Bears

Who's best in 3A? Peoria or Lanphier?

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Who's best in 3A? Peoria or Lanphier?

While Chicagoans are anxious to see a SimeonProviso East match-up for the Class 4A championship, downstaters are eager to see a Peoria CentralSpringfield Lanphier duel for the Class 3A title.

The two teams have history. Lanphier defeated Peoria Central 59-45 on Nov. 25 in the semifinals of the Decatur Turkey Tournament. On Feb. 17, Peoria Central defeated Lanphier 70-59.

Of course, they have to survive Friday's semifinals. Springfield Lanphier (28-3) meets North Chicago (24-6) and high scoring Aaron Simpson while Peoria Central (26-3) faces Hillcrest (26-5).

Lincoln coach Neil Alexander, who lost to Lanphier twice, said he doesn't think Lanphier can win the state title because it doesn't shoot well and lacks size. "But they are as quick as any team I've seen in a long time," he said.

Peoria Central has plenty of size and experience. In his eighth year, coach Dan Ruffin has five seniors who are seeking the fifth state title in school history, the first since Chuck Buescher's Shaun Livingston-led teams won in 2003 and 2004.

"We have a great combination of size and quickness," said Ruffin, whose team dispatched Rockford East 77-59 in Tuesday's supersectional. "Being a guy who went to school here (Peoria Central graduate of 1976) and played here and coached my whole career here, this is a continuation of what I did as a player--play hard, play fair and represent the school in the best fashion. We don't change things that work."

Ruffin has more size than Peoria Central has ever had with 6-foot-10 senior Kevin Jordan (13 ppg, 7 rpg), 6-foot-7 senior Trey Kellum (15 ppg, 8 rpg) and 6-foot-5 senior Aldonis Foote (10 ppg). But the Lions' floor leader is 5-foot-6 senior point guard Jerrell White (5 ppg, 6 assists). And they get outside shooting from 6-foot-4 senior Shamar Hill (12 ppg).

If that isn't enough muscle, Ruffin also can call on 6-foot-5, 275-pound football star Josh Augusta.

"With its size and athleticism, this team has the potential to be the best team we've ever had," Ruffin said. "But its basketball know-how and IQ isn't has high as some of our other teams. We've been playing pretty good.
What I need to see is a continuation of execution. Then we'll have a great chance of success."

Peoria Central has managed to negotiate a very difficult path to the state finals. After losing to archrival Peoria Manual in the final game of the regular season, Peoria Central defeated Peoria Richwoods 75-62 for the regional title, then edged highly rated Washington 56-53 in overtime for the sectional crown. Earlier, Washington had eliminated Peoria Manual in a four-overtime thriller.

Springfield Lanphier, which won its only state title in 1983 but has been forced to settle for second-place finishes in 1977, 1985 and 2002, has come a long way since coach Chuck Shanklin's first team went 11-13 four years ago. A Springfield Southeast graduate of 1986, Shanklin has proven to skeptics and critics that the Lanphier administration made the right choice.

"I was the heir apparent at Southeast but Tim Goers, Steve Goers' son, got the job. I was taken aback by the chance to get the job at Lanphier,"said Shanklin, who a year ago was fighting for his job. "How was it going to go over with the Lanphier community? I wasn't sure they would accept me, even though I was from Springfield. I thought there would be a backlash coming from Southeast.

"Sure, there has been some backlash but winning cures a lot of ills. Outside of Chicago, Lanphier is a mecca of basketball. You won't go to many gyms that have as much tradition. There is a certain brand of success that we have to uphold. We've talked about it since day one. We've been able to bring back some lustre.

"I knew I had to have one group of kids who believed in me and my mission. If I had a group like that, we could do something special. This is that group. This group understands. It has a high basketball IQ. We have played a lot of good teams that were bigger than us and we have been able to hold our own."

What is Lanphier's edge? Quickness. "Everybody talks about how quick and fast we are. And they talk about our defense and athleticism. I'm not concerned with our lack of size. Our quickness has overcome our lack of size. We also make up for it with heart and our relentless play on defense and on the glass. I'm not surprised we are having a good season. The surprise is how good of a season we are having."

Last year's 17-11 team that lost to Morton by two in the regional final suffered from personal problems and lack of cohesion. The Lions played in four championship games and won only one. By contrast, this year's team has learned to play against good teams in tough environments.

Lanphier is led by 6-foot-1 sophomore Larry Austin Jr. (11 ppg, 4 assists), a promising point guard prospect who already has scholarship offers from Illinois, DePaul, Bradley and Memphis; 6-foot-1 senior Everett Clemons (21 ppg, 6 rpg), an All-State selection who is the son of former Springfield Calvary star Rennie Clemons; 5-foot-8 senior guard T.J. Davis (11 ppg); 6-foot-7 sophomore Chris Wallace; and 6-foot-3 senior A.J. Powers. Top reserves are 5-foot-8 senior guard Jaylen Briggity (10 ppg) and 6-foot-4 senior Lance Boozer (6 rpg).

