Bears

What is the state of prep baseball?

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What is the state of prep baseball?

They all pondered the question with degrees of pessimism, skepticism and realism, like a batter who has only a split-second to decide whether he is going to swing at a Bob Feller fastball, a Sandy Koufax curve or a Steve Carlton slider.

Three veteran coaches who have developed three of the most successful high school baseball programs in the state--Simeon's Leroy Franklin, New Trier's Mike Napoleon and St. Rita's Mike Zunica. Sean Duncan, executive director and publisher of Lake Forest-based Prep Baseball Report magazine and PrepBaseballReport.com, was also a developer.

What is the state of high school baseball in Illinois?

They claim the caliber of competition is very good, pointing out that Illinois is one of the leading producers of major league players outside the warm weather states of California, Florida, Texas and Georgia. A large majority of the state's top 100 players will go on to compete at Division I colleges.

But they are concerned that the number of knowledgeable and dedicated coaches is declining, that many players aren't being taught proper fundamentals, that many programs are being negatively affected by budget cuts and young athletes are burning themselves out because of specialization.

"Kids play high school sports for two reasons--for camaraderie and to extend their careers to the next level," Duncan said. "Some coaches help, some don't. A high school coach's job is to teach fundamentals. Some don't see the big picture of trying to win games and not burn out the kids. Fewer kids are playing two or three sports. They only focus on one sport and burn themselves out. They don't get well-rounded."

Major league scouts are astounded by what they observe at some pregame sessions, how coaches prepare their kids, how some accomplish a lot in a short period of time while others are disorganized and chaotic.

"You can tell that some coaches have a plan, but others have no plan, no methodology," one scout said. "And you can see it in their games."

"The quality of the game has gone down in the last two years," said Franklin, assessing the Chicago Public League. "A lot of old-time coaches aren't coaching anymore. Young coaches don't put in the time to be successful. They just coach. They don't go to clinics. To get better, you must develop young men, teach, go to clinics. Certain schools always win because they teach the fundamentals of baseball."

Franklin, who plans to retire after the 2013 season, has won more than 700 games since 1981, has sent over 100 players to college, has had 26 players selected in the major league draft, produced one major leaguer (Wes Chamberlain) and one national player of the year (Jeff Jackson). He currently has three players with potential to play at the next level--senior
Blake Hickman, junior Corey Ray and sophomore Darius Day.

He cites budget cuts and lack of interest and motivation by young coaches as two major reasons why the quality of the city program has declined. There is no money to pay assistant coaches. At a Chicago public school clinic in January, only 40 coaches attended.

"To be involved and help young men, you have to put time into coaching," Franklin said. "Kids need help today, to keep them off the streets. I tell my kids: 'You are playing not to just play baseball but to get better at the game and to get a scholarship to go to college.

"CPS has got to put more money into baseball. Kids play basketball, basketball, basketball in Chicago. Instead, CPS cuts coaches. We need coaches. A lot of baseball coaches don't know how to practice or teach the game...how to throw, how to field, how to turn a double play, how to bunt, how to play the game, basic baseball."

Napoleon, who has won over 720 games and produced two state championship teams and two second-place finishers in 27 years, claims the game isn't as good as it used to be. Why? He cites less teaching, less fundamentals and less people putting in time, fewer lifers, too many coaching for the wrong reasons. But the good news is more and more kids are going to college.

"People will look at the statistics at the end of this year and will see lower averages, lower home run totals and lower RBI totals across the board because of better pitching and less of a trampoline effect in the bat," Napoleon said.

"Today, everyone is enamored with the three-run homer. But we'll see a shift in emphasis because of the introduction of the smaller bat. You'll see more bunting and more hit-and-run, things that were forgotten in the last 10 years because people emphasized the home run.

"In the 1980s, when I got into coaching, they didn't have new bats. With the old aluminum bat that didn't have the trampoline effect of recent bats, people played the game like it was supposed to be played...suicide squeeze, pitching, speed, bunting, hit-and-run, the basics. Now I think we're going back to the 1980s."

