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10 days, 6,000 miles, 200 players

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10 days, 6,000 miles, 200 players

Try it sometime when you have nothing better to do. Drive 6,000 miles in 10 days and interview and evaluate 200 of the best high school football players in the country. Even a side trip to Hawaii is all work, no vacation, no time for surfing or sightseeing, even a luau.

"I lost my voice over the last three days," reported recruiting analyst Tom Lemming after his most recent travel odyssey. "In all honesty, at this point, I'm sick of football. After I got back, I slept for an entire day."

Lemming has been making trips like this for 33 years. But this one was a little over the top. On three days alone, he drove over 1,000 miles. He flew to Hawaii, then drove through California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Arizona. He met 40 players in Hawaii and 100 in Los Angeles.

It completed his four-month tour of the nation, which covered every state except Alaska and North and South Dakota. If there are any college prospects in those states, Lemming hasn't heard of them. Now, after making a few short hops to New York and Ohio, he'll settle in to write his annual 300-page magazine that reveals the nation's top players.

"Hawaii is loaded with talent. It is the last frontier of college recruiting," Lemming said. "It is too far for most colleges to travel, 10 hours by flight from Chicago."

In Honolulu, Lemming met the University of Hawaii's new coach, Norm Chow, who told him: "I wish you weren't here because it brings too much attention to the state."

Lemming predicts that 20 to 30 Hawaiian products will commit to Division I schools. And he believes that Hawaii produces five or six players with All-America potential every year that most people don't know about except for a few schools on the West Coast.

The best player in Hawaii is 6-foot-3, 238-pound linebacker Isaac Savaiinaea of Punahou, the same school that produced Notre Dame star Mantei Teo and President Barack Obama. He is committed to Stanford.

Other standouts are 6-foot-3, 245-pound linebacker Kama Correa and 6-foot-4, 320-pound offensive guard Reeve Koehler of St. Louis High School in Honolulu, 6-foot-1, 300-pound nose tackle Kennedy Tulimasealii of Waiahae and 6-foot-4, 270-pound defensive tackle Scott Pagano of Moanalna.

Pagano, who benches 405 pounds, has been offered by Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State. Correa and Koehler are uncommitted but Correa's dream is to play for Notre Dame, which hasn't offered yet. All are being pursued by Pac-12 schools.

"If Pagano lived in Chicago, he'd be an All-American," Lemming said.

Another player who figures to attract more attention as the summer goes along is 6-foot-5, 2225-pound linebackertight end Danny Mattingly of Spokane, Wash. He is a second cousin of former baseball great and Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. He has been offered by Notre Dame, Oklahoma, UCLA and Nebraska.

For you travel buffs, Lemming recommends "the most beautiful drive I've ever had in the United States," a 400-mile trip from Pullman, Wash., to Boise, Idaho, along routes 95 and 55.

"It started in a snowstorm and 30 degrees and ended up in 80-degree weather," he said. "It was the prettiest drive I've ever been on, including Hawaii. I kept pulling over to look at the scenery along the way...mountains, lakes, streams, canyons, wildlife. It's amazing that it is never talked about."

Meanwhile, Lemming clarified his up-to-date evaluations of the leading prospects in what he has described as the best class of talent in the Chicago area since 1986. The headliners include running back Ty Isaac of Joliet Catholic, tackles Ethan Pocic of Lemont and Jack Keeler of Barrington, quarterbacks Aaron Bailey of Bolingbrook and Matt Alviti of Maine South and defensive tackle Ruben Dunbar of Glenbard West.

Regarding Isaac, whom Lemming rates as the No. 1 running back in the nation: "He has everything. What sets him apart from the others is he had great production as a junior. He has ideal size, speed and athletic ability. It looks like everything clicked for hi last year. No one is more all-around than him...run, block and catch."