"People keep comparing us to the old Peoria Manual state championship teams of the late 1990s with their defense and quickness and relentlessness," Shanklin said. "Are we that good? We'll see."

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 grade: D+

For these purposes, “management” encompasses the coaching staff and front office. We don’t need a lengthy re-litigation of the failures of the John Fox era, so briefly: The offense was unimaginative, predictable and unsuccessful; there were too many head-scratching coaching decisions, punctuated by that backfiring challenge flag against Green Bay; the defense was solid but not spectacular; special teams had plenty of highs (three touchdowns) and lows (Marcus Cooper’s gaffe against Pittsburgh, Connor Barth’s missed field goal against Detroit). Fox didn’t win enough games to justify a fourth year, even if he left the Bears in a better place than he found them back in 2015. But that 5-11 record drags the management grade down. 

But the larger thing we’re going to focus on here is the hits and misses for Ryan Pace in the 2017 league year. The hits: 

-- Drafting Mitchell Trubisky. Will this be a long-term success? That’s another question. But Pace hitched his future in Chicago to a quarterback last April. For a franchise that hasn’t had a “franchise” quarterback in ages, what more can you ask for? If Trubisky pans out, nobody should care that Pace traded up one spot -- effectively losing a third-round pick for his conviction in his guy -- to make the move. 

-- Moving quickly to hire Matt Nagy. As with Trubisky, Pace identified his guy and made sure he got him. The Bears hired Nagy just two days after the Kansas City Chiefs’ season ended with that playoff collapse against the Tennessee Titans, and with the Indianapolis Colts -- who eventually got burned by Josh McDaniels -- sniffing around Nagy, Pace made his move to hire a young, energetic, offensive-minded coach to pair with Trubisky. It’s tough to argue with any of the coaching hires made by Nagy, who had a head start on the competition: He retained defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and that entire defensive staff, kept Dave Ragone to be Trubisky’s quarterbacks coach and hired Mark Helfrich to bring some different concepts as offensive coordinator, and hired a special teams coach in Chris Tabor who must’ve been doing something right to survive seven years and a bunch of coaching changes in Cleveland. Like with Trubisky, it’s too early to say if Nagy will or won’t work out long-term, but it stands out that Pace had conviction in getting a franchise quarterback and a head coach who will make or break his tenure in Chicago. 

-- Drafting Tarik Cohen and Eddie Jackson in the fourth round. In Cohen, the Bears found an offensive spark (who was nonetheless under-utilized) who also was a key contributor on special teams. In Jackson, the Bears added a plug-and-play 16-game starter at safety who looks to have some upside after a solid rookie year. Both picks here were a triumph for the Bears’ amateur scouting department: Cohen wasn’t on everyone’s radar (special teams coach Chris Tabor, who previously was with the Browns, said Cohen’s name never came across his desk in Cleveland), while Jackson was coming off a broken leg that prematurely ended a solid career at Alabama. These were assuredly two hits. 

-- Signing Akiem Hicks to a four-year contract extension. The Bears rewarded Hicks a day before the season began; Hicks rewarded them with a Pro Bowl-caliber season (despite him only being a fourth alternate) and was the best player on the team in 2017. 

-- Signing Charles Leno to a four-year contract extension. Leno may not be an elite tackle, and still has some things to clean up in his game, but he’s 26 and his four-year, $37 million contract is the 14th-largest among left tackles (for what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Leno as the 20th best left tackle in the NFL). The Bears believe Leno is still improving, and could turn that contract into a bargain in the future. But this is important to note, too: Players notice when a team rewards one of its own, especially when that guy is a well-respected former seventh-round draft pick. 

-- Signing Mark Sanchez to a one-year deal. This wasn’t a miss, certainly, and while it’s not much of a “hit,” Sanchez was exactly what the Bears wanted: A veteran mentor to Trubisky. While Sanchez was inactive for all 16 games, he and the No. 2 overall pick struck up a good relationship that makes him a candidate to return in 2018 as a true backup. 

-- Releasing Josh Sitton when he did. Whether or not the Bears offensive line is better off in 2018 is a different question, but file cutting Sitton on Feb. 20 -- when the team had until mid-March to make a decision on him -- as one of those things that gets noticed by players around the league. 

-- Announcing the expansion to Halas Hall. The plan has Pace’s fingerprints on it, and should help make the Bears a more attractive destination to free agents in 2018 and beyond. 

And now, for the misses:

-- Signing Mike Glennon. That completely bombed out. While the Bears weren’t hurting for cap space a year ago, and Glennon’s contract essentially was a one-year prove-it deal, his play was so poor that he was benched after only four games -- when the initial plan was for him to start the entire season to give Trubisky time to develop. The wheels came off for Glennon on his seventh pass in Week 2, when after completing his first six he threw the ball right to Tampa Bay’s Kwon Alexander for an interception from which he never seemed to recover. He’ll be cut sometime soon. 

