Blackhawks

Top Gun Combine benefits local prospects

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Top Gun Combine benefits local prospects

High school football players who aspire to compete at the next level attend combines to get exposure to college recruiters. But there is a risk. For example, if an athlete is timed in 4.8 seconds for 40 yards instead of 4.4 or 4.5, his chances of landing a scholarship offer are slim to none.

Scott Hoffman claims his Top Gun Combine is different. He admits some combines are in business for the sole purpose of making money but he insists his one-day event, which will be conducted on Sunday, Dec. 16, at Players U, 412 Business Center Drive, in Mount Prospect, is designed "to train athletes to better themselves to get an opportunity to play in college."

"I wouldn't disagree with the idea that some combines can create negative exposure for someone who has positive exposure," Hoffman said. "But a kid who has had no exposure has a chance to get on the radar of colleges, if he has had limited or no contact with college recruiters.

"But Top Gun is 100 percent different. It isn't a traditional combine. Our combine is designed for specific position training, not just to run the 40-yard dash or participate in 5-10-5 drills or the long jump, which are typical combine tests. More importantly, we will put kids through football drills...defending receivers, running routes, 1-on-1 drills. We see playing ability on the field. We are evaluating football talent, not just track talent."

Hoffman knows the pluses and minuses of combines. A former All-State quarterback at Elgin, he was recruited by Florida, played at Purdue and played professionally in Germany for a year. His father was an All-State running back at Weber, played at Illinois and coached at St. Rita, Weber and Elgin.

After he blew out his knee and retired from football, he founded his own financial services company. He expanded his company to the United Kingdom and reconnected with American football as a volunteer coach and offensive coordinator. When he returned to the United States in 2005, he got the bug to return to coaching football.

He coached at St. Edward in Elgin and at Harper College in Palatine and privately tutored quarterbacks. In January, 2010, he purchased Top Gun. At the time, it was a quarterback competition company. But Hoffman expanded to a full-time, year-round football position training company with a staff of seven coaches to train all positions.

"We want to increase the ability of players in Illinois to compete with athletes in the elite conferences, like the SEC," Hoffman said. "They have to do more than their high schools ask of them if they want to play at the next level. If you don't, you fall behind when you are compared with elite conferences that workout year-round."

In case you haven't noticed, the nation's elite programs -- from USC to Oklahoma to Texas to LSU to Alabama to Florida to Georgia -- are recruiting in the Chicago area. Some didn't recruit locally until a few years ago. Some are scouring the city and suburbs for the first time.

"The world has gotten smaller through technology," Hoffman said. "Recruiters are able to sit in their office and see highlight tape on kids from Illinois. If they see something they like, they come into the state to meet him face-to-face."

Hoffman's camp on Dec. 16 has attracted 94 players from 48 high schools. One of the top-rated prospects is junior quarterback Bret Mooney of Jacobs, a 6-foot-4, 210-pounder whom Hoffman said is "as good as I have seen as a 16-year-old." Veteran coach Bill Mitz of Jacobs, who formerly coached at Stevenson, predicts Mooney is a future star.

How can Hoffman's staff improve Mooney's skills in one day?

"Most importantly, at the end of the day, is a quarterback's accuracy in the pocket and on the move," he said. "What can we do to help them in a short time? We help them review fundamentals and get their eyes to the target area as quickly as possible. We can't increase their arm strength in one day but we can improve their accuracy and quickness."

At the end of the day, Hoffman's staff selects the best players to compete on an elite 7-on-7 team that participates in regional and national tournaments in the spring and summer. It gives the youngsters an opportunity to gain a lot of exposure and a chance to compete and train with other elite athletes.

A year ago, Waubonsie Valley running back Austin Guido and Grayslake North quarterback A.J. Fish were the headliners on Top Gun's elite 7-on-7 squad.

Hoffman insists Fish had the ability to play football in the Big Ten but he opted to sign with Virginia to play lacrosse. Fish is one of the leading lacrosse players in the nation and Virginia is the top-ranked college program. So it was a good fit, what Fish wanted.

"But he could have played in the Big Ten. He was that good. He was cat-quick laterally, as good as I have ever seen. I don't know if he had a Top 25 arm but he could have played in the Big Ten because of his vision and lateral movement. Colleges made a mistake by not offering him," Hoffman said.

The Top Gun event is open to all skill-position players in the classes of 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 -- quarterback, running back, tight end, wide receiver, linebacker, defensive back -- who want to prepare for the 2013 season and have aspirations to play in college.

For information, call Hoffman at (847) 346-5635 or email Scott@TopGunQB.com.

State of the Blackhawks going into All-Star break

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USA TODAY

State of the Blackhawks going into All-Star break

It's been a crazy first half of the 2018-19 season for the Blackhawks. There was a coaching overhaul, two trades, multiple call-ups, an injury to their star goaltender, a Winter Classic spectacle and an insane travel schedule looped into an already busy schedule with the club being tied for the second-most games played of any NHL team.

The All-Star break and nine-day hiatus from game action is coming at a great time for the Blackhawks, to say the least. And they left off on a positive note, with back-to-back home victories against the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals on national television and a comeback shootout win over the No. 1-ranked defense and hottest Eastern Conference team in the New York Islanders.

But in the bigger picture, the Blackhawks are still not where they want to be. Not even close.

Going into Wednesday, they mathematically have a 1.4 percent chance of make the playoffs, according to hockeyreference.com, and that's likely to drop by the end of the day with eight Western Conference teams in action before the NHL shuts down for All-Star weekend. Only two other teams have a better chance at landing the No. 1 overall pick than the Blackhawks (11.5 percent), and that's Los Angeles (13.5) and Ottawa (18.5), the latter of which is actually Colorado's pick.

