Blackhawks

Alviti looks ahead to 2012 season

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Alviti looks ahead to 2012 season

Maine South quarterback Matt Alviti still remembers every play of last year's heartbreaking 24-22 loss to Stevenson in the second round of the Class 8A playoff as if it happened yesterday.

"I threw one interception and fumbled once. I wasn't able to win the game. In the past, somebody always came up with a big play when we needed it, but not this time," Alviti recalled.

"We were behind 17-7 at halftime and 24-7 in the third quarter. We had a great third quarter and cut their lead to 24-15, then 24-22 and had the ball on our 20 with five minutes to play. But on third-and-five, we couldn't convert. We never got the ball back after that."

Alviti, who quarterbacked Maine South to the state championship as a sophomore in 2010, couldn't produce any magic against Stevenson. He completed 14 of 21 passes for 203 yards and one touchdown. But Stevenson quarterback Matt Micucci was 20-of-32 for 247 yards and two touchdowns and also kicked a 28-yard field goal that proved to be the difference.

It spoiled Maine South's bid for an unprecedented fourth state championship in a row and snapped the Hawks' 16-game postseason winning streak. The senior class bowed out with a four-year record of 50-3.

"It was so disappointing," Alviti said. "You don't realize you season is over and you're going home and the seniors go out like that. I don't want to experience that again. The seniors couldn't handle it. Not being able to win the state title with good friends I had played with since I was little...well, I really felt for them. I felt like I let them down."

Ironically, Alviti and Micucci will be teammates at Northwestern. Alviti recently committed to coach Pat Fitzgerald, choosing Northwestern over Michigan State. And Micucci will join the Wildcat program as a preferred walk-on, probably as a kicker and punter.

"Northwestern is a great fit for me," Alviti said. "Recruiting is all about finding the right fit for you, where you can do your best, where you can succeed and play your best. They were there before anyone else, the first school to recruit me when I was a sophomore. They made the first offer, the day after we won state as a sophomore.

"It's a dream come true for me, to play college football at a high level, to play for coach Fitzgerald, to work with offensive coordinator Mick McCall, to play close to home, to play in that offense. They run a spread that is similar to what we run at Maine South. In fact, we run some of the same variations of the same plays, all the same concepts. It will be a comfortable transition for me."

Will Alviti be another Dan Persa or Zac Kustok, surpassing the feats of two previous Northwestern quarterbacks? He is more of a thrower than a runner and doesn't like to compare himself to other quarterbacks, but he admits his favorite is Drew Brees.

"I like to watch him. His height is similar to mine," said the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Alviti. "He has great leadership qualities. He's a great passer. He understands the game so well. He's a great general on the field. He delivers day after day. He gets all his receivers involved. He is very impressive to watch and learn from what he does."

Alviti has been working hard to improve his skills for the 2012 season--and to make everybody forget about last year's loss in the state playoff. He is running track for the first time this spring, keeping in shape and building leg strength and endurance by competing in the 100, 200 and 400 and 800 relays.

"I want to get my 40-yard dash time down to 4.5 (from 4.6). I want to be stronger and more explosive than ever," he said.

In addition, he is lifting weights once every day and working out twice a week with his receiving corps--tight end John Solari and wide receivers Chris Buschemi, Clay Burdelik, George Sajenko, Anthony Mitchell, Zac Hinkamp and Frankie Perrone.

"I'm very confident with these guys," Alviti said. "We're getting our timing down and watching film. But we have a lot of preparation to do and a long way to go before the season begins."

Nobody knows it more than offensive coordinator Charlie Bliss, who rates Alviti as the best thrower and passer he has produced at the Park Ridge school, dating back to John Schacke, who led Maine South to its first state championship in 1995. Since then, Bliss also has developed such standouts as Shawn Kain, Sean Price, Tyler Knight, Charlie Goro and Tyler Benz.

"He is in better condition than ever," Bliss said of Alviti. "There isn't a throw he can't make. He is showing people that he is a better leader. If he is on, he will make the people around him better. He lacked it last year. We didn't have the great receivers of the past. Matt didn't make them better. He won't let it happen this year. We have better receivers this year."

Bliss and head coach David Inserra are pleased that Alviti opted to make his college decision earlier than later. There were a lot of distractions last year. For example, he played on a Friday night, then attended a WisconsinNebraska game the following day. The longer he waited, the more colleges figured to jump onto the recruiting merry-go-round.

"Now he can concentrate on his senior year," Bliss said. "He hasn't peaked yet. His game will get better and better. He can make every single throw. Sometimes he tries to be too perfect. But he makes plays. And he is fearless and never gets intimidated."

In the last two years, Alviti has passed for 5,048 yards, rushed for 1,115 and accounted for 76 touchdowns. But he is motivated by more than just winning a fourth state title in the last five years and removing the sting from last year's playoff loss to Stevenson.

He attended the recent Elite 11 regional competition in Columbus, Ohio. The event was host to some of the leading quarterbacks in the nation with the top performers earning a spot in the national finals in California in July. Michigan-bound Shane Morris of Warren, Michigan, was the MVP.

Alviti wasn't rated among the top six finalists in a field that also included Notre Dame-bound Malik Zaire, Stanford-bound Ryan Burns, Purdue-bound Danny Etling and Kansas-bound Montell Cozart.

"It was a great experience. I had a lot of fun. I met some good guys and I learned I can throw with the best of them," Alviti said. "I also learned some things to improve on. I learned how to throw better in awkward positions, like when I'm flushed out of the pocket.

