Bears

Young's Okafor rounding into form

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Young's Okafor rounding into form

How good is Jahlil Okafor, Whitney Young's 6-foot-11 sophomore center?

"He is the second best prospect in Illinois regardless of class behind (Simeon's) Jabari Parker," said Roy Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye.

"Actually, the gap between them is not all that great. Like Parker, Okafor is a certain one-and-done player in college and has a great chance to be a future No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. We have not seen a current high school post player who is any better."

With 6-foot-9 junior Tommy Hamilton recovering from surgery to repair a torn patella and sidelined for at least four more weeks and 6-foot-9 sophomore Paul White still recovering from an injury and not performing up to expectations, the burden is on Okafor to carry the Dolphins as far as he can take them. And his shoulders are proving to be very strong indeed.

"When I look at today's game, there aren't any guys who want to play with their back to the basket and go into the post," said Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter. "(Okafor) wants to be a pure post player. He isn't interested in shooting from the outside. He wants to play with his back to the basket. He is a player that one man can't defend.

"Remember, he is only 16. He has established a great body of work at a young age. He has a great upside. He will impact the high school game in ways no other player has in this state. After four years, we will say he not only is a great offensive player but a complete all-around player."

"Okafor is consistently dominant in the paint and is impossible to move on the block," Roy Schmidt said. "He simply overpowers all of his competition. He is already more advanced and has more maturity than most centers at the college level. There is no question that the sky is the limit."

After observing Okafor for the first time at the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, North Carolina -- he had 23 points and seven rebounds in the first half of one game -- longtime recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons of All-Star Sports was impressed. But he still had some reservations.

"He is very advanced offensively for a young player. He is strong, big, rebounds and does it all," Gibbons said. "But he isn't a great athlete. He has size and strength and uses it well for a sophomore. But I don't know if he'll be one of the all-time greats."

Another longtime recruiting analyst, Dave Telep of ESPN, described Okafor as "the next Jared Sullinger," comparing him favorably to the Ohio State star who is a leading candidate for National Player of the Year recognition in 2012.

Slaughter believes Okafor could emerge as the best big man ever produced in Illinois, better than NBA lottery pick Eddy Curry of Thornwood and Rashard Griffith of King. "Curry and Griffith were not at his level of offense at the same time in their development," Slaughter said.

At the moment, however, Okafor is all about potential. He is a 16-year-old sophomore who isn't in the best of shape, doesn't run the floor well, hasn't learned to face the basket and must develop in several areas in the next two years before he can be compared to 6-10 Russell Cross, the former Manley star who probably was the most dominating and intimidating big man ever produced in Illinois.

Cross was an All-Stater in 1979 and 1980. He led Manley to the state quarterfinals in 1979 and to the state championship in 1980. He starred for three years at Purdue, then opted for the NBA and was the sixth overall pick in the 1983 draft by the Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately, a knee injury suffered in high school that never fully healed eventually limited his NBA career to only one season.

The state has never produced another player like Cross, before or since. He was tall, long, mobile and agile, a great rebounder and shot blocker and defender, a high school version of Bill Russell without any exaggeration. At this time, Okafor doesn't resemble Cross in any way, shape for form.

"(Okafor) has become a better rebounder this year," Slaughter said. "Defense will come with more work. And better conditioning, too. Will he be the defensive player that Cross was? Will he be as good as Anthony Davis (the Kentucky freshman from Chicago Perspective)? I believe in the next two years he will be a phenomenal defensive player."

In fairness, Okafor and his Whitney Young team are competing against what is arguably the toughest schedule of any high school in the country. The brand of competition can't help but to improve his skills, bolster his motivation and inspire his resolve.

Van Coleman of Hot100Hoops.com rates Okafor as the No. 2 player in the class of 2014 behind 6-foot-7 Andrew Wiggins, a Canadian-born wingman who attends a prep school in Huntington, West Virginia.

Okafor claims his recruiting is wide open, that he isn't close to making a decision, that he is enjoying the process and plans to take full advantage of his opportunities to evaluate colleges, their coaches and programs and campuses. He already has made unofficial visits to several schools, including Duke, North Carolina, Ohio State and Illinois.

He has several scholarship offers from major Division I schools but his father denies a published report that his son is "most impressed" with Arizona, Duke, Illinois and Michigan State. It is much too early, his father insists, to disregard Ohio State, Georgetown, Connecticut, Iowa, Arkansas, Purdue, Tennessee, Missouri and DePaul.

