When last the Bears installed the Tampa-2 style 4-3 defense, they relied on a middle linebacker who played for a collegiate non-football power but was such a good athlete he had been used as a defensive back and return man.
This, of course, was Pro Football Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher from New Mexico.
Fast forward to the present and coach Matt Eberflus has brought back the Tampa-2 style, although in a bit different form than back in Lovie Smith's Bears run.
His middle linebacker will be another all-around athlete who was used as a defensive back at a non-football power. In fact, he was such an all-around athlete they let him carry the ball three times on offense for two touchdowns as a senior and he was used as a receiver. He was a bit less successful at it than Urlacher, who had six TD catches in his final college season. And he also returned the ball, again, not quite as successfully as Urlacher, who averaged 15.1 yards on 13 punt returns. But he did average more returning kicks than Urlacher, at 16.8 yards a pop.
Nicholas Morrow didn't exactly play against college competition like Urlacher at New Mexico, facing teams like Eureka, St. Scholastica and MacMurray for Greenville University, but they did score two big wins in his final season over Crown and Martin Luther.
The classical Chicago Bears defensive position of middle linebacker is entrusted this year to a player from a Division III school who was the longest of shots as an undrafted Raiders free agent in 2017, but continues to play with enough speed, versatility and ferocity to have caught the eye of Bears GM Ryan Poles.
This is no accomplished NFL free agent, as Morrow didn't play last year due to an ankle injury, after signing a one-year, $4.5 million deal with the Raiders. So the Bears got him for a year at $3 million and have a middle linebacker with safety speed who didn't become a starter until 2019 and has 29 career starts.
So, did the Bears actually know what they were doing by counting on Morrow to team with weak side backer Roquan Smith?
Eberflus was a former linebacker and linebacker coach and he has longtime friend and linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi on staff, so they should.
"I would say we have some of the fastest linebackers in the NFL, and that's how I want them to play," Borgonzi said.
Morrow has recognized the change in football over the years and it plays to his strengths in the open field.
"It's a big thing in the league right now, right? You see all these receivers running at the combine," Morrow said. "Obviously, you see their speed on the field in the division that I was in, with Kansas City and the speed they had, and obviously with the Broncos and Chargers.
"So to counteract that, you've got to be able to run and it helps when you can do certain pattern matches, right? When you've got receivers crossing the field, you've got to be able to pick them up."
Being interchangable with the weak side helps, too, and Morrow has played all three linebacker spots in this style of defense with the Raiders.
In fact this could also be one of his drawbacks as starter in the middle because 27 of his 29 starts came at weak side or strong side, according to official NFL game day stat books. However, he did play multiple positions in games when he started at weak or strong side.
"Many times you have a bigger type (middle) and a more athletic (weak side), that's typically the mode that you have," Eberflus said. "But if you can have guys that can both play spots, I think it's important."
The Bears have a 6-foot, 225-pound middle linebacker who has never made more than 78 tackles in a season but has broken up 20 passes in his career.
Morrow is anything but the prototypical middle linebacker like Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary or Bill George, and lacks the great size/speed combo Urlacher had, but has the speed to be well-suited for the new age of football.
The game has changed drastically and at least at this position the Bears are moving forward with it by using a Division III player from a tiny school with extreme athletic ability.
Nicholas Morrow at a Glance
The Vitals: Sixth year (fifth season), 6-foot, 225 pounds.
Career: 254 tackles, 185 solo, two forced fumbles, two interceptions, four sacks, one fumble recovery.
2021: Did not play due to ankle injury.
The Number: 2. Morrow has made 29 career starts but only two came at middle linebacker.
2022 FanNation Projection: 75 tackles, four for loss, two sacks, seven pass breakups, one interception, two forced fumbles, two recoveries.