Cubs

Brooks' Miranda emerges as a big-time recruit

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Brooks' Miranda emerges as a big-time recruit

You probably never have heard of Jesus Miranda. He is a place kicker at Brooks High School, a Chicago Public Leaguer. Kickers in the Public League are as plentiful as dinosaurs. Good ones, that is.

But Miranda is the real deal. The 6-foot, 140-pound junior has scholarship offers from Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin, USC, Oregon, Tennessee, Georgia, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Boston College.

Compare that list to any of the more celebrated prospects in the class of 2014 -- Marist's Nic Weishar, Plainfield South's Clifton Garrett, Bolingbrook's Parrker Westphal, De La Salle's Jamarco Jones, Crete-Monee's Nyles Morgan and Glenbard North's Justin Jackson -- and Miranda has all the credibility of Google, Apple and Yahoo.

Colleges don't offer kickers unless they look like George Blanda, Lou Groza or Jan Stenerud, the only place kickers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Miranda is so good that he earned All-Public League recognition as a sophomore despite playing in only six games.

Not bad for a kid who grew up playing soccer, wears jersey number 11 for Brazilian soccer star Neymar, has no goal posts on his practice field, converts 55-yard field goals in workouts, booted a 70-yard kickoff between the uprights during a game, likely will attend Wisconsin and dreams of being a linebacker like Brian Urlacher.

Miranda, who grew up on Chicago's Southeast Side, still would be playing soccer if Brooks football coach James Brown, desperate for a kicker and a punter, hadn't appealed to the soccer team for players to try out. Miranda, who began playing soccer when he was 4 years old, was reluctant at first. But his uncle said: "Try it. You might like it." Miranda liked it so much that he quit soccer.

"Jesus was the best soccer player at our school," Brown said. "I saw him walking in the hall. The soccer team practices on the same field as the football team. I asked all the soccer players to try out. I needed a punter and kicker. He tried out. The ball exploded off his foot. He has a highlight tape on YouTube. He kicks off into the end zone for touchbacks."

It didn't take long for Miranda to realize that football, not soccer, was his future.

"I saw I was talented. I said to myself: 'What sport could I get farther in life with?' I decided to stick with football. I came to Brooks to play soccer. But I get a bigger thrill out of kicking a field goal than making a goal in soccer." he said.

"Being a kicker is a special position. Football can get me to college. For me, it was an easy transition. 'How do you kick that ball?' my soccer teammates ask. I kick it as if I was kicking a soccer ball, inside my foot. I notice most kids kick the ball with the laces, on the top part of the shoe. But I do it inside."

It was late September and the football season was well underway when Miranda, then a sophomore, decided to join the squad. He continued to play soccer -- "it was still my main sport," he said -- but he converted seven field goals in six games, including a 47-yarder, and was named all-city. After the season, he decided to stop playing soccer.

"It was tough to give up soccer," he admitted. "I grew up with it. I learned to love it. I still see friends. They make fun of me. 'Why did you switch? Why do you like football?" they ask. Now I love football like I used to love soccer."

Nebraska was the first school to contact Miranda. On the last day of August, they asked him to fill out a questionnaire. They still are talking. But Illinois made the first offer -- by accident.

"Their special teams coach came to practice to see one of our defensive backs," Miranda said. "But he was injured. Coach Brown said to look at the kicker. He went back to Illinois and they offered three games into the season. Then all those other schools began to contact me.

"My reaction? I'm happy. And I'm shocked. When I started playing football, I thought it would be just a high school thing. I didn't know what I was capable of. Coach Brown said: 'You will be the one who takes us out of all this. We will all come out together.' It has all be pretty amazing."

Miranda, who has a 4.0 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale, said he will make some unofficial campus visits next summer. But he admits he prefers Wisconsin. "It is my dream school. I've been to some games. I went to the Big Ten championship game last year. The atmosphere is amazing. It's close to home. I would love to go there," he said.

Wisconsin also has expressed interest in Brooks quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw, another all-city selection who happens to be Miranda's holder on place kicks. "We would like to go (to Wisconsin) together," Miranda said.

As he looks ahead to his senior year and the conclusion of his recruiting process, he is eager to improve his consistency and accuracy. In the summer, he attends Kohl's kicking camp.