"I thought I progressed as Friday went along. I would have liked to have thrown better. I went there to improve on my skill set and I think I did that. I also picked up some drills to work on. Morris was the MVP. He has a strong arm and throws a deep ball very well. But I think I'm a good quarterback as well. I don't think I have to take a backseat to anybody."

The next wave of Blackhawks defensemen is coming

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USA TODAY

The next wave of Blackhawks defensemen is coming

It seems like yesterday the Blackhawks were scraping for young, impact defensemen prospects. Just one, even.

Oh, how that's changed significantly over the last 12 months.

In 2015 and 2016, the Blackhawks did not own a first-round pick. And before that, they hadn't drafted a defenseman in the first round since Dylan Olsen — 28th overall — in 2009. Luckily, they had already hit on Duncan Keith (second round in 2002) and Brent Seabrook (first round in 2003) in back-to-back drafts, and two years later on Niklas Hjalmarsson (fourth round in 2005).

That was a long time ago. Keith is turning 35 in July and Seabrook turned 33 in April. The Blackhawks have gotten that second wave of talent up front with Alex DeBrincat, Vinnie Hinostroza, Nick Schmaltz and Dylan Sikura. The same can't be said for the defense.

But it's coming.

Since last June, the Blackhawks have added defensemen Henri Jokiharju, Ian Mitchell, Adam Boqvist and Nicolas Beaudin to their pipeline and used each of their three first-round picks in the past two drafts to do it. Mitchell was the lone second-round pick, and he had an oustanding freshman season at Denver, meaning he could be ready sooner than later — probably after his sophomore campaign.

Despite the need for defensemen, the Blackhawks never wavered on their draft approach and the desire to add instant help didn't impact how they went about this past weekend. Draft the best player available and you can't go wrong.

The good news for the Blackhawks is, the players that were rated highest on their board when their picks rolled around were positional needs. How fitting.

"Coming into the draft, we're just looking for the best value players we have; guys ranked the highest at their spots," Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said on drafting Boqvist and Beaudin. "It just so happened they're both defensemen, which is great because that's a very important position. I think they're the highest valued assets.

"Calling around this week about potential trades and looking for players and they're the hardest things to find. We didn't draft them just because they're defensemen. We like both of their style of play, their skill set. I think they both play the modern NHL game. Both have bright futures."

There are high hopes for all four of them.

Then you look deeper inside the organization and you'll find Gustav Forsling, who was once considered the Blackhawks' top defensive prospect and currently finds himself in the five-spot. Yet, he's the most NHL ready and could have a full-time role with the Blackhawks next season.

Peel the next layer and you'll see Blake Hillman, who showed promise and great situational defensive awareness in his brief stint last season. Dennis Gilbert, who brings size and physicality, offers a different element and will continue his developement with the Rockford IceHogs. And then there's Lucas Carlsson and Carl Dahlstrom, both of whom could make things interesting in training camp.

Suddenly, the Blackhawks are faced with having, what you would call, a good problem to have by putting together one of the best young defensive farm systems in the league.

Now, that's not to say that each of these guys are going to pan out the way the Blackhawks are hoping they will. But you're increasing your chances by collecting a number of players with high-end talent and creating competition.

The real question is when they'll all be ready.

While there may be temptation to push them along to help the Blackhawks in the short term, it's important to resist that because the future on the back end looks promising if they each grow at their own pace.

Boqvist has the potential to be Erik Karlsson as a best-case scenario. Even if he can be half of that, that's a win. Jokiharju's ceiling is whatever he wants it to be, and throwing Boqvist into the mix perhaps alleviates some pressure off his shoulders. Beaudin and Mitchell each have top-four potential and should develop as such.

Knowing what they could be capable of with proper development, there shouldn't be any reason to rush it. Just be excited they're on the way.

Are expectations too high for Bears WR Allen Robinson?

Are expectations too high for Bears WR Allen Robinson?

Allen Robinson was signed in free agency to become the alpha dog of the Chicago Bears' wide receiver corps. The three-year, $42 million contract that general manager Ryan Pace signed him to is proof of how high expectations are for the fifth-year pro.

Robinson isn't coming to Chicago with a flawless resume, however. His massive breakout year in 2015 (1,400 yards, 14 touchdowns) was followed by a pedestrian 883 yards in 2016 and a torn ACL in Week 1 last year. That begs the question: Is the forecast for Robinson's impact in 2018 too high right now?

According to Bleacher Report's Doug Farrar, the answer is yes. Robinson was named as the Bear most likely to disappoint this season.

Robinson practiced for the first time since the injury during the Bears' May minicamp, but it's safe to say Chicago isn't sure what it has in Robinson. If he gets back to his 2015 numbers, that would be huge for the Bears' passing offense, but given his 2016 regression and the specter of the 2017 injury, that's a tough bet.

Robinson will have an impact that goes beyond the traditional box score, and it will happen this season. Is he a lock to reach 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns? No, but his presence on the field will be enough to see a return on investment. The Bears haven't had the kind of threat he poses to defenses in several seasons, and his ability to pull a defensive coordinator's attention away from the running game will do wonders for Chicago's offensive output.

Determining whether Robinson is a disappointment in 2018 will depend on who's evaluating his season. Sure, he may disappoint in fantasy football circles if he doesn't re-emerge as a game-changing stat monster. But if he makes the Bears offense a more well-rounded and productive group, he'll live up to the expectations set by Pace and coach Matt Nagy.

As long as Robinson is pleasing Pace and Nagy, nothing else really matters.