Lemming said Bailey's commitment to Illinois "gives new coach Tim Beckman and his staff instant credibility in recruiting. He is one of the elite athletes in the country, the best all-around athlete in Illinois. When you see him on film in last year's state championship game, he looked like a precision passer in bad weather. There are a lot of question marks about his passing but he answered them in the state final. He has the ability to play quarterback, running back, wide receiver, safety and tight end. But he is a quarterback. Illinois can't go back on its word to let him play quarterback."

Lemming said Alviti's decision to commit to Northwestern "was a great choice. He looks like their quarterback of the future. He is a great precision passer. He only lacks height. If he was 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5, he would be a top 100 player. He has foot speed, smarts and arm strength to be the best quarterback ever to come out of Maine South. Northwestern told him that he would be their quarterback of the future, that they would build their offense around him."

Keller was the best offensive lineman that Lemming saw last year in the Chicago area, better than his more heralded teammate Dan Voltz, who committed to Wisconsin. "He is a legitimate 6-foot-7. He'll be a top 125 player, maybe higher," Lemming said, ranking him in the same class with Pocic and tackles Kyle Bosch of Wheaton St. Francis, Colin McGovern of Lincoln-Way West and Logan Tuley-Tillman of Peoria Manual.

Lemming said he has watched Pocic for three years and, while he rates him as perhaps the No. 2 prospect in the Chicago area behind Isaac, he admits that he isn't the dominating player he should be or will become. "He has athletic ability and can run and block downfield. But he isn't dominating yet. He is a four-plus guy right now, like Bosch, McGovern, Keeler and Tuley-Tillman. But to become a five-star player, they need to dominate on almost every play. They are much bigger and more athletic than the guys they are going against," Lemming said.

According to Lemming, Dunbar is very athletic and has great growth potential and has the highest ceiling of any defensive player in the state. "But he hasn't realized his potential yet. He has yet to play like the impact player that he should be. For 33 years, I've talked about players taking plays off, like (former Simeon and Illinois star) Martez Wilson, kids who don't play hard all the time. Simeon Rice was the same way," Lemming concluded.

How the Cubs pitching staff prepared for a three-week Summer Camp

How the Cubs pitching staff prepared for a three-week Summer Camp

As the Cactus League shuttered its doors and Cubs players scattered across the country – some headed home, others stayed in Arizona —Tommy Hottovy stepped into uncharted territory.

Hottovy has been the Cubs pitching coach since December of 2018, so he’s guided his pitchers through offseasons before. But going from ramping up in Spring Training to not knowing when Major League Baseball would return? No one had a play book for that.

“Our philosophy was be over-ready and not try to play catchup,” starting pitcher Tyler Chatwood said. “So, luckily we were able to do that.”

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Fast forward to Sunday, Day 3 of Cubs Summer Camp. By the end of the holiday weekend, four of the Cubs’ five presumptive starters had thrown at least two innings in an intrasquad scrimmage and four relievers had also gotten time on the mound.

“It’s just a testament to the work those guys put in over the process,” Hottovy said.

During the shutdown, Hottovy held regular meetings with the pitchers via video conference. They bounced ideas off each other and discussed their overall approach.

“We had so many resources between Tommy, Rossy (manager David Ross), the whole coaching staff staying in touch with us the whole time,” right-hander Kyle Hendricks said. “And then other players. So, we really did it as a group.”

Out of those conversations, Hottovy learned that many of the pitchers wanted arm strength to be a focus during the break.

“Not just pitch-count wise,” Hottovy said, “but to feel that their arm was in the right throwing shape.”

So, he incorporated that into the pitchers’ throwing programs.

Each pitchers’ program was catered to the resources and facilities he had access to, as well as his own goals. But before ramping up for Summer Camp, most of the starting pitchers were throwing one bullpen session early in the week and a simulated game later in the week. As the season got closer, they added a second bullpen.

RELATED: Why Jon Lester hasn't yet thrown live batting practice in Cubs Summer Camp

“The reason I liked getting to those two bullpens,” Hottovy said, “was because now you kind of start simulating what it’s like to be on a five-game rotation.”

