Bears

Romeoville's Bailey opens some eyes

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Romeoville's Bailey opens some eyes

He was referred to as "the other Bailey" until he staged a spectacular coming-out party at the Proving Ground combine for underclassmen prior to the first Semper Fidelis All-American Football Classic last week in Phoenix, Arizona. Now everybody who is anybody in the recruiting business knows about Caleb Bailey.

Before the 6-foot-2, 207-pound linebacker from Romeoville showed up in Phoenix, he was confused with the more celebrated Bailey in town, Bolingbrook's Aaron Bailey, who quarterbacked his team to the Class 8A championship in November. Caleb was looking for exposure and an opportunity to build his reputation.

It didn't take long before Tom Lemming of CBS Sports Network and every other recruiting analyst and every college recruiter was asking: "Who is that guy?"

"He looked very good at the combine. He showed good speed and instincts, definitely Big 10 ability. He will be a rising star," Lemming said. "There were 300 kids at the combine and Bailey was one of the most impressive of all. Toledo already has offered a scholarship. But that's only the beginning. He'll get Big 10 offers, too."

How impressive was Bailey? Even though he tweaked a hamstring while working out in preparation for the combine and wasn't able to show off his 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash trials, he demonstrated enough talent and potential to earn one of only 15 invitations to next year's Semper Fidelis all-star game.

"I feel good about myself now," Bailey said. "I definitely felt going in (to the combine) that I had to do a good job, hurt or not. If you do well, I said to myself, you'll get invited back to play in the bowl game as a senior. That was one of my goals and I achieved that.

"My next goal? Just to get better in any way possible, improving my grades, getting recruited by major Division I schools. I see other players around the area, guys who have bigger reputations than me at this point, guys like (Joliet Catholic's) Ty Isaac and (Bolingbrook's) Aaron Bailey, and I want to be recognized like they are."

Bailey started behind the proverbial eight ball. "He never played football until his freshman hear. And he was nobody going into his junior year because of an injury as a sophomore. He had surgery for a ruptured testicle and played only one game on the varsity. So he was off the charts coming into last season," said Romeoville coach Jeff Kuna.

Born and raised in southern California, Bailey and his family moved to Harrisburg, Illinois, when he was seven-years-old, then moved to Romeoville before his freshman year. He was a three-sport athlete until he realized that football was his calling. He didn't get serious about the game until last season.

"He is probably the best pure linebacker I have coached in 17 years," Kuna said. "His change of direction is so good. He plays in a ready position at all times. He is one guy that nobody can juke out in the open field. He has great quickness and balance. He comes off the edge so well. No offensive tackle or running back can handle him."

Bailey had a good-but-not-great junior season. Playing for a 3-6 team that finished seventh among eight schools in the Southwest Prairie Conference, he was credited with 66 tackles, 25 tackles for loss and seven sacks. He was his team's defensive MVP and was an all-conference selection.

In his view, however, that wasn't good enough.

"I wanted people to know me. I worked hard for my junior year. I was all-conference. But I wanted more than that," he said. "I wanted to be All-Area and All-State. I kept up with other people's statistics to try to beat them. A lot of people didn't know about me."

Bailey was invited to attend Tom Lemming's banquet in December. After talking to Lemming, he was invited to the Proving Ground combine. Knowing it would be a showcase event that would give me enormous exposure to college recruiters, he began training as if it was an NFL combine.

"I was making sure I could do as well as I could. I wanted to do everything at the combine," he said. "One of the biggest parts of my game is speed. But I tweaked my hamstring working out in the 40 and didn't get timed at the combine because I didn't want to risk running slower than 4.5.

"So I concentrated on being more physical and doing as well as I could and trying to impress people in the linebacker and one-on-one drills. People said I did a good job. I felt I opened some eyes. Under the circumstances, I felt I became more of a top player. Obviously, if I hadn't done well, I wouldn't have been invited to play in the Semper Fidelis game."