Zunica, in his 16th year, guided St. Rita to second-place finishes in the 2009 and 2010 state tournaments and summer league titles in 2005 and 2009, recalls playing baseball in the Catholic League in the late 1970s and early 1980s and insists it is a mistake to try to compare players and teams from one era to another. But he thinks he knows what is wrong with the game as it is being played today.

"You have a bunch of kids who think it is better to be rated in some publication--one of the top 20 players in the state--and are more worried about that than winning games," Zunica said. "I say: 'Be a player, not a prospect.' But they are more caught up with being more of a college or professional prospect.

"They would rather focus on throwing a baseball at 90 miles per hour than learning how to pitch. They are more focused on hitting a 400-foot homer than having quality at-bats. Or they are more concerned about their 60-yard dash time than learning how to run the bases properly.

"You connect all the dots and it comes down to money. People are seizing an opportunity to make money from teaching kids how to pitch and run and hit...speed trainers, personal trainers, pitching gurus, hitting instructors.

"Sure, there is a place for all of that. But the kids aren't being taught enough about the mental and fundamental and team side of the game. In baseball, little things are really the big things. Kids think big things are big things, throwing 90 mph or hitting 400-foot homers. But all the little things that don't show up on stat sheets are big things that win games."

Zunica believes strongly in his philosophy to teach his kids to be baseball players and not prospects. He points out that only 610ths of 1 percent of all high school baseball players go on to play college baseball. He currently has 31 playing in college.

"The last time I saw a statistic on major league representation by state, Illinois was ranked No. 5, which is eye-opening," he said. "It says coaches can do the job and kids can come out of the Midwest. Our kids are tougher. They can play in all types of weather. They have a greater upside. They don't get burned out. They are more passionate about the game."

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Should Roquan Smith make his debut against the Broncos?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Should Roquan Smith make his debut against the Broncos?

Seth Gruen, Chris Emma and Matt Zahn join Kap on the panel. Jon Lester pitches like Jon Lester again and the offense does just enough to win in Pittsburgh. Jim Deshaies joins the guys to talk about the Cubs.

 

Should Roquan Smith make his preseason debut in Denver? Plus the Ohio State controversy takes a salacious turn. Will Urban Meyer keep his job when the investigation wraps up Sunday?

 

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

Five things to watch for the Bears in Saturday's preseason meeting with the Broncos

Five things to watch for the Bears in Saturday's preseason meeting with the Broncos

DENVER — Expect the Bears’ starters to play deeper into the first half on Saturday in Denver than they did last week in Cincinnati, but their time on the field will still be relatively brief. The real dress rehearsal for the Bears will be next weekend, when they gameplan for and host the Kansas City Chiefs on Aug. 25. 

But Saturday’s game against the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium still represents sort of a checkpoint in the buildup to Sept. 9’s season-opening tilt with the Green Bay Packers. It’ll be the last game of the installation phase of the offseason, with coaches turning their focus to gameplanning for the Chiefs next week and then the Packers afterwards. 

There’s still plenty to be learned on Saturday, though. A few things to watch:

1. Will the first-team offense actually produce?

Mitch Trubisky this week bristled at the notion preseason games didn’t matter — “They don’t matter?” he said. “Then why do you guys talk about them so much?” — which fits with the attitude of a guy who was fairly frustrated with his and his teammates’ performance against the Cincinnati Bengals last week. Trubisky wasn’t happy with offense’s sloppy and ineffective play during the two drives he quarterbacked, and wasn’t willing to write it off as “just” a preseason game. 

“No matter what it is, if it’s on the practice field, if I’m in the backyard by myself, if it’s a preseason game, we’re trying to get better and we’re trying to move the football,” Trubisky said. “That’s what great players do. That’s what great teams do. We’re trying to get some momentum and everybody do our job and execute the offense.”

Still, because the Bears aren’t doing much in the way of gameplanning for the Broncos, any production or lack thereof won’t tell us much about the direction in which this offense is headed. More important will be how successful this group is next week against the Chiefs. 