And what about four perennial national powers that are on his wish list but haven't offered scholarships yet--Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina and Syracuse? Each has talked to Slaughter and expressed interest in recruiting Okafor.

Look for Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina and Syracuse to leap into the Okafor sweepstakes. Each has talked to his coach and expressed interest in recruiting him. But they haven't offered yet. Okafor did make an unofficial visit to the North Carolina campus.

Okafor also has talked to Kentucky freshman star Anthony Davis and would like to be in a position to consider Kentucky. "I'm a big fan of Kentucky. I really like what they have to offer. But I haven't heard from them," he said. However, some critics doubt Okafor could be effective in the dribble-drive offense that coach John Calipari employs.

What else do you need to know about Okafor?

He is a distant cousin of Emeka Okafor, the former Connecticut star and 2004 Olympian who currently plays for the New Orleans Hornets in the NBA.

He was a member of the gold medal-winning USA Under-16 national team that won the FIBA Americas championship and qualified for the Under-17 FIBA world championship in 2012.

He plays the tuba.

His favorite basketball announcer is Dick Vitale.

Well, nobody said he was perfect.

Bears notes: Was Trey Burton’s penalty justified?

Bears notes: Was Trey Burton’s penalty justified?

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — In a game full of pivotal moments, one seemed to irk the Bears in particular following Sunday’s 31-28 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium.

Driving on the Dolphins three-yard line, the Bears lined up in a T formation with Jordan Howard, Trey Burton and Tarik Cohen lined up left to right in the backfield behind Mitch Trubisky, who was under center. Burton motioned out of the backfield and to the right, and ran his route into linebacker Kiko Alonso.

Trubisky threw a short pass to a wide open Cohen for a touchdown, with Alonso late getting to the running back after being hit by Burton. But that score was taken off the board for offensive pass interference, with officials ruling what Burton did amounted to an illegal pick play.

“Trey did everything I asked him to do,” Matt Nagy said, sharply.

On the next play, Trubisky forced a pass into double coverage in the end zone, which was easily picked off by Dolphins safety T.J. McDonald. Miami turned that interception into eight points on Albert Wilson’s 43-yard touchdown and an ensuing two-point conversion.

The way Burton understood the rule was that offensive pass interference was only assessed on a pick play if he intentionally ran into a defender without running a true route. That’s what Burton felt he did; the officiating crew disagreed.

“I thought I ran a route and the guy ran into me,” Burton said. “I thought they changed the rule this year or last year — if you run the route, it doesn’t matter if you pick the guy or not, you’re good. Obviously they called it.”

A Rough Return

The conversations surrounding the Bears Sunday into Monday would be awfully different had a number of things happened — Trubisky doesn’t throw that interception, the Bears’ defense gets a stop, Tarik Cohen doesn’t fumble near midfield, etc. In that same group: If Cody Parkey hits what would’ve been a game-winning 53-yard field goal in overtime.

Parkey, instead, missed that kick wide right. His career long is 54 yards, which he hit last year while with the Miami Dolphins (and that was a game-winner with about a minute left against the Los Angeles Chargers).

“I had the distance, I just didn’t kick it straight enough, bottom line,” Parkey said. “But you’ve got to move on. I’ve made game winners, I’ve missed game winners. As long as I keep playing, I’m just going to keep trying to kick my best.

“… I control what I can control, and unfortunately I missed a field goal. I’d like to have that one back, but it is what it is and I’m just going to focus on the next game. That’s all I can do.”

For an improving Bears offense vs. Dolphins, a day of maddening extremes

For an improving Bears offense vs. Dolphins, a day of maddening extremes

Their points production in the 31-28 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday marked the fourth time in five games under coach Matt Nagy that the Bears have scored 23 or more points. All of the 28 were heaped on the Dolphins by the offense, which churned for 467 yards one game after amassing 483 and 48 points against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But the Bears did in fact lose, and not all of the reasons can be laid at the feet of the defense. Not nearly all of them.

In great position to put the game virtually out of reach for the struggling Dolphins, the Bears offense failed. The yardage total gave the Bears consecutive 400-yard games for the first time since games 14-15 in 2016, and well could have represented a statement that the offense of Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich was indeed hitting a potent stride.

