Fire

Illinois notes: Bulletin board material, Scheelhaase to start

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Illinois notes: Bulletin board material, Scheelhaase to start

CHAMPAIGN There are 22 Illinois football players who have played their first minutes for the team this year and none of them are named Ryan Nowicki. But the offensive lineman was a hot issue at Mondays press conference, however.

Nowicki's recruitment from Penn State after the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal has hardly registered for Illinois so far this season, but it has clearly riled up the Nittany Lions faithful.

Illinois head coach Tim Beckman was asked multiple times by reporters covering Penn State whether he regretted the recruitment or if he would have done things differently in hindsight. He remained committed to his actions, which were allowed by the NCAA.

We were contacted by a young man prior to anything happening and we pursued him, he said. This game was developed for opportunityI regret that this ended up being this much and is still talked about, but it did give a young man an opportunity to make a decision on what he wanted to do.

Nowickis decision to join the Illini, though, has become a hot-button issue around State College and some reporters indicated it would be a motivating factor for Penn State ahead of their game in Champaign on Saturday. Beckman was not interested in using the issue to fire up his team and dismissed it as a big motivator against the Nittany Lions.

This is our first opportunity to play in the Big 10. Our ultimate goal is play in the Big 10 Championship, he said. Im not big into bulletin board stuff, never have been, its about preparing the players and getting them excited to play.

The players, likewise, downplayed the role of bulletin board material as a motivator for their opponent.

Bulletin board can amp you up during the week, but at the end of the day, its about executing," Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. "Its about getting on the field and after the first hit, the first series, I doubt theyll be talking crap about what was going on in July. Theyll be concerned about whats going on on the field and so will we."

Other players available to the media said much the same. Illini tight end Jon Davis said he had never heard of Ryan Nowicki before the recruitment and that his transfer to Illinois was a nonfactor.

Wide receiver Ryan Lankford said he keeps all things not related to the game at arms length to keep his mind right for Saturdays.

Im not interested in the politics of the game, its not my thing," Lankford said. "Im not trying to downplay Penn State, but this is just another game."

Scheelhaase will start on Saturday

Nathan Scheelhaase is our starting quarterback, Beckman said on Monday, mixing no words.

After pulling the junior before the end of the first quarter against Louisiana Tech, the quarterback position at Illinois seemed to be up in the air. But Beckman put to rest on Monday the notion that Scheelhaase could have lost his job because of a couple bad plays in his first game back from injury, stating absolutely that the two-time bowl winner would be behind center as long as he remained healthy.

The decision to remove Scheelhaase in the La. Tech game was made by Beckman solely for the safety of his quarterback, he said.

If you watched that game, the first hit Nathan took was a big hit. He got high-lowed from both sides and I was a bit concerned, as a coach and as a guy, I hope, is like a father. I want to make sure everybody is 100 percent, he said. We havent gotten on the field to practice, so I havent seen him yet this week. But since Scheelhaase first got injured there is no question hes improved.

Scheelhaase said that he felt good on Saturday, like he had established a rhythm and was moving well. He also said that he understood the coachs decision, and while it was hard to watch from the sidelines, he was willing to do what he needed to for the team to be its best.

The junior quarterback also said he feels like he is back where he needs to be, in terms of physical fitness and has regained the mobility he might have lacked last week.

Theres been a dramatic difference in my ankles health every weekend, honestly. Yesterday, when we had our lift and run, its felt as good as its felt," said. "I was making all of my times with ease on our run, which was good to see, because I havent really had that burst of speed that early in the week."

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

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USA TODAY

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

The wait to find out which players have their options picked up or declined by the Fire might still be a couple weeks, but the first news of a player move in the Fire's offseason came via Twitter.

Defender Joao Meira announced he won't be returning to the club in 2018.

Meira signed with the Fire just before the start of the 2016 preseason after being out of contract in Europe. The Portuguese center back signed a one-year deal with a club option for the second year.

After he played 28 matches with 26 starts in 2016, the Fire picked up his option. He became even more of a fixture at center back in 2017, beating out Jonathan Campbell for the other starting spot alongside Johan Kappelhof. Meira played in 30 regular season matches and made 27 starts, finishing fourth on the team in minutes played (2,412).

That Meira won't be back isn't a major surprise for a few reasons. First, he was out of contract. He was one of two players, along with Bastian Schweinsteiger, on the Fire's roster that the team had no control over for 2018. On top of that, the 30-year-old had made it clear that he wanted to be closer to his home and family in Portugal.

Meira's departure leaves a gap at the center back position for the Fire. Kappelhof, who enters the third year of a three-year guaranteed deal in 2018, and Campbell, who will likely have his club option picked up, enter as the only healthy center backs in 2018. Christian Dean was added in August via trade, but is coming off a broken foot, an injury that has plagued him before. His status for the start of the 2018 season is unclear.

Grant Lillard, a potential homegrown signing and a senior at Indiana, could compete for time at center back next season. He is one of the top rated players in the country for the Hoosiers, which are the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While Lillard could step in from a numbers perspective and would add size to the Fire's back line (Lillard is 6-foot-4), he wouldn't be able to replace Meira's ability on the ball. Meira wasn't as effective of a defender as Kappelhof, but was arguably the best passer among the Fire's center backs and helped alleviate pressure at times.

This also opens up an international spot on the Fire's roster. The Fire went over the alloted total last season, but were able to put John Goossens and Jorge Bava on the disabled list to clear room. Meira's exit gives a bit more flexibility in that department.

Bears-Lions prediction: Will special teams continue John Fox's NFC North woes?

Bears-Lions prediction: Will special teams continue John Fox's NFC North woes?

Only three of John Fox’s 12 wins as Bears coach have been against NFC North opponents, while 12 of his 29 losses have come against divisional opponents. 

That’s a recipe for back-to-back-to-back last place finishes in the NFC North. And if the Bears can’t beat an Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers team, why could it beat a Detroit Lions team that has a healthy franchise quarterback?

The positive end of that answer is the Bears do have wins over two playoff teams (Pittsburgh and Carolina) while six of their four losses have been by eight points or fewer. Sunday’s game will probably be close, again (if it’s not, and the Bears are on the losing end of it, it would raise some significant concerns about the state of Fox within the locker room). 

So if the game is decided by one possession or less, this could be the difference: Detroit has one of the best special teams units in the NFL, ranking second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, while the Bears are 28th by the same measure. 

Getting Sherrick McManis back this week should help solidify Jeff Rodgers’ special teams units, but Jamal Agnew has two punt return scores and is averaging 18.3 yards per return. 

“Tough guy — he’ll return inside and outside,” Rodgers said. “He’s got multiple longer returns against people this year. it’s not just, ‘I had a long return in Week 2 or Week 1,’ and kinda held onto that. he’s been productive in a lot of games. certainly a guy that we’ve gotta do a good job against.”

If the Bears don’t do a good job bottling up Agnew, though, he could be the reason why the game flips to Detroit — or, at least, why the Lions keep the Bears at arm’s length. 

Prediction: Lions 24, Bears 16