Bears

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.

Should the Bears sign free agent running back Devonta Freeman?

Should the Bears sign free agent running back Devonta Freeman?

Former Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman remains unsigned after being released earlier this offseason following a 2019 season that totaled 14 games and a career-low 3.6 yards per carry.

Freeman, who earned back-to-back trips to the Pro Bowl in 2015-16, was at one time considered one of the NFL's top dual-threat running backs. His best season came in 2015 when he ran for 1,056 yards and 11 touchdowns while adding another 578 yards and three scores as a receiver. In 2016, he ran for a career-best 1,079 yards and 11 scores.

Injuries derailed what was a promising start to his career. He hasn't played a full 16 games in any of the last three years and in 2018, he missed 14 games with foot and groin injuries. 

Are Freeman's best days behind him? Maybe. Running backs tend to decline the closer they get to 30 years old, and at 28, Freeman is inching closer to the end of his career than its beginning. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have value for a team like the Bears, who lack any semblance of depth behind starter David Montgomery.

Chicago's running back depth chart is void of any real NFL talent behind Montgomery and Tarik Cohen, and let's face it, Cohen is more of a satellite weapon than he is a true running back.

So what's stopping the Bears from pursuing Freeman? Money.

Freeman is holding out for a reasonable payday that, apparently, involves demands beyond what the Seahawks offered in May (one-year, $4 million). The Bears, who still have in-house business to take care of, including an extension for wide receiver Allen Robinson, aren't going to offer Freeman a contract in that range. And they shouldn't. Montgomery is the unquestioned starter and that won't change even if a player like Freeman is added. As a result, he'll get a contract consistent with what's paid to a backup with starter's upside.

Remember: Freeman signed a five-year, $41.2 million extension with the Falcons in 2017, and like most players who believe they still have a lot left in the tank, he doesn't appear willing to lower his value by such an extreme amount.

Still, the market will determine Freeman's next deal. And if he's still hanging around and unsigned as training camp approaches, the Bears could find themselves in a favorable position to land an extremely talented running back at a mega-discount.

Chicago's offense will hinge on how productive the running game is in 2020. It would make sense to improve its chances of success by adding more talent. Freeman could be that guy, at the right price.

Thad Young on the challenges of being a father in a racially unjust world

Thad Young on the challenges of being a father in a racially unjust world

Before getting to Jim Boylen’s future, the anticlimactic end to the Bulls’ campaign and the NBA’s unprecedented 22-team play-in format to finish its 2019-20 season, Thad Young had to address the full context at hand for his conference call with reporters.

For Friday marked the 11th day since George Floyd, a black man, died after white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine straight minutes. The killing has sparked mass unrest, protests and fervent discourse around racial injustice and police brutality across the globe. The world also continues to grapple with the new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered the NBA on March 11, and the rest of the United States (where the virus has killed over 100,000 and counting) soon after.

“I know we’re stuck in unprecedented times where we’re in the house during COVID and then the thing that happened with George Floyd and social injustice,” Young said before fielding questions on the call. “I just want to make sure to let everybody know that I hope everybody is safe and healthy with our families, and make sure we’re holding each and every one of us close and try to get through these tough times…”

Young, 31, is currently bunkered down in his family’s new home in Texas with his wife, Shekinah, and two sons. Parsing through the realities of a racially unjust world with his sons, to hear Young tell is, has been a balancing act.

“When they come up with a question, it’s very hard to answer that question because I don’t want them to have to grow up and fear for their lives or have to grow up and understand that they can’t do the same things that other people are doing,” Young said. “That’s one of the toughest things. You want to give your kid the world. You want to get them to understand that, ‘Hey, you can do whatever you want to do.’ In these times, it’s just not the same. You can’t do everything that somebody else is doing. 

“If I’m going to be specific about it, the black kid can’t do everything that a white kid is doing. Those are things that are very, very tough to talk about. But it’s a harsh reality and we have to talk about them. My kids are still young, six and nine. They understand certain things that are going on, but not entirely everything. 

“For me as a father, that’s probably one of the toughest conversations to ever have with your kids. They all have questions because there’s so much stuff on social media and so much stuff on YouTube, which is what all the kids are watching now. When they see a video pop up with different things that happened… My youngest son, he asked the other day, ‘Why did they kill that man, Daddy?’ It’s hard for me to answer that question because you don’t want to push him into the harsh reality of what it is. But you have to answer those tough questions and you have to have those tough conversations with your kids. It’s definitely hard. What happened is definitely saddening for me but it also scares me to death because I have two young boys.”

Sadder still because the direct onus of those difficult conversations falls on black families far more than their white counterparts. It’s a testament to how ingrained racial biases (at best) and racist practices (at worst) still are, even today.

The hope of Young, Zach LaVine, who spoke on an earlier call, and countless others calling and fighting for change, is that a new dawn is on the horizon. Whether substantive change comes to fruition remains to be seen, but Young emphasized that resolution will come through unity.

“It’s so early right now just to see if there’s going to be change. One of the things that I do see is we have some unity coming,” Young said. “We have some people who are getting together. We have these protests. People are coming out and letting their voices be heard. You have a lot of celebrities and very, very influential people who are following suit. The good thing is we have a lot of people who are speaking up for change and speaking up for freedom and peace. 

“We’re bringing more and more people together. One of the biggest things is to continue to do that. Continue to let our voices be heard. Stay together. Stay unified. And also make sure we do what’s right and steer everybody away from doing what’s wrong.”

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