Bears

Schmidt brothers access Groce, Parker, Okafor

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Schmidt brothers access Groce, Parker, Okafor

Longtime recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye predict that John Groce, Illinois' new basketball coach, will turn the Illini program into a significant factor on the Big Ten and national scenes within the next few years.

"We definitely think so," they said. "He already is being well received by high school and AAU coaches. And he now is on the recruiting trail for many of the elite in-state prospects. He has strong connections and he is well respected by his peers.

"It all may not translate immediately with wins and losses but in time he will prove that he is the right man for the job. He is an extremely high energy guy. He seems to take his personality to another level in terms of having an ability to immediately form new relationships. He isn't afraid to talk to anyone."

The Schmidts said Groce has a "great shot" at signing Simeon star Kendrick Nunn. "He built a strong relationship from the beginning going back to when he was head coach at Ohio University. Illinois is in great shape. But Nunn also likes Marquette and UCLA. He will commit to one of those three schools by the end of the summer," they said.

Groce has persuaded Belleville East's Malcolm Hill to honor the commitment that he made to former Illinois coach Bruce Weber. And he is looking ahead to the talented classes of 2013 and 2014.

Before the end of June, the Schmidts predict that Groce "will make a major move" with 6-foot-9 Gavin Schilling of De La Salle, the leading post player in the class of 2013 in Illinois.

"Schilling would bring a different dimension to Illinois. Groce loves his athleticism. He is comparable to Meyers Leonard at the same stage," Roy Schmidt said.

Groce already has offered the top players in the class of 2014--Whitney Young's 6-foot-10 Jahlil Okafor and 6-foot-9 Paul White, Curie's 6-foot-9 Cliff Alexander, St. Joseph's Paul Turner (no relation to Evan Turner), 6-foot-7 Keita Bates-Diop of Normal University and Marian Catholic's Tyler Ulis, who is recognized as the best point guard in his class despite his 5-foot-8 stature.

What about Simeon's Jabari Parker, who almost certainly will command the most attention of any player in the nation this summer?

"He is regarded by most to be the No. 1 player nationally," the Schmidts said. "Forget about the pressure put on him externally. He is the type of kid who puts tremendous pressure on himself in a good way. That is what drives him. He has a great work ethic. He constantly wants to prove himself. He wants to do what it takes to become even better than he is."

Parker has indicated that he wants to win a NCAA championship in what everybody perceives will be his one and only year in college before he opts for the NBA draft. So it is speculated that he will choose Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas or Michigan State, the schools most associated with success in the Final Four.

"We would narrow it down to Duke and Michigan State," the Schmidts said. "Jabari has great relationships with (Michigan State coach) Tom Izzo and (Duke coach) Mike Krzyzewski. That is a very important factor to consider, his relationship with the head coach. And one other thing to consider: Michigan State is closest to home."

Parker will get more exposure this summer. He will compete in the Peach Jam in Augusta, South Carolina, on July 18-21, then the Nike Fab 48 in Las Vegas, Nevada, on 23-27, then the End of Summer Showdown in Merrillville, Indiana, on July 25-31.

Many critics question whether Okafor, with two years of high school competition ahead of him, will develop to a point where he will be ranked in the upper tier of great big men in history...with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Alonzo Mourning, Bill Walton and Patrick Ewing.

Or will he settle for the second tier with Rashard Griffith, Eddy Curry, Jared Sullinger, Russell Cross and Kevin Love?

"I think in many respects he has already moved into the upper tier, maybe not in production but in terms of expectations and projections," Roy Schmidt said. "College coaches who are recruiting him agree with that assessment. I feel he is capable of being in the upper tier. Even the second tier isn't bad as it is. Okafor has the drive and work ethic and a good inner circle of people working with him in recruiting and skill development."

While Parker and Okafor are the leaders of the classes of 2013 and 2014 respectively, not only in Illinois but perhaps in the entire nation, the memo apparently wasn't distributed to Curie's 6-foot-9 Cliff Alexander, who ranks No. 8 nationally in the class of 2014.

Alexander, according to recruiting analyst Chris Bossi of Rivals.com, was the overall MVP of the recent Pangos All-American Camp in Long Beach, California. "All weekend long, you could count on Cliff Alexander to be in the paint, mixing it up," Bossi said.

