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Hillenmeyer on the outside looking in?
Doesn't seem likely, but position deep and talented
By Bob LeGere | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/13/2009 12:01 AM

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BOURBONNAIS - It seems preposterous to think that linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer might be fighting for a roster spot after starting 56 games for the Bears over the past five seasons.

But linebacker is the most talented and deepest position on the club. It includes six players with NFL starts, plus rookie Marcus Freeman, a fifth-round pick. Last year just six linebackers were on the opening-day roster.

Midway through the 2008 season, Hillenmeyer, 28, suffered a fractured thumb and lost his starting job at strong-side linebacker to 24-year-old Nick Roach, who played well enough to hold the job after Hillenmeyer returned.

Then, in the off-season, the Bears picked up Pisa Tinoisamoa after he was cut by the St. Louis Rams, even though he had been their leading tackler in four of the previous six seasons.

Tinoisamoa, Roach and 25-year-old Jamar Williams are listed as tri-starters on the strong side, Hillenmeyer's best position and the spot where 49 of his NFL starts have come.

For now he's listed behind Brian Urlacher at middle linebacker, where he started seven games when the six-time Pro Bowler was hurt in 2004.

"Obviously I want to play," Hillenmeyer said. "But I think I was more upset last year when I was hurt and couldn't really play. I was so frustrated last year that relative to that I'm just trying to control what I can control now.

"So, even though I'm at Mike (middle linebacker) right now and haven't gotten to play any Sam (strongside linebacker) this camp, I'll still just do what I can do."

Hillenmeyer's best chance to start would be on the strong side, but he also could provide experienced backup there or in the middle.

"Most of the feedback I've gotten from coaches is that I've been playing pretty well, but I think you could say that for a lot of guys," Hillenmeyer said. "I feel like I'm a guy who should be starting, but a lot of other guys have the same legitimate claim.

"The coaches have some tough decisions to make, but it's a good problem to have when you've got five or six guys that are starting-quality linebackers."

It's a bad problem, though, if you're the odd man out, and it would be a surprise if Hillenmeyer wound up in that category. As recently as 2007, he was third on the Bears with a career-best 78 tackles.

But he knows as well as anyone that the NFL can stand for "Not For Long." Bears coach Lovie Smith doesn't sound like he expects Hillenmeyer to be going anywhere, though.

"(He's got a) great future," Smith said. "The depth chart does not mean a whole lot right now. We had to list someone at the Mike linebacker position. Hunter could end up being our Sam linebacker. All of those guys that are working right now with the second group have played, and we would feel comfortable with any of them starting."

But every year the "numbers game" claims some by surprise.

"The fact of the matter is that there are only so many spots on the team," Hillenmeyer said.

"The coaches have led me to believe that that's not something I need to be worried about right now, but everybody has to earn a spot every year.

"If you don't show up in training camp and don't show up in the preseason games, then you're going to have a hard time. My mentality every year is that I need to earn a roster spot, so it's no different for me this year."