he was expected to earn it before too long. By the end of minicamp it seemed clear that he had.
When training camp began in late July, things started to shift. Smith, who missed most of OTAs and minicamp with an unknown injury, started to split reps with Stevenson. There were several days where it was Smith who took the majority of first-team reps at CB2, not Stevenson.
“They didn’t tell me anything but they made it real clear that it’s going to be a competition,” Stevenson said.
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Stevenson didn’t worry, nor did he go to anyone to complain or ask why Smith started eating into his reps. He understood the situation.
“I didn’t earn anything. I have no stripes in the league.”
It also became clear to Stevenson very quickly that the Bears were going to demand a lot from him. He knew Matt Eberflus’ H.I.T.S. program was important, but it didn’t fully sink in until his first few practices at Halas Hall. Stevenson had been a part of teams where coaches handed out “loafs” for sloppy or lackadaisical play during games. Putting a loaf on an athlete’s playsheet after a game is a way for coaches to let players know specifically when and why they didn’t meet the team’s standards. But the Bears assign loafs after practice, too, and that was new for Stevenson.
“(Cornerbacks) Coach (Jon) Hoke is like, ‘If it’s 50-50 to me, you’re getting a loaf. Especially you, I want you to sprint to the ball. I want you to have it become a habit.’
“Every day he tells me, excuse my language, ‘I’m on your ass,’ because he wants me to be the best version of me. I tell him that, too. ‘Don’t take your foot off the gas. If you feel like you need to be harsh, be harsh. If you feel like you need to be understanding, at the end of the day you’re the coach and I’m here to take in the information that you’re willing to give.’”
Other players notice Hoke being tough on Stevenson and commend how the rookie has responded. Jaylon Johnson hasn’t seen Stevenson waver or complain, even when he was bumped back down to playing with the second-unit. Eddie Jackson praised how Stevenson locked in more and more after coming in as a shy rookie. But even as Stevenson tried to focus and attack practice, his loafs piled up over the early stages of the summer program.
“I was asking (coach Hoke), ‘How?!?’ And he was like, ‘Look!’ And I was like, ‘You want me to run all the way over there?’ Coach Flus and everybody was like, ‘No, we just want to see your initial burst. We want to see you take the right angle. And if you’re close to the ball, we want to see you finish on the ball. We want to see you finish on the right level. So everything that goes into technique and being on the right spot on the field goes into a loaf.”
When Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams first came to Chicago, they admitted the H.I.T.S. system isn’t for everyone. The acronym stands for Hustle, Intensity, Takeaways (and Taking care of the ball), and playing Smart, Situational football, and Eberflus has developed specific criteria to measure whether or not players are meeting the standard. It demands a lot of players, both physically and mentally. They’re judged on each and every rep. The grading is so tough that players who enter the 90% club– or players who manage to go through a season with a loaf on 10% of their players or fewer– are celebrated at the end of the year. Some players never get on board with the program. Some players get down on themselves. Stevenson is not one of those players. He’s used to being knocked down.
When Stevenson was little he got picked on by other kids. He wasn’t some obviously athletic talent, like most NFL players. In fact, it was the opposite.
“When it came to sports I was never the guy you needed to pick. I was the last pick.”
He loved football and wanted to play, but growing up he never got the opportunity to play a skill position like he dreamed. Coaches put him in at center or guard. When Stevenson finally got a chance to play corner during his sophomore year of high school, it didn’t go well.
“I got picked on every game… I had to change positions from corner to receiver because it was so bad.”
One thing that still sticks with Stevenson is that he was so ineffective his sophomore seasonーand he was still picked on so muchー that he was forced to change jersey numbers not once, but twice.
“There’s nothing wrong with wearing 58 or 56, but when you’re around other people in the neighborhood and you have 56 or 58 and they have 1, 2, it kinda plays its part.”
It was a rough year, so Stevenson was determined to make his junior year different.
“I was just like, ‘I’m tired of it. I’m tired of being picked on.’”
Around that time, Stevenson started to realize that he was good enough to hang with the other players on the field. After all, he was on the team. So he changed his mindset and challenged himself to really excel. Stevenson says that’s when things really turned around for him, and his new mentality became a lifestyle. Now, Stevenson doesn’t need to think about the fire inside of him, or the chip on his shoulder. They’re always there.
So when Stevenson started losing out on reps to Smith it was no big deal.
“I know if I want something on the field, I’ve got to earn it, I’ve got to be the best version of me and I’ve got to put in the work for it.”
There’s also no bad blood between Stevenson and Smith. In fact, it’s all love. The duo met at the NFL Combine, because Smith was CB30 and Stevenson was CB31, and they’ve been friends ever since.
“We already had a great relationship, so when he bumped up I was happy for him,” Stevenson said. “At the end of the day we know we’re both working, and we’ve got to come into the building and work hard to be able to earn that CB2 spot.
“I know he’s just as hungry as I am… Terell was making great plays with the twos. He was just able to bump up and split reps with me, which is obviously cool at the end of the day. I want to be able to have somebody else go out there and make sure the defense doesn’t fall apart. It doesn’t make sense to have only two corners able to go out there and play.”
Stevenson uses the competition as motivation. He sees the H.I.T.S. program as motivation too, and writes those four letters down at the top of his notebook every day. He doesn’t run from the adversity, because he knows it makes him better.
On the practice field we’ve already seen how Stevenson has taken the critiques from his loafs, internalized them, and applied the teaching points to make great plays. As he said, coaches wanted to see him finish plays better. He took that to heart and used that emphasis on finishing to intercept a Justin Fields pass intended for Chase Claypool last week. That play sparked a series of good practices with more takeaways.
To an outside observer, that first interception looked like a confidence booster, but it wasn’t. Just Stevenson taking his coaching and applying it on the field.
“My confidence is always through the roof, always at a high level because I know what type of player I am and I know what I’m capable of.”
That includes winning a starting job that won’t be handed to him. And Stevenson knows what it will take to get there.
“Prepare. Come out and dominate every chance I get. Be the best version of me. Come out and show the coaches I’m getting 1% better every day and go out there against the 1s or 2s, or special teams, whatever drill it is, just show them that I’m willing to go out there and compete.
“I feel like nothing in the world can stop me right now. So just losing a couple reps is not going to bring me down. All I know is I’ve got to go out there, prepare harder, put my foot on the gas and make sure that I earn. Nothing is ever given.”