Northwestern Football Preview: Quarterback

With only eight weeks until the start of the Northwestern Wildcats’ 2015-16 football season, there are far more questions than there are answers about the roster going into this year. The offensive side of the ball saw graduating seniors Trevor Siemian, Kyle Prater and Brandon Vitabile go and there are no sure fire answers as to who is going to take those vital starting positions.

While there will be position battles all around, football teams live and die at the quarterback position. And while Siemian was never a great quarterback, he was experienced, comfortable in the system, and will not be easy to replace.

Now with Zack Oliver the only returning QB with a start under his belt, which came in the final game of the year against Illinois and saw him throw three interceptions and lose two fumbles, the position is officially up for grabs with no clear favorite in the bunch.

Vying for the position with Oliver will be 4-star recruits from the past two years,  Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson. While it is possible that coach Pat Fitzgerald will try a tandem quarterback scheme at times to start the season, ideally one of them will step up and become the consistent man under center.

Here is a bit about each player, what to expect to see from them this year and why each has a case to be the starter.

Zack Oliver:

What to expect – Oliver is most likely to be the starter when the Wildcats open the season against Stanford, though that distinction is primarily due to him being a senior who has a bit of experience coming in for the oft injured Siemian last season. But if he wants to remain the starter, he is going to have to earn it. Oliver may have the best arm strength of the three, and his familiarity with the system is a plus, but he hasn’t shown enough to make a strong enough case for himself as the regular starter. He’ll have to take care of the ball, and with Prater gone and wide receiver still being a position with as many question marks as quarterback, he won’t have a reliable weapon down field to make big plays or bail him out of poor throws. He could see three or four starts to start the year while he becomes more comfortable in that role, but that may be as far as his leash goes.

Why he should start- There is a lot to be said about a player who is a senior, familiar with the system, and has real college game experience. If he can limit his give aways, he could be a good game manager in a “run-first” offense.

Clayton Thorson: 

What to expect – On the other end of the spectrum is the least experienced of the three, Clayton Thorson. Thorson is a big bodied pocket passer who comes in at 6’4″ and 200 pounds. And for his size, his footwork is solid and he does have the ability to run the ball. At Wheaton North High School he showed that he was a good situational passer with a high football IQ. I believe Thorson has the biggest long-term upside of the three quarterbacks with the potential for the most complete, all-around game. His size and ability to take a hit makes up for some of his lack of speed, and if he earns Fitzgerald’s trust early on, could see himself starting games and taking the majority of the snaps sooner rather than later.

Why he should start – Thorson may very well give them the best combination of winning games now and investing in the future. He has all of the tools to be a very good quarterback, and with no outright starter in place and so many questions at every other position but running back, the future is now, and that means starting Thorson.

Matt Alviti: 

What to expect – If Oliver has the arm and Thorson has the size, Alviti has the speed. In fact, his quickness and ability to run the ball is the best argument for him seeing time at quarterback. While Alviti likely doesn’t have enough of an all-around game to be an every down player, he could give them flexibility to run the bootleg. Alviti may be the most exciting of the three to watch, with a reputation as a “gunslinger”, but his height is in issue as a pocket passer. And while he did not see much time last season, knowing the offense and having some experience could help him to be more confident and comfortable going into this year.

Why he should start – If Northwestern is looking to “get off the bus running”, Alviti is their guy. He can take some of the pressure off of Justin Jackson, keep defenses guessing, and being a threat to run could open things up for his receivers.

No doubt quarterback will be the position battle to watch heading into the fall. Coach Fitz will have a lot of decisions to make, but this one will be the most important. It will be interesting to see if anyone emerges as a favorite out of camp, or if this  remains a tight race heading into the first game of the season and beyond.

The Story of Midway Madness

One summer day in the dugout of Columbia College Chicago’s baseball team, Midway Madness creators Mackinley Salk and Chris Gasper saw the writing on the wall. If they wanted to do what logolong2they loved and cover sports, they were going to have to take things into their own hands.

“Not wanting to get paid nothing for years while not covering the teams we wanted to, we decided to do our own thing on our own terms,” says Salk. “We saw the sports journalism world was starting to change, so we jumped on the opportunity to do it our way. ”

They started working on the site in 2008 and finally launched nearly three years later, a website that covers Chicago sports and offers an opportunity for young aspiring writers to hone their craft and get real-world experience writing about sports.

