BOURBONNAIS – When Bears practice ended Wednesday morning, Kyle Long wanted little part of the spotlight. A flock of TV cameras charged toward him, with a wake of reporters trailing.
But the second-year guard, who has yet to practice at training camp because of a viral infection, never broke stride, and offered only a few brief thoughts on his upcoming return.
"I'm really excited to get back to work," Long said.
He finally got that chance Thursday.
After missing five full camp practices, Long has received doctor's clearance to return. He will ease back into the action, likely proceeding through conditioning work only Thursday and today at Olivet Nazarene University, then getting back into pads for the first time since December when the Bears have a Saturday night practice session at Soldier Field.
Long's return is welcome news to his fellow offensive linemen for many reasons, not the least of which is that it will quell the anxiety that the always hyperactive guard has been feeling since camp opened. Right tackle Jordan Mills, whose dorm room is next to Long's, joked that he has been able to feel Long climbing the cinder-block walls at night.
"Kyle has been very antsy," Mills said. "And out here at practice, you can see after a play how into it he is, and how badly he wants to be on the field. You'll notice him just walking around and pacing."
Long's return to practice should provide a needed catalyst to his development, a big deal for an eager learner who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2013, but has been candid in admitting just how little he understood.
Bears coach Marc Trestman, meanwhile, stresses just how important practice reps will be to Long to stay sharp.
"It's first step, it's hand-placement, it's eyes," Trestman said. "It's every day. It's over and over again – the repetition. And every player needs that, from the [Roberto] Garzas to the Kyle Longs. We have to get him out here and get him working again."
Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer continue touting the exponential growth Long has made over the past year. And that upward arc has been obvious to the veterans on the line.
"He now has the anticipation of what's about to happen," left guard Matt Slauson said.
That wasn't the case in 2013, when Long started all 16 games but required constant oversight. Slauson admits there was an extraordinary amount of communication directed Long's way to keep him on the same page. And Long himself has conceded that the complexity of everything so baffled him at times that he would implore Mills to take care of his own assignment so that he himself could just go knock the, um, daylights out of a defender.
"But then Kyle started getting it and getting it," Slauson said. "The last four games of the year, he was on it. And then he picked up this spring right where he left off.
"We were a little concerned with how much he would retain from Year 1 to Year 2 into the spring. But it was amazing. Kyle came back sharp. And mentally right now, he seems like a 3- or 4-year veteran. Sometimes for young guys, there's so much stuff coming, it starts to get all jumbled around. And you wait for it to click. With Kyle, it's clicked."
Mills, who has been on a similar learning curve, believes he and Long are both much more comfortable with their recognition of assignments and advanced insight into the offense.
"We can take all that now," Mills said, "do it effectively, and still go hit the hell out of somebody."
The next step for both is utilizing that heightened understanding without letting impatience creep in.
"When we get impatient, it's knowing what's going to happen and what to do, but then we get anxious and fail to let it come to us," Mills said. "You force it too quick. And then you see veterans like [Jermon] Bushrod, Slauson and Garza, they know what's coming. But they're patient enough to let it happen."
Long's patience has been tested in a different way this past week. On Thursday, he was let out of his cage.
"Kyle is ready," Slauson said. "He needs to hit someone. Soon."