White Sox

O'Toole paces Illinois to blowout over Charleston Southern

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O'Toole paces Illinois to blowout over Charleston Southern

CHAMPAIGN Reilly OToole was locked in on Saturday. Starting in place of injured quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, the sophomore completed his first 10 passes against Charleston Southern University en route to a school-record 83.8 percent completion rate.

OToole was so locked in he didnt even realize it, though.

Its pretty cool to have the record. I didnt notice that, he said. When you have guys running great routes and theyre open it makes the game a lot more fun because youre just pitching and catching.

After Illinois 44-0 drubbing of CSU, the Wheaton Warrenville South product was remarkably calm. Against the Buccaneers, OToole completed 26 of 31 passes for 333 yards, including five touchdowns. The anxiety and excitement of his big day had not shaken him, or changed his priorities after the game.

OToole said he would probably celebrate the win with his parents, in town to watch him play, rather than hitting the town.

Im not much of a dancer, he said with a laugh.

After uneventful first possessions for both teams the OToole show started. Freshman Mason Monheim picked off CSU quarterback Derek Hatcher to set the Illini up on the Bucs seven yard line. Three plays after the pick OToole capitalized on the visitors mistake, finding Ryan Lankford on an out route in the back corner of the endzone from four yards.

On the next Illinois possession coach Tim Beckman showed a good deal of faith in his young quarterback. Just a week after a nightmarish trip to the desert to play Arizona State, Beckman put the ball in OTooles hands on fourth down and four to go from the CSU 19.

OToole rewarded his coach by hitting Lankford on a 10-yard pass to set up the Illini inside the 10 yard line of CSU. Three plays later OToole and Lankford connected again, this time on a five-yard pass to the left side for a touchdown.

Lankford was OTooles favorite target early in the game and just before the end of the first quarter the two connected for a 23-yard reception. Then, on the first play of the second quarter, OToole went over 100 yards passing as he found the junior over the middle for a 45-yard completion.

In the second half the Buccaneers paid a little more attention to Lankford, mostly taking him out of the game. OToole did not let it disrupt his passing game, though.

OToole looked for new targets, and on Illinois first play of the second half he hit Justin Hardee over the middle on a 48-yard completion. Two plays after the deep pass, OToole found Spencer Harris cutting through the middle of the field for a 24-yard touchdown.

OToole went on to find two more receivers for touchdowns. Late in the third quarter he and Jon Davis connected for a 20-yard score, then shortly into the fourth Donovonn Young got on the receiving end of a 23-yard touchdown pass. Having so many weapons to turn to was just one of the blessings OToole had on Saturday, though.

Reilly had great protection, Reilly had receivers that were getting open and Reilly will probably be the first one to tell you that too, Beckman said. Im proud of the way he came in. He performed. I think our offensive staff did a great job of enabling to hit some people that were open.

It was a team effort, he added.

There was just one mistake for OToole against CSU. After his 48-yard connection with Hardee he put a little too much air on a pass to the endzone and was picked by Bucs cornerback Charles James.

Even with the interception OToole had a great day, though. A school record for completion percentage and a career high in receiving yards could not guarantee OTooles status as starting quarterback, though. After the game Beckman gave no indication of who would feature behind center for the Illini against Louisiana Tech next week, commenting that the job must be won in practice.

Its about competition. Nathans won football games also, but Reilly keeps getting himself better, he said. Thats why we compete on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Despite his uncertain status OToole remained respectful. He emphasized his commitment to the team, but indicated he would be ready to take advantage of every opportunity given to him.

Scheelhaase and I are preparing every week like were going to play, so nothing changes for next week. Were all just getting in the film room, helping each other and trying to get better for next week, he said.

Week Three Notebook

- The Illini's wideouts are high on confidence after their big day against CSU. With 365 of Illinois 479 yards coming through the air, the performance might be hard to repeat, however. Just three of the ten players to make a reception on Saturday were upperclassmen, but because of their hard practices OToole thinks the young players could continue to perform well for Illinois moving forward.

