- Jeff Dickerson, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- With Brian Urlacher sidelined the last six practices, and excused the last two days for personal reasons, sixth-year linebacker Nick Roach is expected to start in Urlacher's place in the middle of the Bears' defense when the club faces the Denver Broncos Thursday night in preseason action.
"I would rather Brian do it," Roach said Tuesday. "I think most people would prefer that. But I feel more comfortable now than I ever have doing that kind of work. But like everybody else, I'm hoping and praying that he's healthy enough to be able to come back. I want to play next to him, not in front of him, put it that way."
Roach is no stranger to middle linebacker. Although 42 of his career 45 starts have been at strongside linebacker, Roach played three games in the middle in 2009 when Urlacher spent the majority of the year on injured reserve. That season, Roach posted career highs in tackles (82), sacks (2.0), tackles for a loss (10) and passes defended (4).
"Nick is so much better at middle linebacker [than he was in 2009]," Bears linebackers coach Bob Babich said. "He spent all of last season with the No. 2's and practiced at nickel middle linebacker. If something would have happened to Brian last season he would of been the starter at middle linebacker. We've been preparing him for a couple of years now in that position. His communication skills are much better. He's comfortable and has done a great job. He's a good athlete. Nick has been a good football player for us for a long time. We have an awful lot of confidence in Nick."
According to Roach, simply being around Urlacher the past few years has aided his ability to make the transition from strong side to middle linebacker when called upon.
"I'm feeling good, more than just because I was able to play on the field in 2009, but because I've been able to watch Brian on the field last few years then get the reps in practice," Roach said. "It's a little bit of a safer environment [in practice] to be able to make the mistakes and get better, so that's really helped my comfort level."
One particular area the soft-spoken Roach needed to work on was the way he commanded the huddle and called out checks on the field, both important middle linebacker skills.
"In terms of volume in the huddle, it's just about making sure that everybody gets the call," Roach said. "Whether it's calling it at the right time to make sure everybody has time to adjust, or just the simple fact that everybody can hear it. That's a big part of the job when you are playing in the middle."
"In the huddle the volume isn't a problem," Babich added. "Once they break the huddle and come out in an offensive formation, he's got some things where he needs to use some bass in his voice to get communicated to the rest of the defense. That's an important part of being the middle linebacker."
Babich recalled a situation earlier in camp during which the defense got the call late when Roach was in the middle.
"That happened to Nick earlier in training camp but it was partially my fault because he was looking to me to see if we were doing that check in that practice," Babich said. "He kind of made the check late and the ball was snapped and not everybody got it. That's a problem when not everybody is on the same page. But Nick will be fine and is doing nothing but getting better."
Free-agent pickup Geno Hayes is expected to replace Roach at first-team strong side linebacker versus the Broncos, while second-year linebacker Dom DeCicco is scheduled to receive plenty of reps at the middle linebacker spot when Roach exits the game with the rest of the starters.
With Brian Urlacher sidelined, Nick Roach should be a suitable replacement Thursday.