But it was a challenging road for Salk, who had wanted to be a baseball player coming out of Hinsdale Central High School. He spent two years at Western Michigan University. When a back injury kept him from being able to continue to play, he found broadcasting as an extracurricular activity that allowed him to follow his passion for sports. Even though this was a big transition for Salk he was no stranger to sports journalism.

“My father owns a bar (Justin’s at Southport and Roscoe) in Chicago. When I was a kid, I would be there and many sports writers hung out in there. I became friends with these people and eventually many of them encouraged me to get into the field. ”

After graduating from Columbia, he worked for WCRX, Columbia’s on-campus radio station, and lined himself up with a few broadcasting internships. But it became apparent to Salk that it was going to be a struggle making a living and also covering the teams he loved.

“Starting my own business in this field was tough. Trying to separate ourselves from the “blogs” of the world was tough. Also, dealing with media relations directors who don’t allow a level playing field was a battle. The biggest thing was just getting people to take us seriously. ”

And they did. Midway Madness was covering everything from the pro teams to Northwestern sports and the website was putting out content at an increasing rate.

But the workload and the competitive field was starting to take its toll on Salk, Gasper and the others running the site. They started to realize that it was becoming more about fighting to post recaps first than it was about their love of covering sports.

On Jan. 16, 2014, Gasper passed away after losing control of his car in Ohio on his way back from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Before he died, Gasper expressed to the group that he wanted the site to give students the same opportunity it gave him and the Midway Madness staff, to cover sports and learn how to do it right.

“Since Chris passed away, we have changed some things. It’s not about our love for sports journalism. It’s about showing young students how to do this the right way. The game is changing and with it, journalists are getting lazy. We want to make sure our students get it right and move on into the working world with a clue. ”

Since then, Midway Madness has seen a lot of its writers go on to paying jobs and careers in the industry, including Lauren Comitor, another Columbia graduate who is now the digital news editor at the Chicago Tribune.

Lauren was raised in a Chicago sports family and found her passion for journalism in high school. She started her career with an internship with TribLocal and heard about Midway Madness from the internship coordinator at Columbia. She covered Northwestern football and basketball for Midway Madness, and wrote columns on some of the pro teams as she prepared herself for a job in the real world.

“Through my experience at Midway, I focused a lot on networking,” Comitor said. “Going out and covering games and events gave me the opportunity to meet, interact with and get advice from many reporters I admired. Some of these reporters were nice enough to let me shadow them, read my stuff and even tweet it out from their accounts.”

Now Salk runs and oversees the site with fellow contributors Pat Sheehan, Jamie Bradley and Ryan Miesch, but he has transitioned into the role of “mentor”.

“It’s the coach in me,” said Salk.

The world of journalism is always changing, but Midway Madness continues to fulfill the vision Salk and Gasper hoped for – a platform for young journalists to write about the teams they love and learn the skills needed to pursue their careers.

“You really have to love it,” Salk said.

As the person who is seeing the site he created bringing so many opportunities to his writers, it’s obvious that he does.



A First-Hand Look at Draft Town and the Bears Picks

Chicago played host to the  NFL Draft this weekend for the first time since 1963 and Grant Park was transformed into Draft Town, a football fan’s dream.

While everyone filed into the nearby Auditorium Theatre Thursday night for the draft itself, fans were treated to to a three day event which can only be subscribed as Disneyland for football IMG_1753lovers. There, fans could participate in combine-style events, visit tents hosted by their favorite NFL teams and get autographs from NFL players past and present.

The Bears’ fan base was the most present this weekend, but there was an undeniable camaraderie amongst fans of other teams. Fans from all 32 teams were represented and there was a lot of love shared as they connected in matching jerseys and hats.

There was electricity in the air all weekend. It was palpable. The city of Chicago and the NFL really got this one right. It was a fun, safe, family-friendly event with something for everyone.

A few current Bears were present and held Q&A sessions with fans, including Kyle Long, Martellus Bennett, Robbie Gould and Eddie Royal. They were all smiles and excited to be there repereseting the host franchise. And while the questions remained understandably light-hearted, it was clear this new regime has already been a welcome change.