-- Signing Markus Wheaton. After signing a two-year, $11 million deal in the spring, Wheaton struggled to stay healthy, with an appendectomy and finger injury limiting him in training camp and the early part of the season, and then a groin injury knocking out a few weeks in the middle of the season. When Wheaton was healthy, he was ineffective, catching only three of his 17 targets. That places him with eight other players since 1992 who’ve been targeted at least 15 times and and caught fewer than 20 percent of their targets. He’s another one of Pace’s 2017 free agent signings who’s likely to be cut. 

-- Signing Marcus Cooper. The Bears thought they were signing an ascending player who picked off four passes in 2016 and would be a better scheme fit in Chicago than he was in Arizona. Instead, Cooper was a liability when he was on the field and didn’t live up to his three-year, $16 million contract (with $8 million guaranteed). Dropping the ball before he got in the end zone Week 3 against Pittsburgh was a lowlight. The Bears can net $4.5 million in cap savings if he’s cut, per Spotrac. 

-- Signing Dion Sims. Sims isn’t as likely to be cut as Glennon and Wheaton, and even Cooper, but his poor production in the passing game (15 catches, 29 targets, 180 yards, one touchdown) puts a spotlight on how the Bears evaluate how he was as a run blocker in 2017. If that grade was high, the Bears could justify keeping him and not garnering a little more than $5.5 million in cap savings. If it was low, and the Bears are confident in Adam Shaheen’s ability to improve, then Sims could be cut as well. 

-- Signing Quintin Demps. The loss here was mitigated by the strong play of Adrian Amos, but Demps didn’t make much of an impact on the field before his Week 3 injury besides getting plowed over by Falcons tight end Austin Hooper in Week 1. He’d be a decent guy to have back as a reserve given his veteran leadership -- he was a captain in 2017 -- but given how well Amos and Eddie Jackson worked together last year, he’s unlikely to get his starting spot back in 2018. 

-- The wide receiver position as a whole. Kendall Wright led the Bears in receptions and yards, but his numbers would’ve looked a lot better had he been surrounded by better players. The cupboard was bare at this position, and after the worst-case scenario happened -- Cameron Meredith tearing his ACL in August, and Kevin White breaking his collarbone in Week 1 -- the Bears were left with an overmatched and underperforming group of receivers. For Trubisky’s sake, Pace has to work to make sure 2018 isn’t a repeat of 2017. 

-- The kicker position as a whole. Since we’re focusing solely on Pace’s 2017 moves, the decision to release Robbie Gould and replace him with Connor Barth doesn’t fall into this grade. But Barth had struggled with consistency prior to this season, and Roberto Aguayo didn’t provide much competition in his short-lived stint in training camp. The Bears eventually released Barth after he missed a game-tying kick against Detroit in November, then replaced him with a guy in Cairo Santos who was coming off an injury and, as it turned out, wasn’t completely healthy yet. So the Bears then had to move on from Santos and sign Mike Nugent to get them through the rest of the season. Better consistency from this position will be important to find in 2018. 

A couple moves fall into the neither hits nor misses category:

-- Drafting Adam Shaheen. Tight ends rarely make a significant impact as rookies, but Shaheen was only targeted 14 times last year. He did catch three touchdowns and flash some good chemistry with Trubisky before suffering an injury against Cincinnati that wound up ending his season. The gains he makes with a year of experience under his belt and during his first full offseason as a pro will be critical in determining his success in Year 2, and whether or not taking him 45th overall was a hit or a miss. 

-- Signing Prince Amukamara. This was neither good nor bad, with Amukamara playing solidly in coverage but not making enough plays on the ball and committing a few too many penalties. 

Pace still has decisions to make on a few other potential cuts, including right tackle Bobby Massie ($5.584 million cap savings per Spotrac) and linebackers Willie Young ($4.5 million cap savings) and Pernell McPhee ($7.075 million cap savings). Whether or not to place the franchise tag on Kyle Fuller and potentially pay him $15 million in 2018 is another call Pace has to make before the official end of the 2017 league year. 

But for Pace, did the hits out-weigh the misses in 2017? The Glennon signing imploded, but Trubisky showed signs of promise during an average season for a rookie quarterback. Cooper was a bust, but Fuller emerged as a potential long-term option to cover for that. The most glaring misses, then, were at wide receiver and tight end where, after injuries sapped those units of Cameron Meredith and Zach Miller, there weren’t reliable targets for Trubisky. 

We’ll probably need more time to determine if Pace’s “hits” on Trubisky and Nagy truly are “hits.” But if they are, the misses of 2017 -- Glennon, Wheaton, Cooper, etc. -- will be nothing more than amusing footnotes to a successful era of Bears football.
 

Under Center Podcast: What should the Bears do at guard and cornerback?

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USA TODAY

Under Center Podcast: What should the Bears do at guard and cornerback?

With the Bears releasing Josh Sitton and having the option to franchise Kyle Fuller, JJ Stankevitz and John “Moon” Mullin look at two of the first big decisions for Ryan Pace’s offseason plan.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.