It really helps us out a lot that we go against a great defense day-in and day-out, he said. We saw Fritz Rock make a few great plays, and Kenny Knights in there. Then Justin Hardee a true freshman came in and made a few huge plays today.

- The only Illinois rushing touchdown of the day came on a fourth and one rush by Dami Ayoola, midway through the second quarter. The freshman running back plowed into the Bucs defense to get the yard he needed and never stopped moving his legs. He broke free of the pack and saw nothing but space between him and the endzone. Ayoola finished the 28-yard run easily to score Illinois third touchdown of the game. The hard run from Ayoola impressed Beckman.

He runs with great passion when he runs the football, and hes not a quitter, he said. Im proud of the way he performed and did what he needed to do to get in the endzone.

Ayoola finished the game with 55 yards on the ground. Illinois had a total of 114 yards rushing against CSU.

- The Illinois defense struggled to communicate last week, with some defenders following dummy calls from the sidelines and running the wrong play. The communication issues were a point of emphasis for Illinois in practice this week and the preparation paid off, as the team had no problems with play calls on Saturday.

No question communication was better today, Beckman said That was a problem last week and that was fixed. We made sure that wouldnt happen again.

- The Illini went for it three times on fourth down against CSU, converting twice both times with OToole under center. Beckman said the aggressiveness on fourth down was something he brought with him from Toledo and something he expects to continue doing.

Were trying to make the Fighting Illini better, if that means going for it on fourth down then that means going for it on fourth down, he said.

- Though CSU is an FCS team, the Illini did not take anything away from their opponent after the win. Beckman credited his 19 seniors with the win on Saturday, praising them for challenging the rest of the team to play better.

Senior defensive end Michael Buchanan said this win was important because it would help the team as they move onto bigger opponents.

It doesnt matter who you play, its all about every man on the defense doing their job, hustling and being accountable. So it doesnt matter who we play, we have to execute and handle our business the right way, he said.

- Next weeks opponent does appear to be a step-up for the Illini in terms of competition, though. Beckman pointed out how fast Louisiana Tech plays, noting they had 101 offensive snaps in Week 2 against Houston.

The Illini appeared ready to move on and prove they are better than the group who lost at Arizona State, however.

This game definitely gets the ball rolling, Lankford said. We knew that we could come in and play well today and right back on track. We lost last week but were not far from our goal.

We prepare like were playing the New York Giants every week, and nothing is going to change with our film watching or practicing. Well be ready to play. OToole added.

With Michael Kopech out for the year, should the White Sox try to bring James Shields back for 2019?

With Michael Kopech out for the year, should the White Sox try to bring James Shields back for 2019?

Michael Kopech's recovery from Tommy John surgery put an unanticipated item on this offseason's to-do list for Rick Hahn's front office: The White Sox now need to fill a 2019 rotation spot that was supposed to belong to Kopech.

There are numerous ways to fill that hole in the rotation, though are any more attractive, perhaps, than simply bringing James Shields back for another season on the South Side?

Shields' third year in a White Sox uniform has undoubtedly been his best. After he posted a 5.60 ERA and allowed a combined 67 home runs during the 2016 and 2017 seasons, the 13-year major league veteran has done impressive work this season. After six innings of two-run ball Thursday night in Cleveland, Shields has a 4.48 ERA in 2018.

Of course, that's not a number that will have fans picketing Guaranteed Rate Field if the White Sox opt to move on from Shields this winter. But don't let that one figure overshadow how reliable Shields has been during the campaign. Thursday night marked his 19th quality start of the season, and he ranks in the top 10 in baseball in innings pitched.

Detractors have some statistical ammunition, too, however. Shields is one of three White Sox starting pitchers ranking in the top 10 in the game in walks (74 after three on Thursday), and his 33 home runs allowed are the second most in baseball (back-to-back jacks by the Indians accounted for pair of runs he gave up Thursday).

But Shields, it should be noted, has plenty of value independent of the kind of numbers he's posted during his White Sox tenure. He is a veteran mentor to the team's young pitchers. That includes Lucas Giolito, whose locker has been next to Shields' all season — or rather it was until Kopech became Shields' new locker buddy when the organization's No. 1 pitching prospect got his promotion to the big leagues. That placement, by the way, was Shields' request. While Kopech will be in recovery mode during the 2019 season, bringing Shields back would allow him to continue to help Giolito and act as a resource for Kopech.

