Bears

Will McGovern be the next Steinbach or Munoz?

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Will McGovern be the next Steinbach or Munoz?

Colin McGovern, a 6-foot-7, 292-pound offensive tackle at Lincoln-Way West in New Lenox, never dreamed that college recruiting would be like choosing a date for the prom.

By his own admission, McGovern was "blown away" when he received a scholarship offer from Wisconsin. He was impressed when Alabama coach Nick Saban also extended an offer and invited him to attend the annual spring game in Tuscaloosa.

Then he decided to visit Notre Dame.

It wasn't supposed to be anything special, just another unofficial campus visit. He and his father had already visited 10 schools, including Michigan and Northwestern. After Notre Dame, they planned to visit Ohio State and Wisconsin. Stanford was about to become the 15th school to offer.

"In the beginning, I didn't have a game plan. We weren't expecting this to blow up like this," McGovern said. "Once all the attention started to come in, we adapted to it and picked up a game plan. I was surprised by all the attention. I didn't know what to expect.

"Then I went to Notre Dame and fell in love with the place. I wasn't planning to commit when I showed up on the campus. I'm not sure there was one thing that convinced me. It was everything together...education, tradition, beautiful campus, how they set you up for a major, the fact that kids were staying for an extra year rather than getting drafted in the NFL."

He met a group of offensive linemen, his future teammates. A bunch of stand-up young men, he thought to himself, easy to get along with. Later, during a casual conversation, coach Brian Kelly asked McGovern if he could imagine himself playing at Notre Dame.

"I said I wanted to commit," McGovern said.

"I was surprised that he committed. It was his first trip to Notre Dame," said Dave Ernst, Lincoln-Way West's first-year coach. "But he has a good head on his shoulders. He has been very focused on recruiting since the season ended. He wanted a great academic institution and a great football program. And that's what he got."

Perhaps what was most surprising was how fast McGovern developed into a blue-chip prospect. Ernst projects him as "the next Eric Steinbach," comparing him to NFL lineman whom he coached at Providence. His dream is to be an offensive left tackle in the NFL, maybe the next Anthony Munoz, a Hall of Famer who is universally regarded as the best ever at the position.

As a sophomore at Lincoln-Way Central, he played in one varsity game. It wasn't a pleasant experience. "I didn't play too hot. I was sloppy. I didn't dominate anyone. I wasn't impressive. I didn't want to keep that film," he recalled.

Last year, he transferred to Lincoln-Way West. Prior to his junior season, he put in a lot of hard work over the summer. For the first time, he began to take the game more seriously. He enjoyed playing for his new coaching staff. He took on a whole new work ethic. He didn't miss one practice or one weight-lifting session in the off-season.

McGovern finally realized how good he could be, how much potential he had and what he could do with it, during Game 4 against Andrew.

"That's when it clicked," he said. "On the last two drives of the game, we ran behind me on every single play. I blocked for the game-winning touchdown. I realized I could do something with football. Until then, I never thought I'd have an opportunity to play on the major Division I level. Then the offers came in."

But Ernst and former Lincoln-Way West coach Mark VanderKooi already had seen how good McGovern was going to be.

"He was as good as any offensive lineman I saw (in 2011)," VanderKooi said.

It took only one play, the very first one of his junior year, for Ernst to predict future stardom for the youngster.

"Because he played in only one varsity game as a sophomore, people didn't know who he was as a junior. But in his first game against Joliet Central, he did some incredible things," Ernst said.

"On the first play, he knocks his guy off the ball about 10 to 15 yards and chases down the tailback. Here's a 6-foot-7 lineman running stride for stride like a high school tailback, looking for other people to block. We started sending tapes early."

On the first day that colleges could extend scholarship offers, Northwestern assistant Adam Cushing was at the door. "It took off from there. He got 14 offers. If he had waited, he would have received more. But he decided that Notre Dame was it," Ernst said.

"The No. 1 thing is you are happy for a guy like him because he is who he is, a great person, humble. He hasn't changed with all this stuff. He is the same kid he was when he walked in the door last June.

"What gives him an edge over other kids? His athleticism. He is a big guy who can move. He is very flexible in his hips. He is a knee-bender. He can move quickly from a power position with a wide base. I think he is the next Eric Steinbach. Eric was a 6-foot-7, 220-pound defensive end and tight end at Providence. He ate himself into an offensive lineman at Iowa. But Colin is 6-foot-7 and 292 pounds. He is ahead of Eric at this stage as an offensive lineman."

McGovern has been on a training table for the last several months. He weighed 278 pounds when the 2011 season ended. Now he weighs 292 but he is thinner and leaner and stronger. He squats 525 pounds. He has 5.1 speed.

"He can do about anything he wants," Ernst said. "In my opinion, he was a Big 10 or SEC player as a junior."

But McGovern thinks he can be even better. "I'm looking to improve my running and pass-blocking technique. The most fun I have in football is being able to line up across from somebody and hitting him," he said.

Unlike many offensive linemen who count pancake blocks (how many defenders they knock on their behinds) as a measure of their ability, like running backs count touchdowns, McGovern thinks it is more important for an offensive lineman to have good footwork and athleticism.

