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Quick learning curves help freshmen Vitale, Lowry

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Quick learning curves help freshmen Vitale, Lowry

The learning curves were conquered quickly by Northwestern freshmen Dan Vitale and Dean Lowry.
Just six months after their respective high school graduations, the first-year players already have made increasingly impressive marks with the Gator Bowl-bound Wildcats.
Some major college programs make freshman wait their turn to work their way up a depth chart. Wildcat coach Pat Fitzgerald said he has no problem calling on first-year players, especially if they are ready and able.
Danny is very gifted athletically, a very bright young man who I thought made a lot of big plays as the season went along. Fitzgerald said. Dean is physically very gifted, hes got great size and had a great quarter academically. As the year went along he was more comfortable in his role and really started to play well.
Vitale and Lowry are among four freshman to crack the lineup and both are expected to play when Northwestern (9-3) meets Mississippi State (8-4) in the Jan. 1 Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.
The Wildcats are scheduled to leave Evanston for Jacksonville early Wednesday and open several days of training Thursday at Jacksonville University.
A 6-foot-2 tight end from Wheaton, Vitale topped the depth chart at "super back" -- a combination tight end and fullback -- coming out of training camp.
Through 12 games -- including 10 starts -- he was fifth among Northwestern receivers with 21 catches for 206 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Vitale broke out against Michigan State with nine receptions for 110 yards and earned Big Ten freshman of the week honors.
But in August, he had no great expectations entering preseason Camp Kenosha.
I just went into camp thinking I was going to do everything I could just to get on the field, said Vitale, who won a 2010 state championship as a Tiger running backwide receiver. Its been a very good growing experience, especially starting off with little reps and progressively getting more time and getting the ball thrown to me, and Ive learned a lot.
The intense preseason training helped Vitale prepare, although he admitted there were some major adjustments to make.
The speed of the game (is different), he said. And I never had to block as much. Thats been one of the key aspects of the game this year.
Lowry, a 6-foot-6 reserve defensive lineman from Rockford, appeared in all 12 games. Hes had eight solo tackles and five assists plus a fumble recovery against Vanderbilt and a quarterback sack at Michigan State.
Its been crazy -- a lot of good times but a lot of stressful times trying to balance school and football, Lowry, an all-stater who played on back-to-back unbeaten Rockford Boylan championship teams, said. But now Im feeling real confident going to a bowl game. I have the technique and the coaching has definitely helped me get there. I feel really good.
Last summer, Lowry also didnt figure hed be in line for the role he eventually earned.
Probably not, he said. I took one day at a time as the coaches told me. But I really didnt think Id be at this point yet.
And Lowry said he continues to learn.
Everyones bigger, stronger and faster, he said. A lot of physical teams we played against they kind of pushed me around a little bit, but I learned from that.
A year ago Vitale was on a holiday break from Wheaton Warrenville South and wrapping up Christmas shopping. He already knew he was bound for Northwestern after committing the previous June.
There was nothing to worry about, nothing to focus on except getting ready to come here, Vitale said. Actually I think I was little worried about finals. I think I had them after break.
Lowry, meanwhile, was preparing for a holiday basketball tournament with his Boylan Catholic team.
We had just finished winning a state football championship, Lowry said. It was basketball season and I was sweating a lot, losing a lot of weight.
Fast forward 12 months and both were among three Northwestern players named to the all-Big Ten freshman team. Redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose also landed on the squad.
Some of his teammates have experienced as many as four bowl games.
Lowry cant wait for his first.
Im just going to embrace it and see how it goes, he said.

Recalling moments in Tom Brady history ahead of his likely last meeting with Bears

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Recalling moments in Tom Brady history ahead of his likely last meeting with Bears

As Tom Brady approaches what in all reasonable likelihood will be his last game against the Bears and in Soldier Field, the first time this reporter saw Tom Brady comes very much to mind. Actually the first times, plural. Because they were indeed memorable, for different reasons.

That was back in 2001, when Brady should have started replacing Wally Pipp as the poster athlete for what can happen when a player has to sit out and his replacement never gives the job back. Drew Bledsoe, who’d gotten the New England Patriots to a Super Bowl, had gotten injured week two of that season. Brady, who’d thrown exactly one pass as a rookie the year before, stepped in and never came out, playing the Patriots into the AFC playoffs the same year the Bears were reaching and exiting the NFC playoffs when Philadelphia’s Hugh Douglas body-slammed QB Jim Miller on his shoulder.

After that the playoff assignments were elsewhere, including the Patriots-Steelers meeting in Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship. Brady started that game but left with an ankle injury and Bledsoe came off the bench to get the Patriots into Super Bowl.

Then came one of those rare moments when you are witnessing history but have the misfortune of not knowing it at the time.

The question of Super Bowl week was whether Bill Belichick would stay with Bledsoe’s winning hand or go back to Brady. Belichick of course waited deep into Super Bowl week before announcing his decision at 8 p.m. on a Thursday night, the second time that season Belichick had opted to stay with Brady over a healthy Bledsoe. And of course Belichick didn’t announce the decision himself (surprise); he had it put out by the team’s media relations director.

You did have to respect Belichick, though, going into his first Super Bowl as a head coach with a sixth-round draft choice at quarterback and leaving a former (1992) No. 1-overall pick with a $100-million contract on the bench. The Patriots upset The Greatest Show on Turf Rams in that Super Bowl, Brady was MVP, and Bledsoe was traded to Buffalo that offseason.

History.

That Super Bowl also included one of those performance snapshots the Bears envision for Mitch Trubisky but missed a chance to let him attempt last Sunday at Miami in his 17th NFL start. Brady took the Patriots on a drive starting at their own 17 with 1:30 to play and no timeouts, ending with an Adam Vinatieri field-goal winner.

If Belichick was all right letting his second-year quarterback in just his 17th start throw eight straight passes starting from inside his own red zone, the next time Matt Nagy gets the football at his own 20 with timeouts and time in hand, best guess is that the decision will be to see if his quarterback lead a game-winning drive with his arm instead of handing off.

It may not happen this Sunday. Brady is a career 4-0 vs. Bears, and if there is one constant it is that his opposite numbers play really bad football against him, or rather his coach’s defense. Bears quarterback passer ratings opposite Brady, even in years when the Bears were good: Jim Miller 51.2 in 2002, Rex Grossman 23.7 in 2006; Jay Cutler 32.9 and Cutler again in the 51-23 blowout in Foxboro. Cutler finished that game with a meaningless 108.6 rating, meaningless because Cutler put up big numbers beginning when his team was down 38-7 after he’d mucked about with a 61.7 rating, plus having a fumble returned for a TD, while the Bears were being humiliated.

A surprise would be if Trubisky bumbles around like his predecessors (New England allows an average opponent passer rating of 91.6), but whether he can produce a third straight 120-plus rating…. Then again, Pat Mahomes put a 110.0 on the Patriots last Sunday night, but Deshaun Watson managed only a 62.9 against New England in game one.

Trubisky will make the third of the three 2017 first-round QB’s to face the Patriots. The first two lost.

Bulls Talk Podcast: The ultimate Bulls briefing to get you ready for Opening Night

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: The ultimate Bulls briefing to get you ready for Opening Night

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Mark Schanowski sits down with Kendall Gill and Will Perdue to discuss all the need-to-know topics to get you ready for the season opener. The guys analyze how Lauri’s injury will make its mark on the early season rotation, whether Jabari will return to the starting unit or embrace the 6th-man role and why Portis betting on himself is the right move. Plus, Kendall has the key to unlock a “6th Man of the Year” award for Portis this season.

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below: