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Onobun growing as tight end by leaps and bounds

And that's somewhat fitting as Bears hopeful spent formative athletic years playing basketball

Dan Pompei

On the NFL

7:48 PM CDT, May 21, 2013

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You have to be cautious about what you see from a football team when buds still are on the trees and pads still are in the lockers.

But if there is one of the Bears you should know about who's mostly unknown, it's Fendi Onobun.

There is no question the tight end has been an offseason standout. And if he performs as well in training camp as he has in the offseason, he will have a significant role on the team. And he will be an offensive weapon.

That might sound like a stretch if you know of Onobun's history.

He never played a snap of football in high school or in four years at Arizona. He was quite a basketball player, however. In fact, Rivals.com ranked him the 13th small forward prospect in the country as a high school senior.

Onobun didn't play much in his four seasons and transferred to Houston to play football in his fifth college year. He caught two passes, one for a touchdown.

Still, the Rams drafted him in the sixth round of the 2010 draft. He was cut the next year, the first of four times he would be over the next two seasons.

In December, Onobun signed with the Bears, his sixth NFL team.

So why should it be any different for him with the Bears than it was the Rams, Seahawks, Redskins, Jaguars or Bills?

Onobun finally might be at the point where he isn't looking for the basket anymore.

It also helps that the Bears offer opportunity. After Martellus Bennett, the depth chart is wide open.

"My career definitely has been frustrating up to this point," Onobun said. "I really feel this is the first team I've been a part of where I've been given an opportunity to flourish at what I'm good at and hone in on it."

Quarterback Jay Cutler has been working with Onobun. He wouldn't be making that time investment if he didn't see something worthwhile.

"Jay and Josh (McCown) are helping me with little things, things that aren't natural because I didn't grow up playing the sport," Onobun said.

Onobun also believes his basketball experience can be a benefit. Other basketball players who have made the transition to tight end include Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham. Tony Gonzalez was a star basketball player in high school and a regular role player for California though it was a secondary sport for him.

"I've had an opportunity to talk with Tony and Antonio, and have picked their brains," Onobun said. "The biggest thing is to use your basketball skill set on the football field. … As far as making the reads, it's like basketball. If it's man, there's a man in front of you. If it's zone, the guy is going to be in space."

Onobun has received the most advice from Bennett, who also was a basketball teammate of his at Alief Taylor High School in Houston. In fact, Bears defensive end Cheta Ozougwu also briefly played on the Taylor basketball team with Onobu and Bennett.

On that team, the 6-foot-6 Onobun was the center and the 6-6 Bennett the small forward.

"He's one of my best friends," Onobun said. "We grew up together, us being two of the premier athletes at the school. We pushed each other. We both knew we had futures in the sports world. We stayed close together, hung out together worked out together. He was a two-sport star. I was a basketball star. It's crazy that 10 years later we are on the same team.

"The relationship helps with him being a six-year veteran. He helps me out a lot as far as understanding things, pointing out things I might not know as far as excelling at the position."

The two also played on a travel team with Packers tight end Jermichael Finley.

At 263 pounds, Onobun has exceptional measurables, even better than Bennett's and Finley's. At his pro day in 2010, he ran a 4.45 40-yard dash, had a vertical jump of 371/2 inches, a broad jump of 11-1 and ran the 20-yard shuttle in 4.15 seconds.

What's more, he has soft hands.

If there is a question on him, it is blocking. Onobun acknowledges that has been "the least natural thing" for him.

"It's a work in progress," Onobun said. "I'm a willing blocker. It's just that it hasn't been one of my strong suits. But it's definitely improving."

Onobun isn't on the Bears to block any more than Nate Robinson was on the Bulls to rebound. Onobun is on the Bears to do with Gonzalez, Gates and Graham do for their teams — catch passes.

If Onobun can catch passes in August like he has in May, he won't be known as a former basketball player anymore.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter @danpompei