"I have the leg. Give me five kicks from the 50, I can make four. But I want to make five of five," he said. "And I want to stay healthy. I've had a knee injury or groin or hamstring. This year, I messed up the right knee on my kicking leg. But I still played."

He risks his health every time he tries to make tackles on kickoffs. In games, he wants to do something to help his team. In practice, teammates scoff when he tries to play linebacker on the scout team. He has had his moments but he won't paste all of them in his scrapbook. He still is waiting for his first game-winning field goal.

"Against Payton in the state playoff, the kick returner outran his blockers and I took him down. He had a 'What did you do?' look on his face," Miranda said. "Against Harper, they returned a kick 97 yards for a touchdown. I dove for him but he gave me a juke move and I was flying in the air and took out the referee instead of the runner. That was my most embarrassing moment."

With some of the nation's elite college programs knocking at his door, he has nothing to be embarrassed about.

Why did Kris Bryant get a first-place vote in this year's National League MVP balloting?

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USA TODAY

Why did Kris Bryant get a first-place vote in this year's National League MVP balloting?

Kris Bryant was the 2016 National League MVP. And despite having what could be considered an even better campaign this past season, he finished seventh in voting for the 2017 edition of the award.

The NL MVP was awarded to Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton on Thursday night, a fine choice, though it was nearly impossible to make a poor choice, that's how many fantastic players there were hitting the baseball in the NL this season.

After Stanton, Cinicinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto finished second, earning the same amount of first-place votes and losing out to Stanton by just one point. Then came Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon and Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon ahead of Bryant.

But there was someone who thought Bryant deserved to repeat as the NL MVP. Yes, Bryant earned a first-place vote — as did everyone else mentioned besides Rendon, for that matter — causing a bit of a social-media stir considering the Cubs third baseman, despite his great season, perhaps wasn't as standout a candidate as some of the other guys who finished higher in the voting.

So the person who cast that first-place vote for Bryant, MLB.com's Mark Bowman, wrote up why he felt Bryant deserved to hoist the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award for the second straight year.

"In the end, I chose Bryant because I believe he made the greatest impact, as his second-half production fueled the successful turnaround the Cubs experienced after the All-Star break," Bowman wrote.

"Though I don't believe the MVP must come from a playoff contender, in an attempt to differentiate the value provided by each of these three players (Bryant, Votto and Stanton), I chose to reward the impact made by Bryant, who produced the NL's fourth-best OPS (.968) after the All-Star break, when the Cubs distanced themselves from a sub-.500 record and produced an NL-best 49 wins."

It's easy for Cubs fans and observers to follow that logic, as the Cubs took off after the All-Star break following a disappointing first half. As good as Bryant was all season long, his second-half numbers, as Bowman pointed out, were especially great. He hit .325 with a .421 on-base percentage and a .548 slugging percentage over his final 69 games of the regular season, hitting 11 home runs, knocking out 21 doubles and driving in 35 runs during that span.

Perhaps the craziest thing about this year's MVP race and Bryant's place in it is that Bryant was just as good if not better than he was in 2016, when he was almost unanimously named the NL MVP. After slashing .292/.385/.554 with 39 homers, 102 RBIs, 35 doubles, 75 walks and 154 strikeouts in 2016, Bryant slashed .295/.409/.537 with 29 homers, 73 RBIs, 38 doubles, 95 walks and 128 strikeouts in 2017.

Of course, the competition was much steeper this time around. But Bryant was given the MVP award in 2016 playing for a 103-win Cubs team that was bursting with offensive firepower, getting great seasons from Anthony Rizzo (who finished third in 2016 NL MVP voting), as well as Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist. While the Cubs actually scored more runs this season and undoubtedly turned it on after the All-Star break on a team-wide basis, Bryant was far and away the best hitter on the team in 2017, with many other guys throughout the lineup having notably down years and/or experiencing down stretches throughout the season. Hence, making Bryant more, say it with me, valuable.

So Bowman's argument about Bryant's impact on the Cubs — a team that still scored 822 runs, won 92 games and advanced to the National League Championship Series — is a decently convincing one.

Check out Bowman's full explanation, which dives into some of Bryant's advanced stats.

HandiKapping presented by Xpressbet

HandiKapping presented by Xpressbet

In the latest edition of HandiKapping presented by Xpressbet, NBC Sports Chicago's David Kaplan makes his picks for the weekend.

Kap made his picks with the help of Eddie Olczyk this week.