"(Alexander) is a strong kid and he doesn't mind playing a power game. Where other big guys are in a hurry to step out and show their faceup game, Alexander is near the rim, bullying other big men and playing power basketball.

"(Alexander) runs the floor looking for fastbreak dunk opportunities. He's a controlling rebounder and he has great length. His body is one that will easily carry more strength and as he matures and fills out, Alexander will be even more powerful in the lane."

Alexander lists Michigan State, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Georgetown and Marquette among the many major Division I programs that are recruiting him. He'll continue to play with Team Rose in July.

What else are the Schmidt brothers looking for this summer?

"The biggest story locally is the every increasing emphasis on underclassmen and colleges trying to extend scholarship offers to underclassmen and getting earlier and quicker commitments from the classes of 2014 and 2015," they said. "That's mainly because of the enormous talent base in Chicago, so many talented young players. Chicago is perceived as a hotbed. More and more college coaches are jumping into the mix, even more aggressively than before."

The Schmidt brothers list several local players "who are on the fringe of being able to jump to the next level in terms of enhancing their stock, a handful who are capable of going from being a mid-major prospect to the next tier as a high major recruit."

The list is headed by Morgan Park guard Kyle Davis, who has attracted interest from Northwestern, USC, Virginia Tech, South Carolina and LSU; Proviso East guard Paris Lee; Simeon's 6-foot-5 Kendall Pollard; Mundelein's 6-foot-6 Sean O'Brien; and Bolingbrook's 6-foot-7 Ben Moore.

Also 6-foot-7 Malek Harris of Sandburg, who could emerge as one of the leading prospects in the class of 2014. He had a great spring. "Very athletic with a long wing span, strong finisher and good mid-range scoring ability," said Roy Schmidt. Harris already has offers from DePaul, Iowa and Miami (Ohio) and is drawing heavy interest from Indiana and others.

Looking for some unheralded players who could make a big splash this summer? The Schmidt brothers describe Riverside-Brookfield's 6-foot-7 Miki Ljuboja from the class of 2013 as "a hidden gem." Also Mundelein guard Robert Knar, who is committed to Northern Iowa, and 6-foot-7 Alec Peters of Downstate Washington, who is characterized as the best pure shooter in the class of 2013 among wing forwards.

The places to be this summer, the must-see events, are the Peach Jam, Las Vegas and the Super Showcase and AAU Nationals in Orlando on July 18-21 and July 25-31 respectively.

"But we don't see a signature event in the first few weeks of the July evaluation period," Roy and Harv Schmidt summed up. "You're going to see more and more watered down events in July, especially in the first two weeks of the evaluation period, because of the way everything is structured.

"The three actual evaluation periods in July are scheduled in a short time period, set up for four days, Thursday through Sunday. As a result, more promoters will want a piece of the pie. More events will be crammed into short time periods. It will be a matter of quantity over quality. There will be a lot of teams and players at those events but not an overwhelming amount of talent."

Bears coaching upheavals portend inevitable stumbles

Bears coaching upheavals portend inevitable stumbles

Call it a small Bears reality check, if not a full wake-up call, then at least a nudge in the night. And this sort of thing should be expected, not just in OTAs, not just in training camp or preseason, but when it all counts.

And it should serve as a lesson of sorts. Because some of the underlying reasons are worth a little highlighting and patient understanding around a team that has spent its offseason and millions of dollars refashioning an offense, beginning with coach Matt Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich, and that offense wasn’t particularly good on Wednesday.

In a sport where the operative cliché is “just get better each and every day,” the Bears didn’t, but as far as their coach is concerned, “there’s two ways to look at it,” Nagy said. “Whether you say on our side, on offense, trying to see a bunch of different looks a defense can give you, is it too much or not? It’s good for us. It’ll help us out in the long run. It’s good for our players and they’ve handled it well. There’s going to be mistakes but they have it on tape to be able to look at. “

This is about more than just a few bad reps or missed assignments. It’s part of the good-news-bad-news reality that a sea change brings to a team.

The good news is that the Bears have a new coaching staff on offense.

The bad news is that the Bears have a new coaching staff on offense.

The Bears defense is predictably ahead of the offense, hardly a surprise, given that most of the core of the top-10 unit has remained in place. That said, you do have to like the attitude of the barely-above-rookie No. 1 quarterback challenging that assessment Wednesday, with a “Who says that?”

This while the offense has myriad moving and new parts, and interceptions, blown plays and such were occurring for an offense that, like Halas Hall, is a massive building work in progress.