"A guy might have a lot of pancake blocks but he might not be a good Division I lineman," he said. "An offensive lineman can always have size and a good frame and can add muscle. But you must be able to move and have good feet under you when you are moving. That's what I have going for me."

Jordan Howard's newfound receiving skill expands critical realm of the possible for Bears' offense

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USA TODAY

Jordan Howard's newfound receiving skill expands critical realm of the possible for Bears' offense

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — The Bears desperately need more from Jordan Howard, which may sound greedy given that he has been one of the only offensive sparks of the last two seasons. And they may be getting it.

Through the early practices in Bears Camp ’18, the nascent offense of coach Matt Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich has been ... interesting. The intensity and conditions can be posited as factors, but the fact remains that the defense has intercepted a half-dozen passes and the pass rush has had Mitch Trubisky and the other quarterbacks frequently scrambling after coverage locked down their intended receivers.

Amid all that, something decidedly positive and mildly surprising was unfolding.

Rush-and-cover combos force check-downs to shorter routes, in particular running backs. If this were the Kansas City Chiefs offense under Nagy last year, that would have been Kareem Hunt, who caught 84 percent of the 63 passes on which he was targeted. If this were the Bears from 2008 through 2015, that would have been Matt Forte, who never caught fewer than 44 passes in any of his eight Chicago seasons.

But those were thens, this is now, and the featured back in the Chicago offense is Howard. That qualifies as a question for the developing Bears offense, an iteration of the West Coast system that is predicated on positive plays and ball control using the pass.

The reason is that Howard has developed two competing personas through his first two NFL seasons. One was that of a workhorse running back, the first in Bears franchise history to top 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons. A model of consistency at 4.6 yards per carry.

The “other” Jordan Howard was the model of inconsistency — a running back among the worst pass-catchers at his position, low-lighted by the drop of a potential game-winning touchdown pass against the Atlanta Falcons last opening day. Howard dropped six of his 29 targets last season, according to Pro Football Focus. The year before he was determined to have dropped seven of his 50 targets.

An emerging 'new' Howard

But maybe that latter was then and this training camp is now.

The defensive pressure has, by chance or by choice, sent Trubisky passes toward Howard. The third-year tailback has responded with both efficient pass-catching and occasionally light acrobatic work, turning off-target throws into positive plays.

The results qualify as a significant positive from early camp. Howard is getting a clean-slate start from Nagy and running backs coach Charles London, and the hope is for a three-down back in the Hunt/Forte mold, which Howard can only be if he is an effective third-down option. His head coach thinks he is.

“Obviously, there’s this façade out there, there’s this notion that (Howard) is just a first- and second-down back, and I don’t believe that,” Nagy said. “Jordan can play all three downs. We’re going to do that. We’re going to use him. And we’re going to use other guys on first and second down when we need to.

“For us, it’s important for Jordan to know and for everybody on our offense to know that he’s a big part of this. This kid’s had a very successful career so far. We’re crazy as coaches and as offensive coaches if we don’t understand it and if we don’t use that to our advantage.”

Wanting Howard to be a three-down force and achieving that are two different things. For his part, Howard has worked to effect what can become a tidal shift for the offense.

“Definitely it’s important to me, just building my confidence more and more with catching the ball and working my body,” Howard said. “It’s definitely important to me. ... I definitely have improved my hand placement. I used to have my hands all over the place, but now coach London is working with me on my hand placement and looking the ball in.”

Possible impact on Howard

The impact of a multi-dimensional Howard cannot be overstated, and it could be overlooked in the buzz of all the other “weapons” the Bears brought in this offseason. It shouldn’t be.

Neither should the effect his enhanced skillset can have for Howard himself.

When the Bears’ offense broke out under Marc Trestman in 2013, finishing second in scoring, Forte caught 74 passes while posting his career-high 1,335 rushing yards on an average of 4.6 yards per carry.

Hunt as a rookie last season led the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry while being the Chiefs’ third-leading receiver in both catches and targets. Howard was the only of the top eight leading rushers in 2017 with fewer than Leonard Fournette’s 36.

Tarik Cohen delivered 53 receptions. But Cohen is not a three-down back with the capability of the 200-plus carries that 17 of the top 19 running backs logged last year.

A critical element projects to be Howard’s conditioning and ability to take on a larger and more diverse workload. That limited him in his rookie season, when his usage in fourth quarters dropped at times because he simply wasn’t in requisite shape. The Bears hope that issue and the drops are behind Howard.

“He’s a patient running back,” Nagy said. “I think he as good vision so he’s patient, has good vision, and when you combine that with the power that he has, he finds ways to get yards. The nice thing for us is that we can move him around and do different things.”

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

Tony Andracki is joined by Phil Barnes, the senior editor of Vine Line, to break down the Cubs-Cardinals 5-game series at Wrigley Field that kicked off the second half of the 2018 MLB season.

The main takeaways from the weekend included an up-close look at a Cubs starting rotation is still struggling to find their footing almost 2/3 of the way through the season. 

The Cubs lineup and bullpen continue to be the saving grace of the team with the NL's best record and run differential, but there are serious question marks moving forward on the depth of the relievers as well as waiting for Kris Bryant to return to MVP form.

Check out the entire podcast here: