Cubs

All of a sudden, Keeler makes it big

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All of a sudden, Keeler makes it big

When you've visited a half-dozen college campuses, weighed all of your options and finally decided to make a commitment, effectively putting an end to the grueling recruiting process, you can afford to relax, take a weekend off and go fishing.

Which is exactly what Barrington's Jack Keeler did. There he was, catching a Northern pike on a lake in Barrington Hills. "Fishing is like a hobby. I go three times a week...bass, pike, bluegill," he said.

After all, he didn't much care for the recruiting process. "I didn't want to wait to make my decision. I wanted to get done with recruiting. What didn't I like about it? All the worrying over what will happen next," he said.

So the 6-foot-7, 290-pound offensive tackle was elated and relieved when, after visiting six other schools, he made a trip to Wisconsin and came home a Badger.

"My family went to Wisconsin. The academics are fantastic. I like the guys on the team and the coaches. They offered me while I was visiting. The whole deal was fantastic. I had visited six other schools and nothing else measured up. I could see me at Nebraska, but Wisconsin was my favorite."

Keeler was influenced by Barrington teammate Dan Voltz, a senior offensive tackle who also is committed to Wisconsin. "I talked to him before I committed. He helped me out and reassured me that I was making the right decision," he said.

When it came down to it, he chose Wisconsin over Nebraska. When it comes down to it, Keeler and Voltz might be battling for a starting job on Wisconsin's offensive line. Curiously, Voltz was well known after his junior season. Keeler was not. But he has made the most of what exposure he has been able to get, landing 19 offers.

"I went to a Barrington game last year," said recruiting analyst Tom Lemming of CBS Sports Network. "I went to see Dan Voltz, who I had rated as one of the top 100 players in the nation. But the kid who was most impressive was Keeler."

"He has blown up all of a sudden," Barrington coach Joe Sanchez said. "He is a legitimate 6-foot-7, 290-pound tackle with great athleticism and flexibility. He has room to mature and develop. College coaches see that he has a great upside."

Sanchez didn't know much about Keeler when he transferred from Cary-Grove to Barrington after his freshman year. Sure, with his frame and size, he had potential. But he needed to get acclimated to his new environment. It took some time. He wasn't promoted to the varsity as a sophomore and didn't start right away as a junior.

"Then the light bulb went on," Sanchez said. "All of a sudden, everything came together for him. He displayed his potential to play at a high level. You never know when the light bulb will go on for a kid. But he had success and got confidence."

Keeler said he finally figured it out. "I just figured out I was the biggest guy on the field and that I can take down anyone. It kind of clicked. I'm a big guy who can stay low and finish well. I have good hands and a good attitude," he said.

It took time for college coaches to assess Keeler's talent and come to the conclusion that he is a major Division I prospect. But offers from Illinois, Miami, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee, Wisconsin, West Virginia and others proved he was a keeper. He wasn't the most highly rated or the most publicized player in what has been characterized as one of the richest crops of offensive linemen ever produced in Illinois. But he could be the best.

"It was a pleasant surprise. I didn't think it would be that big," said Keeler, referring to all the recruiting hoopla. "Nebraska was the first Big Ten school to offer, at the end of February. From then on, it started to snowball. I knew I was the real deal."

But he thinks he can be even better. He didn't make all-conference last year. So he is highly motivated to earn all-conference, all-area and all-state recognition in 2012. With that in mind, he has begun five-times-a-week Crossfit workouts at a new strength and conditioning facility in Barrington.

"I'm upgrading all of my skills, trying to be a better football player," he said. "I say to myself: 'You are a great football player but you have room to get better.' My goal for next season is to have the best season of all."

Which means he might have less time to go fishing.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Jon Lester struggles against the division-rival Cardinals

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Jon Lester struggles against the division-rival Cardinals

It was a tough day for the North Siders.

The Cubs got obliterated by the Cardinals as Matt Carpenter had a three-homer, two-double day. Ben Finfer, Seth Gruen and Maggie Hendricks join David Kaplan on the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast to talk about the blowout.

Was Jon Lester due for this kind of terrible outing? And do the Cubs have enough to swing a big trade before the deadline?

Plus, the panel discusses Matt Nagy’s first training camp practice in the rain and Roquan Smith’s absence in Bourbonnais.

You can listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Could Bears improve and still lose ground? The MMQB's Albert Breer weighs in on tough NFC North

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USA TODAY

Could Bears improve and still lose ground? The MMQB's Albert Breer weighs in on tough NFC North

NBC Sports Chicago’s John "Moon" Mullin talked with The MMQB's Albert Breer, who shared his thoughts on where the Bears stand — and if they’ll be able to compete — in a highly competitive NFC North.

Moon: The Bears have made upgrades, but they’re in the NFC North and not many divisions are tougher, given the strength at quarterbacks.

Breer: Yes. You look at the other three teams, and they all very much believe they’re in a window for winning a championship. The Packers are going through some changes, but they’ve gotten Mike Pettine in there as defensive coordinator and a new general manager who was aggressive on draft day. I know that internally they feel that’s going to give them a boost, and bringing Aaron Rodgers back obviously is the biggest thing of all.

Minnesota, all the things they did this offseason, signing (quarterback) Kirk Cousins, (defensive lineman) Sheldon Richardson, and they were knocking on the door last year.

The Lions have been building for two years under (general manager) Bob Quinn and (new coach) Matt Patricia, who lines right up with the general manager — the two of them worked together in New England. They really believe that Matthew Stafford is ready to take the sort of jump that Matt Ryan made in Atlanta a few years ago, where you see that mid-career breakthrough from a quarterback that we see sometimes now.

It’s one of the toughest divisions in football, and every team in the division believes that it’s in the position to contend right now.

Moon: We didn’t see a lot of Mitch Trubisky — 12 games — so it sounds possible that the Bears could improve and still lose ground.

Breer: The Lions were pretty good last year. The Vikings were in the NFC Championship game. And who knows where the Packers would’ve been if Rodgers hadn’t broken his collarbone. The biggest change is that Aaron Rodgers will be back, and that’s the best player in the league. It was a really good division last year, and you’re adding back in a Hall of Fame quarterback.

As far as the Bears, there’s going to be questions where the organization is going. It’s been seven years since they were in the playoffs. I think they certainly got the coach hire right. This is a guy who I know other organizations liked quite a bit and was going to be a head coach sooner or later.

And I think he matches up well with Mitch. I think the Bears are in a good spot, but as you said, they’re competing in a difficult environment, so it may not show up in their record.

Moon: A lot of love for the Vikings after they get to the NFC Championship and then add Kirk Cousins.

Breer: A lot of people look at Minnesota and think Kirk Cousins’ll be a huge improvement. And maybe he will be. I think he’s a very good quarterback, top dozen in the league. But Case Keenum played really, really well last year, so it wasn’t like they weren’t getting anything out of that position last year.

The NFC right now is clearly the strength of the league. If you picked the top 10 teams in the league, you could make a case that seven or eight of them are in the NFC. I think there will be NFC teams that miss the playoffs who could be in the Super Bowl coming out of the AFC. There’s a little bit of an imbalance there.

Moon: Trubisky projects as part of a wave of new quarterbacks league-wide, a sea change in the NFL.

Breer: The interesting thing is that this is probably as stable as the league has been at quarterback in a long time. There’ve been questions where the next great quarterbacks will come from, but I don’t know that there’s a team right now in the NFL like you looked at the Jets or Browns last year, where you say that team is definitely drafting a quarterback in 2019.

Everyone either has a big-money veteran or former first-round pick on their roster. One team that doesn’t is the Cowboys, but they’ve got Dak Prescott who’s played really well. Every team in the league has some stability at the position. I think the position is as healthy as it’s been in a long time, and you’ve got a lot of good young prospects.