By the time they entered camp, many of the starting pitchers were already throwing multiple-inning simulation games. By Day 2 of camp, the Cubs were ready for a short intrasquad game. Hendricks threw three innings, and Yu Darvish threw two.

“Both of them had actually thrown more pitches in a simulated outing prior to coming here,” Hottovy said, “but we wanted to back that off a little bit, obviously knowing that the intensity was going to go up. They’re back on the field with players behind them facing more of our lineup, more of our hitters.”

On Sunday, the Cubs stretched an intrasquad out to five-innings. Chatwood and Alec Mills started, and Dan Winkler, Duane Underwood, Rex Brothers and James Norwood all pitched in relief.

“Everything’s based off pitching,” Ross said and then laughed. “We give the pitchers a hard time all the time; the pitchers kind of dictate how long the day’s going to go because these guys have got to get their pitch counts up.”

With less than three weeks until the season opener, Hottovy’s job still doesn’t return to normal. Instead of setting a schedule based on the order of the pitching rotation, he’s “front-loading” the starters. He also is preparing some relivers to throw extended innings.

“Right now, in my mind we have seven opening day starters,” he said, “…You can’t space them out too much in my opinion just because you can’t take that chance.”

 

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Mitch Trubisky among Sports Illustrated's biggest what-ifs of the last 10 years

Mitch Trubisky among Sports Illustrated's biggest what-ifs of the last 10 years

If you're a diehard Bears fan or a fan of Mitch Trubisky, you may want to skip this one. It isn't pretty.

Sports Illustrated recently published the NFL's 10 biggest what-ifs of the last decade, and Ryan Pace's decision to draft Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson made the cut. 

Look, this isn't earth-shattering stuff. Bears fans have assimilated to life after the 2017 draft and the painful reality that Chicago had an opportunity to select either Mahomes or Watson. It's obvious that that decision changed the fate of the Bears (for the worse), while the Chiefs are defending Super Bowl champions and the Texans are poised to always be in the mix despite the blunders by the coaching staff and shell of a front office.

But this is the Bears. And they're a popular target this offseason for reasons beyond comprehension. What in the world did this team do to offend football media so hard? But I digress.

At least SI is somewhat reasonable with the way things could've played out for Mahomes and Watson had they been picked by the Bears. It's easy (and somewhat foolish) to assume their careers would've taken the same path in Chicago that it has in Kansas City and Houston. In fact, Trubisky's had the most challenging start to his career. He's the only one of the three who's on his second head coach, and if we're being honest, Allen Robinson is the only legitimate (and proven) starting-caliber receiver he's had at his disposal.

If the Bears had taken Mahomes, and still fired John Fox after his rookie year, and still hired Andy Reid protege Matt Nagy, would the team find the same level of success? If Mahomes was not given the chance to sit his rookie season behind Alex Smith and smooth out the rough patches in his game, would he emerge as the same firebrand? If Watson was a Bear, without the comically high catch radius of DeAndre Hopkins and a foundationally sound offense (Trivia Question: Who led the Bears in receiving yards in 2017? Kendall Wright with 614!), what would’ve become of him?

There are some basic facts that can't be ignored, however. Trubisky has proven to be the least talented of the three from pure quarterbacking standpoint after three years in the league. He doesn't have the natural ability to make the kind of 'wow' plays that Watson routinely does and his arm is a full tier (or more) below Mahomes'. Trubisky certainly has physical traits consistent with a quality starting quarterback, but his mental processing is way behind Mahomes and Watson at this point, and we've entered that scary territory where it's worth questioning whether he's capable of growth in that part of his game.

If the Bears picked Mahomes or Watson, they'd be better equipped to make a Super Bowl run sometime in the not-too-distant future. But they didn't. And guess what? They're still good enough to make that SuperBowl run, assuming Trubisky (or Nick Foles) plays their best football in 2020.