But Trubisky’s competitiveness means he’s not going to let a poor performance slide, even if it’s only for a few series in a game that doesn’t count. He and the Bears hope that translates into some first downs and points on Saturday. 

2. Some notable debuts

Helping Trubisky’s cause will be the 2018 preseason debuts of running back Jordan Howard and wide receiver Allen Robinson, as well as running back Tarik Cohen — who only played one snap against Cincinnati — perhaps being used more. 

The Bears’ offense will not be at full strength, with wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (foot) and tight end Dion Sims (concussion) still out. But for Trubisky, it’ll be a good opportunity for him to see how all the work he and Robinson put in to develop a chemistry in the last few weeks translates to the field.

“We continue to create that chemistry in practice and my job is just to get the ball to the playmakers,” Trubisky said. “The more playmakers we have on the field, just continue to get them the ball and let them do what they do and we just need to roll as an offense, be on the same page, everyone continue to do their job, lock in and go out there and have fun an execute. It’ll be nice to see those guys with the ball in their hands this weekend.”

3. What about Roquan?

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Smith in full uniform going through pregame warmups, but it would qualify as a minor surprise if he actually played on Saturday. 

The benefit to Smith playing would be working to accelerate his development with an eye on Week 1, even if it’s only for a few snaps. But does the risk of him getting injured outweigh whatever benefit playing him would provide?

It’s a question the Bears surely are debating. But coaches and trainers made sure to not push Smith too hard in this week’s joint practices against the Broncos, and it would be risky to put him in Saturday but tell him to not play at full speed. 

It’s not out of the realm of possibility for Smith to play on Saturday, but more likely would be No. 58 making his preseason debut against the Chiefs with another week of practice under his belt. 

4. Snap decisions

James Daniels felt like he was a little sloppy last week against the Bengals, specifically with his hand placement but more broadly because the intensity of things was increased. 

“I think that’s when my technique gets sloppy is when you’re out there and playing against somebody else, you’re really playing,” Daniels said. 

This week’s joint practices, then, were beneficial for Daniels to focus on keeping his technique sound in a more intense setting. And he had the opportunity to do that all while still playing center, not left guard, where he had been working up until last week. How Bears coaches evaluate Daniels' week of practice — which certainly wasn't perfect — will be important, especially in the context of...

... Cody Whitehair going through a snapping “slump” over the last week or so, starting with that preseason game in Cincinnati. If those low/high snaps crop up again Saturday, and Daniels is able to put in a solid day of work with the second-team offensive line, it may nudge the Bears toward moving Whitehair to guard and inserting the second-round Iowa product into the starting lineup. 

The Bears haven’t considered that move yet, though, and the plan all along has been to keep Whitehair at center. A lot has to happen for that plan to change: If Whitehair can’t consistently get snaps to Trubisky, if Daniels proves he’s one of the team’s best five offensive linemen, and then if Daniels proves he’s a better option at center than Whitehair. So far, the Bears haven’t arrived at any of those conclusions, but Saturday’s game could have a significant impact on what those conclusions wind up being. 

5. Down-the-depth-chart position battles

Plenty of players fighting for a spot on the Week 1 53-man roster will get an extended opportunity to put more good — or bad — things on film on Saturday. 

Near the top of the depth chart, Adam Shaheen will have another opportunity to keep his arrow pointing up at the “Y” tight end spot with Sims still out. Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris will continue their competition for the final starting spot on the defensive line, with Bullard still likely the slight favorite. Nick Kwiatkoski can help his case to hold off Smith with another solid showing in what’s been a solid preseason. 

An all-hands-on-deck competition to be the Bears’ reserve outside corner is developing, and with Prince Amukamara (groin) not practicing this week, everyone from that group will get a chance to help their case of making the Week 1 roster. Marcus Cooper needs to have a better game than he did against Cincinnati, while 2017 practice squad’er Doran Grant should get plenty of opportunities, too. For undrafted rookies Anthony Toliver, Michael Joseph and John Franklin III, it’s a big opportunity, too, to turn a longshot bid for a roster spot into something more realistic.