“Well, today was a bad ‘build,’ but that’s to be expected,” Helfrich acknowledged. “We’re adding a chunk each day, I thought today was the first day where we had somebody do something that just like, ‘wait, OK’ – a few positions here and there, a few new guys, obviously a few veterans here and there that it’s all new to, hit the wall.”

It’s a “wall” that arguably is inevitable with a coaching change.

Not to make excuses, but….

For a sense of perspective, scroll back to Jay Cutler, who went through offensive coordinators perhaps faster than he went through socks: a year with Ron Turner, two with Mike Martz, one with Mike Tice, two with Aaron Kromer, one with Adam Gase, one with Dowell Loggains, who at least was a holdover from the Gase year. (Whether Cutler’s failure to match potential with production was the cause of or because of that turnover, this humble and faithful narrator leaves to you, the reader).

More than a few current Bears can only dream of that kind of “stability.” And because of that, the 2018 pre- and regular seasons may be bumpier than the optimism surrounding the Nagy hire was anticipating.

Guard Kyle Long, still not practicing full-go while he rehabs from surgeries, is on his fifth offensive-line coach in six NFL seasons. Center Cody Whitehair, who has started every game since the Bears drafted him in the 2016 second round, has had three different line coaches in as many seasons: Dave Magazu for 2016, Jeremiah Washburn for 2017 and now Harry Hiestand. Left tackle Charles Leno was drafted in 2014, making Hiestand Leno’s fourth O-line coach.

And this is the offensive line, the unit that most engenders use of the term “continuity.”

“Each coach brings in a little bit, different techniques,” Whitehair said. “There’s a lot of time for us to hone in and get to know what he’s trying to teach us. But in the end it’s still football.”

Kevin White is entering his fourth NFL season. He is on his fourth receivers coach (Mike Groh, Curtis Johnson, Zach Azzanni, Mike Furrey) and third different season-starting quarterback (Jay Cutler, Mike Glennon, Mitch Trubisky), not including offseason battery mates ranging from Jimmy Clausen, Brian Hoyer, David Fales and Connor Shaw, depending on how much rep time he spent with which unit at various times during his training camps.

“It doesn’t matter,” White said. “Roll with the punches, come here and do my job every day.”

Regardless of how many bosses you’ve reported to.

White Sox catcher Welington Castillo will reportedly be suspended 80 games for use of PED

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USA TODAY

White Sox catcher Welington Castillo will reportedly be suspended 80 games for use of PED

For the first time since new rules came into effect in 2005, the White Sox will reportedly see a major league player suspended for violating baseball’s ban on performance-enhancing drugs.

Welington Castillo, the team’s biggest offseason addition, will be suspended for 80 games, according to a pair of reports.

The veteran catcher was brought in over the winter to help the rebuilding White Sox in the short and long term. He had a career year offensively and defensively in 2017, and he was acquired to help develop a young pitching staff featuring big pieces of the future like Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, and also to swing a solid bat and help this young team learn how to win.

If Castillo proves productive over the course of his two-year deal, the White Sox have a team option that could keep Castillo on the South Side for the 2020 season. That could make him a piece of the puzzle for when the rebuild reaches its apex and the team is ready to start contending for championships. But this news has the potential to change that dramatically.

Zack Collins and Seby Zavala are both having strong offensive seasons at Double-A Birmingham and figure to be the long-term answers behind the plate. But Castillo’s absence from any long-term picture could leave the White Sox without a veteran safety net in the years ahead, depending on how the team decides to react to this news in the coming seasons.

Castillo’s absence for the next 80 games could also have an impact on the development of aforementioned pitchers like Giolito and Lopez. Lopez, in particular, has been throwing really well this season, and Giolito has control issues to work through, as he leads the American League in walks. Without the veteran catcher brought in to help those guys transition to the major league level, how will the transition continue for those two pitchers?

As for who could take Castillo's place on the major league roster, the options are limited. Kevan Smith, who was edged out by Omar Narvaez for the backup-catching job in spring training, is on the disabled list at Triple-A Charlotte, placed there Tuesday. The aforementioned Zavala is also injured at Double-A Birmingham, and it seems far too early to rush Collins to the big leagues. Alfredo Gonzalez is a catcher on the roster at Charlotte. A spot on the 40-man roster would need to be freed up to bring him to Chicago.