BOURBONNAIS — It was a play near the end of practice Tuesday when Alshon Jeffery made it clear something was different.
The Bears were in their red zone period, and Jay Cutler fired a high pass toward the back of the end zone. In another place and time, this would have been a throwaway, out of any receiver's reach.
But here and now, it was a touchdown, play of the day.
And Jeffery could not have gotten any higher if he were doing chin-ups on the crossbar.
Perhaps new heights should be the expectation for the 6-foot-3 second-round pick from last year. He is not the same player he was 12 months ago.
"That play in the end zone really speaks for his offseason," wide receiver Brandon Marshall said. "It was a really explosive offseason."
Jeffery spent six weeks of that offseason working with Marshall at Marshall's training facility, Fit Speed in Weston, Fla. Marshall said Jeffery's body fat got down to 8 percent at 215 pounds.
"He was softer last year, much softer," Marshall said. "Now he's strong. He's a beast."
Jeffery's strength and conditioning has been scrutinized because he let himself go a little when he was at South Carolina, reportedly weighing in the 230s during his final season.
"If he wasn't in shape his senior year, that's the past," Bears general manager Phil Emery said. "The Alshon I've known has taken very good care of his body. Alshon came in in tremendous shape. I thought he came in in good shape last year."
For Jeffery, it has been about more than lifting weights and overspeed training. It also been about listening and following a player who has been where he wants to go.
"He's like a sponge," said Marshall, a four-time Pro Bowler. "I say, 'Hey bro, this is how you take care of your body.' So he's eating right. Got a chef. Seeing a chiropractor. Getting massages. Studying film. Working out hard. I can't say enough about what he put in."
One play after Jeffery's end zone catch, Marshall caught a fade in the corner of the end zone over Charles Tillman.
With Jeffery's development, the Bears should get more out of big receivers than they have in decades.
Jeffery and the 6-4 Marshall should form the Bears' most dynamic big receiver combination since the 1950s, when 6-4 Jim Dooley and 6-3 Harlon Hill were causing matchup problems for defenses.
In 1954, the Bears had the No. 1-ranked passing offense in the league. That year, Hill had 1,124 receiving yards and Dooley 658.
The Bears have not had the top-ranked passing offense since. And they haven't had two big receivers capable of doing what Hill and Dooley did that year since. Until now.
After practice, quarterback Jay Cutler talked about having "some big dudes out there" to throw to. He also mentioned tight ends Martellus Bennett and Fendi Onubun, both of whom stand 6-6.
And he gave Jeffery this endorsement: "He has a different edge to him. He got a little bit stronger in the off-season. He understands football. He's not a rookie anymore. He wants to make plays for us. He knows that he's going to get some opportunities opposite B (Marshall) and with Martellus in there. He's going to get some single coverage. He had a great minicamp and (organized team activities) and training camp so far."
For Jeffery to reach his potential this year, he will need Cutler to believe in him. He has begun to convince his quarterback in part because he is getting open better.
Receivers coach Mike Groh said Jeffery has made improvements in his stance, his get-off at the line, the way he gets out of breaks, the way he drops his weight and his release at the top of his route.
"And he always has had tremendous ball skills," Groh said. "That's what makes him an elite player — his ability to judge the football and make contested plays."
Jeffery will give Marc Trestman more play-calling options than he gave Mike Tice one year ago because he can run more routes at a higher level.
"So far in practice, I see a more complete player in understanding spacing on the field and getting open versus various coverages," Emery said. "I've seen him grow his overall package of skills. He can help this offense grow, and he has shown that."
You might even say with Jeffery elevating, the offense could grow in leaps.