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Thursday, September 17, 2009
Updated: September 18, 5:35 PM ET
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By Melissa Isaacson
ESPNChicago.com

If one more person at Halas Hall utters the words, "No one can replace a Brian Urlacher," Hunter Hillenmeyer might develop a complex.

But it isn't likely.

Hunter Hillenmeyer
Hunter Hillenmeyer is familiar with the middle linebacker position.
If one more media member had asked Hillenmeyer this preseason about the possibility of being cut from the team that signed the fifth-rounder to its practice squad after he was waived by the Packers six years ago, he might have become nervous.

But probably not.

Hillenmeyer will start at middle linebacker in place of injured Urlacher against the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the Bears' home opener Sunday, and he admitted this week to feeling a "sense of urgency" this summer.

"I don't think I was nervous," he said. "But gosh, my brother called me after he heard about Urlacher and said 'Gosh, it's crazy. Three weeks ago, you were worried if you were going to make the team. And now you're the middle linebacker for the Bears.'"

Hillenmeyer probably did not feel the need to remind his brother that although he might not have ever been the middle linebacker for the Bears, he has started a total of 56 regular-season games, seven at middle linebacker in 2004 in place of an injured Urlacher.

"Yeah, we were 0-7," Hillenmeyer cracked of his record at the Mike position, a year in which he also started four games at strong side in the Bears' 5-11 season, Lovie Smith's first as coach.

Hillenmeyer would go on to a five-year period as the team's starting Sam linebacker, including 12 starts in 2005 and a career-high 13 in the Super Bowl season of '06. The defense was ranked at Nos. 2 and 5, respectively, in those two seasons.

But, he reminds us, he was the middle linebacker at Vanderbilt and the back-up in nickel coverage for the past five years, "which means I've played the position all those years in practice," he said. "It's not like I moved to middle this year and learned the position. I already knew [it]. So from an assignment standpoint, it shouldn't be an issue, it shouldn't be a challenge. That shouldn't be the hard part."

No, the hard part would appear to be simply making up for the void created by Urlacher, who dislocated his wrist against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday. The hard part will be staying off the field if Jay Cutler doesn't improve his aim. The hard part will be contending with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his ever-expanding pocket.

Of course, Roethlisberger was asked about Urlacher and responded accordingly.

"Whenever you lose your quarterback on defense, or lose that guy that's a Pro Bowler, probably one of the best defensive players in all of football, it's going to affect you somehow," he said. "I'm sure that whoever they have filling in is going to do a great job, but you're still going to miss Urlacher."

Thing is, no one knows for sure, even based on an energetic first half by Urlacher in Green Bay, whether he was going to be the old Urlacher this season. And despite that 0-7 stretch in '04, it is a little more encouraging to note that the Bears are 28-17 with Hillenmeyer as a starter.

Hillenmeyer also notes the Bears have made up for injuries to starters such as Tommie Harris and Mike Brown before. "So for us to use that as a crutch or to use it as an excuse after one game," Hillenmeyer said, "to lower the expectations for the defense or for this team, that's not at all where I think anybody's mindset is."

For Hillenmeyer, it's all gravy after injuries limited him last season and led to his losing his starting job to Nick Roach. Hillenmeyer shifted to backup at middle when the team signed Pisa Tinoisamoa to play the strong side.

Asked how it was that he handled this seemingly uncertain offseason so calmly, the answer was simple.

"My frustrations were last season," he said. "I was hurt and trying to play and not playing well when I was playing hurt … then going into this offseason with the hernia injury … it wasn't until training camp when I realized I could actually run again. [It was] literally about July when I started to feel right, and I had a month to get ready for the football season.

"But once I felt good out there the first week of training camp, it was actually kind of a relief because I knew that if I go out and play well … even though you guys kind of thought I wasn't going to make the team, I felt pretty comfortable about it."

Hillenmeyer said he was assured by general manager Jerry Angelo, Smith and linebackers coach Bob Babich that they were happy with the way he was playing and had "nothing to worry about."

"But what people said in the newspaper was true," Hillenmeyer said. "If you're just going to play special teams and you're not [former Bears special-teams standout] Brendon Ayanbadejo, then they might just keep somebody cheaper to do it. So that crossed my mind, even though I knew I was one of the best six linebackers, for sure. So there was a little bit of an exhale when I was told that I did make the team."

The Bears undoubtedly will miss Hillenmeyer on special teams, where he played on all four units. But naturally, no one is talking about that this week.

"You can't replace 10 years of somebody leading the team in the middle of your defense, so everybody in their own way needs to step up," Roach said of Urlacher's absence. "[But Hillenmeyer] has been in there before … and I know everybody on the defense trusts him just like they would trust Brian."

Well, at least they trust him. Sort of.

"You can't replace a Brian Urlacher," Cutler said. "You can't do it. We can't expect one guy to go in there and do what he does."

Ouch.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.