This team is young and will continue to be young next season. Having a few reliable veterans around to guide the youngsters is a valuable thing.

Plenty, though, might not be sold on the idea, a reasonable reaction as the team moves toward contention mode and might need to free up spots in a rotation that could soon star some of the young arms developing in the minor leagues. But what are the alternatives for plugging Kopech's empty spot in the 2019 rotation? And if Shields doesn't come back, that makes two holes that need filling.

There isn't a wealth of major league ready options within the organization. Dylan Covey has a 5.33 ERA after his 19 starts this season. At the Triple-A level, Spencer Adams and Jordan Guerrero would figure to be the next-best options. Adams had a 3.19 ERA in 15 starts at Charlotte, and Guerrero had a 3.46 ERA in 12 starts. Though it's possible the White Sox could want them to receive some more conditioning in Triple-A. Jordan Stephens' 4.71 ERA in 21 starts and Carson Fulmer, who was moved to the bullpen after getting sent down to Charlotte earlier this season, are less appealing options.

Of course, the White Sox could go outside the organization, and that would seem to be the most likely course of action. But whether that's via free agency or a trade, wouldn't the still-rebuilding White Sox rather do that once than twice? And while there's nothing to say that the White Sox can't spend big this offseason with a loaded free-agent class, is the time right to do so? Does spending big this winter line up with the timeline of this rebuilding effort? In simpler terms: Would signing a pair of free-agent starting pitchers be the kind of win-now moves that Hahn has tried to avoid during this rebuild?

The most attractive free-agent options include the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Dallas Keuchel, Patrick Corbin and Charlie Morton. But those big names could be looking for instant contention or a gigantic contract that could put the White Sox out of the running. Going lower down the wish list, you'll see names like Chris Tillman, Wade Miley, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Anibal Sanchez, Jeremy Hellickson, J.A. Happ, Garrett Richards, Nathan Eovaldi, Tyson Ross and Gio Gonzalez.

It's quite possible that even with Shields brought back, the White Sox will need to sign one of those guys. Here's the question: Are two of those guys — and the contracts they'll command — better than one of them and Shields?

Another thing to think about: With Kopech on the mend until spring 2020, how close could the White Sox get to contention by the time he returns? And if the team has reached the contention stage, could they afford any growing pains that Kopech could have during his first full season in the majors? Remember that Kopech's first start in 2020 will be just his fifth big league start. That could affect the approach the White Sox take this offseason, perhaps hoping to acquire a pitcher who could be around for a while — not just as a bridge to Kopech but as a safety net for him, as well.

So does a Shields return make sense? Given that the White Sox might still be playing the waiting game next season, having a reliable arm to save the bullpen and a veteran presence to help the still-developing young pitchers could be an attractive option this offseason.

Bears have 6 players ranked in Top 5 by Pro Football Focus through 2 games

Bears have 6 players ranked in Top 5 by Pro Football Focus through 2 games

The Bears are off to their best start since 2014, and the team seems to be playing well together through two games of the season.

The offense is finding creative ways to put points on the board early, and the defense has emerged as one of the top units in the league so far. It’s only resulted in one win, but Chicago seems to be on the right track for more success this season.

The analysts over at Pro Football Focus like what they’ve seen, and their grades are high on a number of individual Bears players. Six of them rank in the top five of their respective positions so far this season.

Khalil Mack, Kyle Long and Charles Leno are all the second highest-graded players among their peers, Jordan Howard has the third-highest grade for a running back, Akiem Hicks is tied for fourth among defensive linemen, and Pat O’Donnell is the fifth-ranked punter.

Just missing the cut is Bryce Callahan, who currently ranks sixth among cornerbacks with an 81.8 overall grade. As a whole the Bears have PFF’s highest-graded defense, while the offense ranks 21st.

It’s clear the team has had a lot of individual success on both sides of the ball, and the next step is converting that into team success with more wins on Sundays.