"We’re going to play until we’re out of it," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "No reason to give up. We’ll do everything we can. However, my approach is still the same. We have to get better. We’re not good enough right now. We have to play better. And so that’s how we’re going to approach each day and then we add it up at the end, see where we’re at."

The reality is, the Blackhawks are closer to the earning a top pick than making the playoffs. And that's fine, especially in a retooling year. In fact, it's better than sitting just outside the playoff picture because mediocrity is the worst spot to be in — it doesn't guarantee you an immediate impact-type player in the draft if you miss out on the postseason.

But the Blackhawks have to come to grips with it. It seems like they have, although that doesn't mean they're going to lie down for the final 31 games. This is still an important stretch run to determine what you have going into the offseason.

Scouting meetings are happening this week in Chicago, an annual occurrence where the organization gets together to decide how they want to approach the Feb. 25 trade deadline. Should they be sellers? If so, how aggressive should they get without creating more holes? Trade anyone you can to clear roster spots and open up even more cap space to take a big run at this upcoming unrestricted free agent class or only pull something off if you're filling a long-term positional need elsewhere?

Right now, non-playoff and bubble teams across the NHL are asking themselves these same questions. If they're buyers, the Blackhawks will certainly be one of the teams they call to ask who's available. It's up to Stan Bowman and the Blackhawks front office to determine who is and who isn't, what the market value is for players drawing interest and whether a potential trade is something that benefits them in the long run but, at the same time, can make an impact as early as next season.

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State of the Cubs: Left field

State of the Cubs: Left field

As the Cubs maneuver through a pivotal offseason, we will break down the current state of the team by sectioning it off into position groups. Here is the eighth installment on left field.

Is this the year Kyle Schwarber *truly* breaks out and finally silences all of the haters?

That's the narrative surrounding the left-handed slugger, but in reality, 2018 probably should've been enough to silence Schwarber's haters.

He finished with 3.2 WAR (FanGraphs), nearly reaching the mark (3.4 fWAR) he put up in his entire MLB career prior to 2018. A lot of that was due to increased defensive ratings across the board — the culmination of shedding a bunch of weight last winter and continuing to develop and learn the outfield position in the big leagues.

But Schwarber also took some major strides at the plate, even with some of the same questions about power that faced every Cubs hitter last year.

Consider this — the entire list of qualified MLB hitters who had a higher walk percentage (15.3 percent) AND isolated power (.229) than Schwarber in 2018:

Mike Trout
Bryce Harper

That's it. That's the complete list.

Of course, Schwarber is not without his warts as a player. His defense still isn't "good" even when you take into account the weapon his throwing arm has become. He struggles mightily against left-handed pitching, posting a .654 OPS and hitting only 1 of his 26 dingers off southpaws last year. 

Maybe more than anything, Schwarber has to find a way to produce runs when he's not hitting the ball out onto Sheffield Ave. Over the last two seasons, Schwarber has driven in just 120 runs in 996 plate appearances despite 56 homers. FanGraphs had an interesting article last September shining a light on Schwarber's historically poor performance in the clutch in 2018.

Schwarber and the Cubs are insistent the "clutch" performance last year was just randomness. After all, this is the guy who tied the overall franchise record for postseason homers in one October (2015) and returned in epic fashion for the 2016 World Series.

If the Cubs are going to get where they want to go in 2019 and fix an offense that "broke" down the stretch, they're going to need a big performance from their left fielder.

Depth chart

1. Kyle Schwarber
2. Ian Happ
3. Ben Zobrist
4. Kris Bryant
5. Daniel Descalso
6. David Bote
7. Mark Zagunis
8. Johnn Field

Left field is Schwarber's for the indefinite future. There's a reason the Cubs haven't traded him yet despite all the rumors surrounding America's Large Adult Son. Theo Epstein's front office clearly hasn't received a package of players or prospects they deem worth the price of getting rid of Schwarber, who they still feel has another level to attain on the field and serves as an important presence in the clubhouse with his work ethic and attitude.

However, the Cubs still may platoon Schwarber in left field, subbing him out against tough lefties (or maybe most lefties if he doesn't start hitting for more power off southpaws). He also dealt with a disc issue in his back that sapped much of the final month of the season, but that's not expected to continue into 2019.

When it's not Schwarber in left, the Cubs will probably turn to Happ first, as he's looking more and more like a full-time outfielder as time goes on. Zobrist and Bryant will also see some time out in left, especially if Bote is able to carry over the defensive skills he flashed in limited time last year.

Descalso has some experience in left, but made just three starts there last year for the Diamondbacks. Bote has played outfield in the minors and Zagunis and Field represent depth in Triple-A if disaster strikes the Cubs outfield.

What's next?

That depends on Schwarber. Assuming he can stay healthy, he needs to continue along the path he started last season making significant strides as a hitter and defender.

Even if he's never able to hit lefties well, Schwarber still needs to find a way to avoid the quiet stretches where he disappears for a couple series in a row. Other teams still fear him as a hitter, but not on an everyday basis.

As the Cubs lineup works to remake its image, a thriving Schwarber hitting 4th or 5th and cleaning up the likes of Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez on base in front of him would be a huge step in the right direction.

The bottom line

The Cubs have enough depth if Schwarber takes a step backward or injury hits. Unless there's a surprise Bryce Harper signing, the Cubs feel very good about their outfield depth heading into spring training.

State of the Cubs: SP
State of the Cubs: RP
State of the Cubs: C
State of the Cubs: 1B
State of the Cubs: 2B
State of the Cubs: 3B
State of the Cubs: SS

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