LAKE FOREST – Trestan Ebner has a homework assignment every week.
The Bears’ rookie running back has served as the team’s primary kick returner during each of the first three games this season. Ebner’s assignment is to scout the opposing kicker for any tendencies on kickoff and report back during special teams meetings.
“When he’s angled like this, does he normally kick it there?” Ebner said. “Does he put the ball on this hash? So you’re not in the game guessing.”
Ebner said that kicker Cairo Santos plays a big part in the weekly project as well. Santos, a veteran kicker, knows what to look for from other kickers. It’s a team effort under special teams coordinator Richard Hightower.
“We do hit charts and all that stuff on how far a guy kicks the ball, how much hang time he has with the ball,” Hightower said. “[Ebner’s] job is to study the kickers. He has a report on that. The kickers also report on that, to let the specialists know. So there’s a part in there, I guess you would call it homework assignments.”
Entering Week 4, Ebner led the NFL with nine kickoff returns and 198 kick return yards. His average of 22 yards per return ranks eighth-best in the NFL through the first three weeks. His season long return was 30 yards, achieved twice – once against the 49ers in Week 1 and once against the Packers in Week 2.
Under general manager Ryan Poles, the Bears put an emphasis on special teams during last spring’s draft. Poles drafted two rookies with significant return experience. Third-round draft pick Velus Jones Jr. was the co-SEC special teams player of the year as a return man for Tennessee, while Ebner – a sixth-round pick – was the Big 12 special teams player of the year for Baylor.
The Bears have options when it comes to the return game. Both Ebner and Jones returned kicks during the preseason. Jones had an electric 48-yard punt return in a preseason game at Seattle. Jones, however, appeared in only one preseason game and a nagging hamstring injury has kept him sidelined through three games. Jones is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game due to the injury, but he did practice on Friday.
Despite ranking in the top 10 in the league in yards per kick return, Ebner is hard on himself and his coaches have been demanding, particularly this week after he failed to record a return of more than 20 yards against Houston.
“I know he can utilize his speed better, set up the returns a little bit better, and he knows that,” head coach Matt Eberflus said Friday. “He’s going to get that done here coming up.”
Ebner said his goal is to consistently run past the 30-yard line. One of the first people he goes to after a return has been Jones. The two rookies learn from one another.
“I’m proud of him,” Jones said. “That’s a huge job because little do people know – they only see offense and defense – but special teams is a big factor when it comes to winning. It’s a game of inches and field advantage is everything. I’m proud of him, just telling him to continue to run hard and hold it down.”
Starting running back David Montgomery is dealing with an ankle injury and has already been ruled out for Sunday’s game. With Montgomery out, Ebner is likely to be the second running back on the depth chart. He saw his first significant action on offense last week after Montgomery left the game. Ebner totaled 23 yards on seven carries.
He will likely have more touches on offense this week, too.
“Even now, the game speed is a little faster than preseason for me,” Ebner said. “It’s just making that adjustment and I feel good about going into this week.”