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Tyrique Stevenson had just completed one of the biggest defensive plays of practice Tuesday morning at Halas Hall. The cornerback jumped in front of quarterback Justin Fields’ deep shot to Darnell Mooney down the left sideline to snare an interception.
When Stevenson returned to the sideline, cornerback Terell Smith was waiting to offer congratulations, and the pair walked back to their spots wearing wide smiles.
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The first two weeks of training camp have put Stevenson and Smith in an interesting position — rookies trying to help each other adjust to the NFL while also competing for a starting spot alongside outside cornerback Jaylon Johnson and nickel Kyler Gordon.
“Rookies, I’m not sure they know any better,” defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. “It’s, ‘Hey, Coach said do this, so I’m going to do this.’
“They embrace it. They look after each other. They are good teammates. … Not one iota of, ‘Hey, I should be in here,’ or, ’Why is this?’ They are just fine.”
The Bears doubled down on their need for a cornerback in this year’s draft. They liked Stevenson, a Miami product, enough that they traded up to draft him at No. 56 in the second round, then took Smith out of Minnesota 109 picks later in the fifth round.
Given his draft position, Stevenson seems like the obvious front-runner for the starting position. But coach Matt Eberflus said Smith has made enough plays with the backups that the Bears also want to give him first-team reps.
So Stevenson and Smith have been splitting time with the first team. Smith sat out practice Tuesday with an undisclosed injury, and it remains to be seen if that will affect the competition. In the first depth chart released Tuesday, the Bears listed Johnson and Gordon as the starting cornerbacks and Stevenson and Smith as the backups, though they’ll play with three on the field more often than not.
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“It’s a competition until the end,” Stevenson said last week. “For opportunities, it really doesn’t matter where you got drafted. He comes in every day with his head down willing to work just as I am. … Every day we come in, we smile at each other. We also know that we’re both working for the same position.”
Smith said it “doesn’t feel weird” for the pair to be in competition, noting they often talk about what they see on the field and what they need to work on. He has been struck by “how much of a competitor” Stevenson is.
“His willingness to go out there and compete and win on the field,” Smith said.
Both said building their knowledge base has been one of the most difficult parts of the transition from college.
Smith tries to stay on top of the installs, taking a lot of notes that he studies each night and again in the morning before going out to the field. Stevenson does nighttime film study on his iPad in his hotel room.
“(I need to tighten up) my understanding of what comes with certain players and what comes with certain down-and-distances and stuff,” Stevenson said. “Basically just understanding what type of player I’m going against. Chase Claypool is totally different than DJ Moore.
“I don’t want to say I struggle with it, but having that mental capacity to be able to switch in and out instead of going out there like I’m in college and just playing everybody the same way.”
While Stevenson has made impressive plays like the leaping interception Tuesday, he also has taken his lumps, including giving up plays to Moore and Claypool. But his teammates, including Eddie Jackson and Johnson, have talked up his ability to keep a consistent confidence and energetic attitude.
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Stevenson, who keeps journals to help process his thoughts, revisit motivational quotes and lay out his goals, said bringing that energy as a good teammate is one of his major goals for this season. Being on top of his game and contributing to a winning defense are other goals that could lead to another big dream: “Defensive rookie of the year.”
Eberflus wants Stevenson “just to keep working on his craft.”
“He’s got long levers, and that’s enabled him to really do a good job on the line of scrimmage,” Eberflus said. “It also enables him to do a good job at the catch point because he can work that. He’s got really good poise at that catch point.
“A lot of times rookies get to the point of no return where the ball’s there and they’re there, and a lot of times they panic and grab. … He doesn’t have that. He’s very poised.”
As for Smith, before he sat out Tuesday, he thought he had shown coaches “everything they’ve been asking for so far. Physicality, zone coverage, man coverage. I feel like I’m checking all the boxes.”
Eberflus said Smith has been “really solid.”
“He’s learning the position,” Eberflus said. “He’s got a lot of good, long speed to him. He’s got good size. He’s smart. He knows what to do and how to do it.”
Both players said they’ve been getting tough coaching from new cornerbacks coach Jon Hoke as they find their footing as professionals.
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“He wants us to be detailed in everything we do,” Smith said.
“He’s definitely tough on me,” Stevenson said. “I wouldn’t want it no other way, to be honest. I want it hard so when hard times come, it will be easy.”
It’s all part of Stevenson’s appreciation for everything that comes with his first few months as an NFL rookie — the ups and downs, the tough coaching and the competition.
“Every day is a ‘wow’ moment for me,” Stevenson said. “Every day I sit at my locker or I grab my helmet before practice, it’s always a ‘wow’ moment because it’s been a long 13, 14 years I’ve been dreaming of being in the NFL. And now I’m a Chicago Bear. Every day is a blessing to me.”