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Willie Young’s challenge? Coming back from injury and to a new position

Bears defensive ends Lamarr Houston (99) and Willie Young (97) leave the field after a workout this week.

Bears defensive ends Lamarr Houston (99) and Willie Young (97) leave the field after a workout this week.

(Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
Chicago Tribune

It has been nearly eight months since Willie Young went down in a heap, the Achilles tendon in his left foot ruptured and his breakout season punctuated with the sourest of endings.

“Last season’s mishap,” Young calls it now with a shrug.

And after months of patience-testing rehabilitation, the sixth-year veteran is finally back at practice at Bears training camp, eager to get himself right again.

The Achilles, Young insists, feels great. It’s his conditioning that now needs the most work.

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“I’m not completely out of shape,” he said. “But it’s a different routine conditioning on your own and (getting into) football shape.”

The Bears coaches and medical staff have a plan to ease Young back into things, a take-it-slow approach that will allow him to gain confidence and stamina as he continues to strengthen his left leg. Yet in the background of Young’s comeback story is a ticking clock, a finite time period for him to prove he should remain a Bear.

By Sept. 1, the Bears will have to trim their roster to 75 players. Four days after that they will have to finalize a 53-man group.

With most front office and coaching staff overhauls, big-name cuts often follow. So for Young, last year’s 10-sack emergence as a defensive end suddenly seems greatly diminished by his season-ending injury, the ensuing rehab and, oh yeah, a system-shocking conversion to outside linebacker, a position for which he may not be suited.

Welcome back, Willie, to the choppy waters of training camp.

“I’m ready for whatever, man,” Young insisted. “Sometimes I go fishing and the forecast says it ain’t going to rain. But guess what, it might rain. So I have a 100 mph Bass Pro Shop dry suit right in the drop storage hatch. And I can easily walk to the front of my boat, pull it out and put it on and you’re ready for the occasion.”

Being ready for the occasion over the next month will require a lot of Young, who indicated Friday that he’s not yet back to 90 percent physically. On top of that, the move to outside linebacker in Vic Fangio’s new 3-4 system has been ultra-demanding.

“I don’t know anything about playing linebacker,” Young said. “So obviously I study day in and day out now. There’s never a day off.”

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On Saturday, the Bears will have their first practice of the year in pads with coach John Fox eager to measure his players’ toughness and tenacity. Young, however, almost certainly will be held out of most if not all contact drills until further notice.

For Fox, players coming back off of major injuries must clear several mental hurdles before they take on heightened physical challenges.

“You try to get them off training wheels and get back to riding the bike without those training wheels,” Fox said. “It’s a fine line how you do that.”

This new Bears regime believes strongly in the support staff it has put together to aid their players’ health. Over the offseason, general manager Ryan Pace hired a new strength and conditioning coach in Jason George, a new trainer in Nate Breske and added sports science coordinator Jenn Gibson to the mix.

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“It’s all tied together,” Pace said. “I like the communication and cohesiveness with our strength and conditioning coach, our athletic trainer and then our sports science director. I think that all has to be communicated. It’s not just the surgery, it’s the rehab, the nutrition that can help the rehab. It’s the recovery methods. And it’s us being patient with the recovery process.”

Young, however, may not have time on his side to complement his patience. It’s not a stretch to think he could be auditioning for work elsewhere soon.

“I’m not worried about all that, man,” Young said. “I came in as a seventh-round draft pick, and I started from the bottom. So ain’t nowhere for me to go but up. At this point I’m not concerning myself with what might happen or what could happen. I have too much ahead of me.”

dwiederer@tribpub.com

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Twitter @danwiederer


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