It may be. But a combination of troubling factors gave Sunday’s output a hollow ring.

Against the Dolphins, 149 of the yards came on possessions ending in turnovers, including an interception thrown by quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and fumble by running back Jordan Howard both occurring in the red zone with points well within reach.

The offense hurt itself with a handful of pre-snap penalties, and the overarching sense is that the belief in Nagy and the overall offense is growing amid mistakes that clearly rest with players themselves.

“For sure, 100 percent trust in Coach Nagy and what he believes is best for this team,” Trubisky said. “What he believes is what I believe is best for this team. Whatever he calls, we're going to run it to the best of our ability. We put ourselves in a great chance, and I have faith in our guys that next time we get the opportunity we make it.”

Opportunities taken and opportunities missed

For Trubisky, the linchpin of the evolving offense, it was a day of extremes.

His production (316 yards) gave him consecutive 300-yard games for the first time in his 17-game career. His passer rating (122.5) was the seond-highest of his career, behind only the stratospheric 154.6 of the Tampa Bay game. His three TD passes are second only to his six against the Buccaneers. Trubisky’s yardage outputs this season are pointing in a decidedly upward arc: 171 at Green Bay, followed by 200-220-354-316.

But decision-making proved costly at tipping points against the Dolphins. From the Miami 13 with a 21-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, and holding a chance to create potentially decisive breathing room on the scoreboard, Trubisky forced a throw toward tight end Ben Braunecker, who was double-covered in the Miami end zone. The ball was intercepted by safety T.J. McDonald, and the Dolphins went from the touchback to a touchdown and subsequent game-tying two-point conversion.

“I just thought the safety went with the ‘over’ route,” Trubisky said. “He made a good play. I lost him when I was stepping up [in the pocket], and I forced one in the red zone when I shouldn't have… . I forced it and I put my team in a bad position, and I shouldn't have thrown that pass.”

The second-year quarterback started poorly, with an overthrow of a wide-open Anthony Miller on the third play from scrimmage, resulting in a three-and-out and a concerning start for what would be only scoreless Bears first half this season. A failed fourth-and-2 conversion gave Miami the football at its 41 later in the quarter.

Trubisky badly overthrew an open Miller in the second quarter, creating a third-and-long on which the Dolphins broke down his protection for a second sack in the span of just 11 plays. After a 47-yard completion to Taylor Gabriel, Trubisky threw an checkdown pass nowhere near running back Jordan Howard.

Fatigue factor overlooked?

Running back Tarik Cohen totaled 121 yards for the second straight game and the second time in his career. For the second straight week Cohen led or co-led the Bears with seven pass receptions.

But the last of the seven came with a disastrous finish. Cohen was hit by Miami linebacker Kiko Alonso after taking a swing pass and picking up 11 yards, fumbled and had the ball recovered by cornerback Xavien Howard at the Chicago 45. The defense did manage a stop, leading to the overtime, but the result was devastating.

“Personally for me, it’s [frustrating] because I know I took my team out of position to win the game late in the ball game,’ Cohen said. “So personally, that’s frustrating for me… . I feel like I had an opportunity to get ourselves down in scoring position. I let fatigue get the best of me, and I forgot about the fundamentals.”

That Cohen mentioned “fatigue” is perhaps noteworthy. A question was raised to Helfrich last week as to whether there was an optimal or max number of snaps for the diminutive Cohen, who had five carries and was targeted nine times – not including one punt return and plays on which he ran pass routes but was not thrown to in the south Florida heat.

“It was hot,” said defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. “It was hot out there.”

Weapons rising

Last offseason and millions in contracts were spent upgrading offensive weaponry. The investments produced in Miami.

Touchdown passes were caught by wide receivers Anthony Miller (drafted) and Allen Robinson (free agent) plus tight end Trey Burton (free agent). Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (free agent) caught the five passes thrown to him for a team-high 110 yards, his second straight 100-yard game after none in his previous four NFL seasons.

Five different players posted plays of 20 yards or longer, including pass plays of 54 and 47 yards by Gabriel and a run of 21 yards and reception of 59 yards by Cohen.

Uncharacteristically for the normally fast-starting Bears offense, the group followed the scoreless first half with 21 points in the third quarter and 343 yards of combined offense in the second half and overtime.

“We came out with more energy and had the attitude that we were going to go down and score the ball,” Trubisky said, “and we played a lot better the second half.”