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Schrock: Caleb Williams' bumpy practice no reason to panic, shows reason for long-term optimism

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Caleb Williams kept scanning the field Thursday during the final practice of the Bears’ first week of OTAs and finding limited open space. At least, not the kind of open space he’s used to seeing. When the rookie quarterback did eventually rip it, the ball, more often than not, clanged to the ground, leading to a chorus of trash talk from the Bears’ vaunted secondary.

Williams struggled Thursday. It’s also a voluntary practice in May against a defense that was one of the better units in the NFL to end last season.

There should be no reason for panic.

The defense is supposed to be miles ahead of an offense learning a new system with a rookie quarterback.

“I mean, we had a good day. I’m not going to sit here and lie about that,” veteran safety Kevin Byard said after practice. “But to be honest, it’s to be expected. You have a returning top-15, top-10 defense, obviously going against a younger rookie quarterback who’s getting acclimated and learning things, that’s what it is supposed to look like.”

Expectations are sky-high for Williams.

Many thought he would parachute into the NFL and surgically dissect defenses like he did at Oklahoma and USC.

But there is always a learning curve for rookie quarterbacks in the NFL.

The game is faster. The windows are smaller. Couple that with the fact that Williams is working to digest and retain a new offense while trying to build chemistry with his receivers, and it’s easy to see that there will be numerous days like Thursday.

There’s another reason not to panic. In fact, it should provide some long-term optimism as Williams prepares to launch.

He’ll spend the next four months facing a defense with proven veteran players every day in practice. There will be no off days. No easy throws. The learning moments will come fast and furious, and he will be better off in the long run.

The Bears’ defense is an ascending unit that carried the team during the second half of last season. It has a secondary that features a star cornerback in Jaylon Johnson and fast-improving young players in slot corner Kyler Gordon, safety Jaquan Brisker, and cornerback Tyrique Stevenson.

It’s a unit that has heard the talk about the new-look offense all offseason and is itching to make a statement every day in practice.

Prior to Williams’ arrival, much of the talk revolved around the situation he was landing in with the Bears. That talk centered around the wide receiving corps and offensive coordinator Shane Waldron.

But the Bears’ defense might end up being the most essential part of the infrastructure they have built around Williams. Facing a defense with sticky corners, fast safeties, and a long, rangy linebacker in Tremaine Edmunds should perfectly prepare Williams for what he will face on Sundays.

Instead of picking apart the 30th-ranked pass defense every day in practice, Williams will be thrown into a cauldron every day — one that should help forge him into the star quarterback his talent suggests he will one day become.

The Bears’ defense understands its role in sharpening Williams for the bright lights.

“Make it as hard on him as possible,” Byard said. “Going out there showing some swag, talking trash, doing all that stuff because, at the end of the day, he’s going to have to lead us there. That’s kind of how it’s gonna be.

“I said something to him at the end of practice: Keep going, we’re gonna keep making you better. Not necessarily saying that he had a terrible day, but like days like this are gonna make you better. So that’s our job.”

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There’s no point in hand-wringing over a bad practice in May.

There is unquestioned belief in Williams inside Halas Hall. The Bears are seeing daily progress as he continues to learn the offense.

For the Bears, the rest of the spring and summer are about ensuring Williams continues to grow at a reasonable rate while finding a way to help him remain patient with the growing pains that are natural for a rookie quarterback in the NFL.

Thursday at Halas Hall was a typical early offseason practice for a rookie quarterback against a near-elite NFL defense.

Those days should pay dividends when the games start to matter.

Don’t mind the bumps. Things will get smooth for Williams in time.

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