Longshot receiver Cameron Meredith catching Bears' attention
As a quarterback, Cameron Meredith could barely get on the field at Illinois State.
But as an undrafted rookie wide receiver, he's already making a splash in the NFL. He caught 3 passes for 36 yards in his NFL debut during the Bears' Week Two loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
After one redshirt year at ISU followed by two years of not playing quarterback for the Redbirds, Meredith was receptive to the proposal of a position change.
The move was the brainchild of ISU head coach Brock Spack, who felt Meredith's skills were being underutilized. So he brought it up at a staff meeting during the bye week before the 2012 playoffs.
"I said, 'Fellas, one of our best athletes stands next to me every Saturday as a backup quarterback holding a clipboard,' " Spack recalled. "I called Cam in and said, 'Don't you want to play?' He said, 'Yes.' I asked him, 'Would you play receiver?' He said, 'Yeah, I might do that,' so I said, 'Lets try it.' "
Spack had kidded Meredith about playing wide receiver in the past, but this time he was serious.
"I went out there and just ran like eight go balls and caught them all," Meredith said. "When he asked me to do it again the next day, I was like, 'Yeah, this is probably what I'm going to be doing for the rest of college.' "
The odds of a player in an FCS program making it to the NFL after just two seasons at a new position are astronomical, and it took a while for Meredith's pass-catching career to take off. As a junior he posted moderate numbers -- 21 catches, 370 yards and 5 touchdowns.
But as a senior, the 6-foot-3, 207-pound product of St. Joseph's High School in Westchester caught 66 passes for 1,061 yards and 9 touchdowns to attract some NFL attention.
"The first half of '14 you could see him getting better, but the last half of '14 he just took off," Spack said. "He was what we thought he could be, and he got better and better and better.
"He thought he could be a dropback passer and throw it all over the field. But now he's at the other end, catching them, and he's playing for his hometown team. I don't know how life could be any better, at least as an athlete."
Because Meredith is so new as a wide receiver, Spack sees better things ahead.
"I think he'll be a better pro than he was as a college player because he's got so much upside," the ISU coach said. "The intricate details of the position he still hasn't learned."
After an impressive tryout got him signed by the Bears, Meredith made the most of unexpected opportunities. When first-round wide receiver Kevin White was unable to practice during the early-summer OTAs and all throughout training camp because of stress fractures in his left shin, Meredith got additional chances to make an impression.
When a calf injury kept Pro Bowl wide receiver Alshon Jeffery out of the entire preseason, Meredith got still more opportunities. And with Jeffery out last week with a hamstring injury, Meredith got his first taste of the NFL.
"Cam was a guy that we liked when we first evaluated him in the local area tryout," coach John Fox said. "He just continued to grow and improve."
Meredith was second on the Bears with 86 receiving yards in the preseason, and he tied for second with 9 catches.
"When we got into (preseason) games, then he started really showing up," Gase said. "That made us feel like, 'It's not too big for him.' It's almost like he played better when the situation was bigger for him."
Meredith's first regular-season reception came late in the third quarter with the Bears already trailing 42-23. It was a milestone, but not nearly enough to satisfy Meredith, who isn't deluding himself into thinking he's arrived.
"Nah, nah, I can't think like that," he said, shaking his head. "I'm just glad to still be here. I've only been in the league four months, it's crazy. It's a long way to go. I'm far from arriving. I'm not Brandon Marshall by any means or Alshon. I have to keep going out there and getting better."
That's already happening according to Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase.
"He's made strides, even in the last couple weeks, and now the confidence is growing," Gase said. "Making a catch last week, he looked smooth doing it, and it was tight coverage. He's really showing us that on Sundays he's not intimidated by the whole NFL scene. It's just like he's out there playing because he knows he belongs out there."
With Jeffery out again this week and the next two wide receivers on the depth chart -- Eddie Royal and Marquess Wilson -- playing hurt, more opportunities could come Meredith's way.
"I want to try to become one of the top guys in the league," he said. "This is only the beginning."
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