The recruiting process has only begun for Bailey. Toledo offered after coach Tim Beckman left for Illinois. He has taken an unofficial visit to Vanderbilt. Northern Illinois is interested. But Lemming predicts Bailey's performance at the combine will trigger more interest from more big-time programs, including Big 10 schools.

"My dream school is USC," Bailey said. "Ever since I can remember, I always heard about USC when I was growing up, the way they built the program, how (coach) Pete Carroll was a legend. I like the aura of USC...Reggie Bush and the linebackers who played my position, Clay Matthews and Brian Cushing. I hope I get a chance to consider them."

Just like he had a game plan for the Proving Ground combine, Bailey has a game plan as he prepares for the 2012 season. He works out and lifts weights at more than one facility during the week and on weekends. His goal is to get bigger and stronger and more explosive while maintaining his 4.5 speed. He hopes to weight 215 to 220 pounds as a senior and wants to improve his bench-press from 245 to 300 pounds and his squat from 465 pounds to 515.

"This year is my coming-out year. Before, I wasn't out there like some of the other players like Ty Isaac and Aaron Bailey," he said. "When recruiting starts, I want to attract recruiters from the great schools, the recognized schools that have winning traditions."

Collecting some final thoughts on if Tarik Cohen isn't getting enough snaps for the Bears

Collecting some final thoughts on if Tarik Cohen isn't getting enough snaps for the Bears

John Fox on Friday sought to clarify some comments he made earlier in the week about Tarik Cohen that seemed to follow some spurious logic. Here’s what Fox said on Wednesday when asked if he’d like to see Cohen be more involved in the offensive game plan:

“You’re looking at one game,” Fox said, referencing Cohen only playing 13 of 60 snaps against the Green Bay Packers. “Sometimes the defense dictates who gets the ball. I think from a running standpoint it was a game where we didn’t run the ball very effectively. I think we only ran it 17 times. I believe Jordan Howard, being the fifth leading rusher in the league, probably commanded most of that. I think he had 15 carries. 

“It’s a situation where we’d like to get him more touches, but it just didn’t materialize that well on that day. But I’d remind people that he’s pretty high up there in both punt returns, he’s our leading receiver with 29 catches, so it’s not like we don’t know who he is.”

There were some clear holes to poke in that line of reasoning, since the question wasn’t about Cohen’s touches, but his snap count. Cohen creates matchup problems when he’s on the field for opposing defenses, who can be caught having to double-team him (thus leaving a player uncovered, i.e. Kendall Wright) or matching up a linebacker against him (a positive for the Bears). The ball doesn’t have to be thrown Cohen’s way for his impact to be made, especially if he’s on the field at the same time as Howard. 

“They don’t know who’s getting the ball, really, and they don’t know how to defend it properly,” Howard said. “… It definitely can dictate matchups.”

There are certain scenarios in which the Bears don’t feel comfortable having Cohen on the field, like in third-and-long and two-minute drills, where Benny Cunningham’s veteran experience and pass protection skills are valued. It may be harder to create a mismatch or draw a double team with Cohen against a nickel package. It's easier to justify leaving a 5-foot-6 running back on the sidelines in those situations. 

But if the Bears need Cohen to be their best playmaker, as offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said last month, they need to find a way for him to be on the field more than a shade over one in every five plays. As Fox explained it on Friday, though, it’s more about finding the right spots for Cohen, not allowing opposing defenses to dictate when he’s on the field. 

“We have Tarik Cohen out there, we're talking about touches, not play time, we're talking about touches so if they double or triple cover him odds are the ball is not going to him, in fact we'd probably prefer it didn’t,” Fox said. “So what I meant by dictating where the ball goes, that's more related to touches than it is play time. I just want to make sure I clarify that. So it's not so much that they dictate personnel to you. Now if it's in a nickel defense they have a certain package they run that may create a bad matchup for you, that might dictate what personnel group you have out there not just as it relates to Tarik Cohen but to your offense in general. You don't want to create a bad matchup for your own team. I hope that makes sense.”

