Bears News: Hightower on Taylor possibly doing kickoffs, Odunze potentially as returner

Bears News: Hightower on Taylor possibly doing kickoffs, Odunze potentially as returner

by - Correspondent -

CHICAGO — It is not very often that one draft addresses all three phases of the game. But that is exactly what Chicago did, as their draft included punter Tory Taylor, whom they drafted with the No. 122 overall pick.

Taylor possesses the rare combination of elite talent and elite character.

“First of all, his character, high character person, really good teammate, just an outstanding person, obviously an outstanding talent as well,” special teams coordinator Richard Hightower said. “But, he’s a really, really, really good teammate, and the most important thing to Tory is winning, and that’s very evident when you talk to him. He just wants to win. No nonsense, and he wants to win, and he wants to do his part to help the team win. So, those are some things that stood out in the initial process.”

Taylor kicked 295 punts in his four years with the University of Iowa, 93 of those coming in his final season, when he averaged 48.2 yards per punt, which led the Big Ten. His 46.3 yards per punt career average is also the first in Big Ten history since 2000.

The All-American punter also officially signed his four-year, $4,767,900 contract with Chicago, making him the second member of the Bears’ draft class to sign their rookie contract.

“It’s rare, the strength in his leg and then the touch that he has,” Hightower said. “Yesterday, we worked open-field punting, and he’s as good as advertised. Did a nice job (Friday, May 10), looked comfortable.”

Hightower seems open to the possibility of Taylor doing kickoffs as well. If he does, he will be impacted by the NFL’s new kickoff rule which is designed to keep the kickoff in the game while also keeping the players safe.

As special teams coordinator, it is something Hightower is working to learn, a process that Chicago continued during their rookie minicamp.

“We’re all learning. It’s new for everyone. So, it’s been (a really) good opportunity to work on that and work through some of that, which we’ve done with the veterans,” Hightower said. “It’s a little bit more limited in phase two as … you can’t go against each other and we’re working it here in the camp … with the rookies.”

One player Hightower feels will greatly benefit from this rule change is wide receiver Velus Jones who has also served as a punt and kick returner during his first two seasons with the Bears. Jones has struggled during his time in the NFL although he was No. 8 in the league last season in kickoff returns with 16. During the 2022 NFL Combine, Jones recorded a 4.31 40-yard dash time, showing just how fast of a player he is.

Unfortunately, that speed has not been put to good use in the NFL thus far, but Hightower believes with this rule change, that could change.

“When you talk about the new rules and what is the purpose and what is the emphasis of the new rules, it’s to bring more returns into the game. So, how it pertains to our team, you can only think about a guy like Velus Jones, (is) a great example,” Hightower said. “A guy like that with his type of skill set with the speed and the power that he has and he’s coming full speed ahead at you, it’s like a damn freight train running at you, and he’s going to get an opportunity to touch the ball three or four more times a game and we all know he’s a very dynamic player with the ball in his hand. But this new rule, because of the landing zone, because of the league incentivizing returns, it’s only going to have a really good effect for not only our whole return team, but for a guy like that to really change the game.”

Jones will have competition for the kickoff returner job, including from wide receiver Rome Odunze, the No. 9 overall draft selection. Odunze has very minimal time on special teams in college, although he did return a punt 83 yards for a touchdown in Washington’s victory against California in a game where he also had two receiving touchdowns. He is an incredibly dynamic player and has expressed that he always wants the ball in his hands.

Hightower is open to giving him the ball on special teams.

“I think Rome is (an) every-down player. So, Rome’s a first down player, a second down player, a third down player, and a fourth down player,” Hightower said. “He had three returns that are on the books, and one out of those three returns was a house call. So, we all love that ratio, and we all love what he can do as a receiver … He’s a dynamic player … He’s a really good person, hard worker.”

Chicago fans may get an opportunity to see Jones, Odunze, and other players on kick return against the Houston Texans in Chicago’s first preseason game in the Hall of Fame game on Thursday, Aug. 1 (7 p.m./ABC) before the Bears take the field for their first official game in their season and home opener against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, Sept. 8 (Noon / FOX).

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