Cubs

Notre Dame hoping for big things out of the backfield

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Notre Dame hoping for big things out of the backfield

Both Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix have mentioned during fall practice that they don't need to do too much, just get the ball to Notre Dame's playmakers and let them rack up the yards and points.

Last year, that strategy meant feeding Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert as much as possible. This year, Eifert's still around, but there doesn't appear to be one single wide receiver who's in a position to take over for Floyd's production.

Perhaps one will emerge, but as the Irish barrel toward their season opener against Navy Sept. 1, most of the offense's playmaking ability appears to be in the backfield.

Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III comprise a a three-headed monster at the running back position, although that doesn't mean they'll necessarily line up in the backfield on every down.

"We're going to play all of our backs," coach Brian Kelly said last week. "When we talk about all of our backs, they're playing both wide receiver, slot position, we can move them anywhere on the field as well as play the running back position."

Of the three, Wood is probably the most pigeon-holed into being a running back, although that doesn't mean he's not an adept pass-catcher -- he has 47 receptions for 359 yards in the last two seasons. But Atkinson and Riddick, especially, are able to take on more of a "hybrid" role, lining up either as a running back or receiver.

"I've seen great growth in George Atkinson," Kelly said. "We always look to George as somebody that maybe he's just a running back. Well, he's really evolved into somebody that can catch the football for us.

"We know about Theo, obviously with his stint at the wide receiver position, and Cierre has really made great strides over the past 10 days or so. They're all going to play, and it would not be a surprise if a couple of them are on the field at the same time."

Riddick came to Notre Dame as a running back, but was flipped to wide receiver after his freshman year, when Kelly's coaching staff took over in South Bend. He's caught 78 passes in the last two seasons while only rushing 25 times, but those numbers may even out for his senior year.

"It works out very well -- I have to know every position," Riddick said of his hybrid role in the offense. "I have great knowledge of the playbook and Im moving around, so you can never focus on just one position that Im playing."

Atkinson flashed his playmaking ability last year on kick returns, taking two back during his freshman season to tie a Notre Dame record. He'll remain there, but he -- along with Wood and Riddick -- have seen work with the punt return unit in fall camp.

Riddick was slated to be Notre Dame's punt returner last year, but struggled with catching the ball early on. He was eventually replaced by John Goodman for a few weeks until Kelly decided to go with Floyd in that spot.

"I wouldnt say uncomfortable, I was always comfortable," Riddick said of his punt returning woes last year. "Confidence was never a problem. But having the chance to do it again, I guess well see."

Notre Dame is hoping for more out of its punt returners, just like it's hoping for more out of its offense. And with an inexperienced quarterback leading the charge against Navy, the success of the team's running backs will take on added importance.

"Our team is so good around us, the quarterback position, we don't have to win the games, we just have to get the ball to our horses and let the playmakers do their job and just minimize mistakes," Hendrix said earlier in camp. "We moved backwards sometimes last year, and as long as we're always moving forward, never having negatives plays we're going to be a very good football team."

In latest twist to Cubs-Nationals, Dave Martinez will interview for Dusty Baker's old job

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AP

In latest twist to Cubs-Nationals, Dave Martinez will interview for Dusty Baker's old job

Dave Martinez – Joe Maddon’s bench coach during unprecedented runs of success with the Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays – is ready to step outside of the star manager’s shadow and run his own big-league team.

A Washington Nationals franchise coming off back-to-back division titles – while having some big personalities in the clubhouse and obvious internal issues – could still be that ideal opportunity.

The Nationals have reached out to set up an interview with Martinez, a source said Monday, confirming a Washington Post report in the wake of Dusty Baker’s messy exit, eight days after a massively disappointing playoff loss to the Cubs.

Martinez had been an X-factor in Washington’s search two years ago, when negotiations broke down with Bud Black and the Nationals eventually circled back to Baker, the former Cubs manager.

Martinez has the built-in credibility that comes from playing 16 seasons in the big leagues, which would be an asset for a team that has Bryce Harper entering his final season before free agency and Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the top of the rotation.    

Martinez, who is fluent in Spanish and analytics, spent the last 10 years working as the bench coach for two data-driven organizations, putting him at the cutting edge of defensive shifts, bullpen management and game-planning systems.    

While Maddon thrives in the front-facing aspects of the job, dealing with the media before and after every game and selling a vision to the public, Martinez handles a lot of the behind-the-scenes issues, putting out clubhouse fires and interacting with the players in one-on-one settings.