There’s another wrinkle here, though, that should be addressed: Loggains said this week that defenses rarely stick to the tendencies they show on film when Cohen is on the field. That’s not only a problem for Cohen, but it’s a problem for Mitchell Trubisky, who hasn’t always had success against defensive looks he hasn’t seen on film before. And if the Bears are trying to minimize the curveballs Trubisky sees, not having Cohen on the field for a high volume of plays would be one way to solve that. 

This is also where the Bears’ lack of offensive weapons factors in. Darren Sproles, who Cohen will inexorably be linked to, didn’t play much as a rookie — but that was on a San Diego Chargers team that had LaDanian Tomlinson, Keenan McCardell and Antonio Gates putting up big numbers. There were other options on that team; the Bears have a productive Howard and a possibly-emerging Dontrelle Inman, but not much else. 

So as long as Cohen receives only a handful of snaps on a team with a paucity of playmakers, this will continue to be a topic of discussion. Though if you’re looking more at the future of the franchise instead of the short-term payoffs, that we’re having a discussion about a fourth-round pick not being used enough is a good thing. 

Are Blackhawks starting to find their early season form again?

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USA TODAY

Are Blackhawks starting to find their early season form again?

The goals came in bunches for the Blackhawks in their Oct. 5 season opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins. For the Blackhawks, it was a nice memory, albeit one that seems far away given they went from scoring at will through their first two games to not being able to buy a goal for a sizeable stretch.

As for the Penguins, well, you figure their memoires of that game means they’ll be more than a little ticked off when the Blackhawks arrive on Saturday night.

“We’ve been on the wrong side of a few losses like that,” Patrick Sharp said. “You certainly remember them more than other losses.”

This is kind of/sort of about the Penguins, who in the first meeting were clearly tired not only from two Stanley Cup runs but also from their season opener/banner raising the prior night. But it’s more about the Blackhawks who, after a lengthy scoring drought, are starting to get their offense going again (15 goals in their last three games).

And while they’d like to shore up their defense – they blew a 4-1 lead vs. New Jersey and just about did it again vs. the New York Rangers – overall they’re trending in the right direction. And just as they face the team against whom they played their best game of the season.

“I’m sure [the Penguins] will be excited about playing us and making things better. They’re playing well, winning some games. For [us], we’re looking for more consistency in our game with the puck and we’re generating some offense,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “I still think it has some ways to improve. That was one night, whether it was the quality of the plays we made or [what], we seemed like we had the puck a lot and did some good things with it. We haven’t seen much of that lately so I think that maybe we can recapture a little bit of that with the puck as well.”

In the past three games the Blackhawks haven’t just reignited their offense, they’ve regained their confidence. Their lines are finding some chemistry. As frustrating as their scoring drought was, they’re hoping it’s behind them.

“At some point in the season I feel like every team goes through it, either in the beginning, the middle or toward the end. You just don’t want to have it right at the end of the season,” Ryan Hartman said. “You can look at it in in a positive way. Hopefully we got that part over with and now we’re just coming in confident and hopefully we put the puck in the net.”

The Blackhawks got off to a hot goal-scoring start against the Penguins by doing the right things: shooting, pouncing on rebounds, getting traffic in front of the net and capitalizing. As they head into their 20th game of the season, the Blackhawks are finally getting back to what worked so well in Game 1.

“Things dried up for a bit but I think we have a good rotation going here with the lines; the chemistry’s starting to fill in a little bit. Some guys are stepping up. [Artem] Anisimov had a big night and Brinsky’s [Alex DeBrincat] playing great. It’s good to see those guys step up. It makes you want to be that next guy who’s called up to step up in the next game,” Patrick Kane said. “It’s good to see some goals go into the net. More important, it’s good to see some wins. But we’re playing the right way and hopefully this will trend in the right direction for us.”