The partnership worked to the point where the Rays captured the 2008 American League pennant and the Cubs won last year’s World Series. While the Cubs have advanced to the National League Championship Series for three straight seasons, the Nationals have been knocked out of the first round of the playoffs four times since 2012.

In the middle of the grueling five-game playoff series where the Cubs outlasted the Nationals – which may have been a tipping point against Baker for Washington executives – Maddon lobbied for Martinez to be in the manager mix during baseball’s hiring-and-firing season.

“He belongs in the group,” Maddon said. “I know all these people being considered, and I promise you our guy matches up with every one of them.

“He was such a heady, aggressive, gritty kind of player. Bilingual. All that matters. He's not afraid to have the tough conversations (that) people in that position may shy away from.

“Believe me, I see all the names. There are a lot of good names, and I like a lot of these dudes. But I’m just telling you: To not include his name with those other people baffles me.”

Zach LaVine not sweating contract extension, anxious to get back in uniform

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USA TODAY

Zach LaVine not sweating contract extension, anxious to get back in uniform

The Zach LaVine timeline for a Bulls debut remains the same, although he’s ahead of schedule in every metric of his return from ACL surgery this past February.

It doesn’t mean he isn’t angling for more work and pushing his limits to learn the offense he’ll be featured in, along with taking contact “here and there,” in his words. He’s supposed to wait nine months from the day of his February 14 surgery before taking contact, which would put him at a November 14 practice before the Bulls go to Oklahoma City.

“I should be doing contact really soon. It all depends on them,” LaVine said in his first public words since media day several weeks ago. “I’m pushing them as hard as I can, but at the end of the day we still gotta be careful. I feel great. I’m doing everything I was doing before. I’m pretty sure I can do contact, but we’ve got to stick to that schedule. But every day I’m just getting back, trying to as close to 100 percent as I can before I come back.”

LaVine was at Air Canada Centre getting a workout in before the Bulls opener against the Raptors and has gotten in heavy workouts on the off days with the assistant coaches in the meantime.

Sticking to the schedule will be on both LaVine and the Bulls, although both sides could be tempted to cut corners a bit. It would be human nature for the Bulls to show the NBA world their centerpiece from the Jimmy Butler trade on draft night, as well as LaVine to want to be the frontline player he feels he deserves to be.

“Yeah, it’s definitely hard. I don’t like missing games,” LaVine said. “Before the injury I didn’t really miss any games. I think I missed one or two in my career, so it really sucks just sitting there, not being able to help. I try to help as much as I can from the sideline. You know, give a little advice here and there, but yeah it hurts.”

He’s also in line for a big-time extension, having passed the deadline for extensions for players in his 2014 draft class. He’ll have to wait until the summer, especially since it didn’t make sense for him to extend unless it was a max deal.

“Obviously, I want to be here for a long time,” LaVine said. “And I feel the deal is going to get done, either then or next summer. I don’t have any fear in that. I think I know I’ll be in black and red for a little bit longer. I’m very happy and looking forward to that day as well. The main concern is just getting back on the court, get my legs ready and try to help the team as much as possible until then.”

LaVine was averaging a career-high 18.9 points as a third option behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, but will be featured in Fred Hoiberg’s offense as a first and maybe even second option, too—especially seeing how anemic the Bulls offense has looked in the first two games.

“With the team that we have and the system that (Fred Hoiberg) put in, we’re going to get up a lot of threes,” LaVine said. “When we’re on we’re going to blow some teams out with those threes. When we’re off, as the last couple games have shown, it’s going to be a struggle to score sometimes, but I think that’s where I can come in and help, and I can’t wait to get out there and start playing.”

Never lacking for confidence, LaVine hasn’t been deterred by the losing or even the unfortunate Bobby Portis-Nikola Mirotic incident from last week.

“We’re building something here. People understand we’re going through a little bit of that process,” LaVine said. “But we’re going to play and win. When I’m on the court, I’m trying to win. Wins and losses do happen. We can always take positives from both of those. That’s how you grow.”

As for Mirotic, LaVine hasn’t spoken to him but has sent texts—as it seems many of the Bulls have reached out to their teammate over the last several days.

“It was unfortunate. That’s what happens when two players are battling I guess,” LaVine said. “I don’t think either of them were in the wrong. It was just something that happened, an altercation. Men are men sometimes. We never should have that happen. But I think we’ve moved past it. Bobby’s in a good spot. We’ve all tried to contact Niko. I think we’ll all be able to move forward.”