“The new GM and new coaching staff has a new philosophy on drafting,” Long said in his Q&A.

When asked if he would rather the Bears go offense or defense in the first round he answered, “I just want a badass football player with a “C” on his helmet.”IMG_1737

The current Bears players who spoke at Draft Town were not only energized by the outpour of support from fans, but also by the chance to start over in a new year with a new GM and coaching staff.

“Attitude”, Long said, is the one word that stays on the board in the back of their locker room. One of many areas that will hopefully see drastic change this season.

If the selections the Bears made in the draft this year looked familiar, its because they were. In both 2014 and 2015, the Bears took a defensive tackle in round 2, a running back in round 4 and a safety in round 5.  A look at the picks the Bears made this weekend:

Round 1: Kevin White, WR, West Virginia

What it means: It means the Bears are still more concerned with finding Jay Cutler weapons in an attempt to save face on their “franchise” quarterback than they are with fixing their defense. White will attempt to fill the void left by Brandon Marshall.

Round 2: Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State

What it means: The Bears are not confident they have the personnel to transition into a 3-4 defense, but confident enough to pass on a potentially better player at the position in the first round. It also means Ryan Pace and Co. are not confident in Ego Ferguson, last years big, run stopping second round draft pick.

Round 3: Hroniss Grasu, OT, Oregon

What it means: Two offensive players in the first three picks tells me the Bears are still invested in Cutler. It also tells me that Will Montgomery, who was signed in the offseason to replace Roberto Garza, will have competition for the starting job.

Round 4: Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State

What it means: The Bears already have depth at this position, but it appears Matt Forte’s days in a Bears uniform may be numbered. With Forte’s contract expiring in a year, and John Fox being a fun-first head coach, this could be a look into a future where the Bears are once again defined as a bruising force in the run game.

Round 5: Adrian Amos, S, Penn State

What it means: The Bears have not had luck finding a safety in free agency the last few years, so perhaps they see Amos and last year’s selection Brock Vereen as their young safety core of the future.

Round 6: Tayo Fabuluje, OT, TCU

What it means: Hard to say with a sixth round pick, but it does mean the Bears spend four of their six draft picks on offense. Hey, at least it wasn’t a punter!

I don’t think it makes sense to grade a draft because its impossible to know if these picks pan out until you see them play, but I did not like that the Bears focused so much more on offense than defense. I was surprised, actually, since the defense has been in such shambles and John Fox is a defensive coach. What it does say to me is that Ryan Pace stuck to his guns and went for the best available player instead of stretching for need. Or so it appears. I am more than willing to give Pace the benefit of the doubt in his first draft, if for no other reason, because it couldn’t possibly get worse. Right?


Review: 30 for 30 – “I Hate Christian Laettner”

laettnerChristian Laettner is one of the greatest and most maligned college basketball players in NCAA history. His legacy as a hero to Duke fans and a villain to most everyone else is what made him such an intriguing centerpiece for the latest 30 for 30 documentary, “I Hate Christian Laettner”, directed by Rory Karpf.

Growing up a die-hard NBA basketball fan myself, I was only peripherally aware of Laettner at Duke. The only real memory I had of him before watching this documentary was his big shot against Kentucky, and his stint as 12th man on the 1992 “Dream Team” and his overall lackluster NBA career. What I did not know was the hatred of Laettner that goes all the way back to his high school days and still lives on to this day. The documentary focuses on the “Five Points of Laettner Hate” – Privilege, White, Bully, Greatness and Looks – but what really stood out to me about the story was the focus on the perception of Laettner not being reality.

The truth is that Laettner is a blue collar kid from Buffalo, NY. The perception of him as a priveledged white kid came from him going to Nichols High School, a predominantly white college prep school. The reputation was further perpetuated when he went to Duke, a school known for having privileged students from rich families and a basketball program known for solid fundamentals and winning. The fact that he played for one of the all-time great programs in college basketball along with his background, his sometimes dirty play and his exceptional skill made him an easy target for hatred.

This documentary does a great job of focusing on both what made him great and what made so many people angry about him. He wasn’t an innocent player who received his reputation unfairly, but he was far from the image that was built by his reputation. The interviewees gave honest depictions of their relationships with Laettner, be it as a teammate, opponent or family member. Typically a documentarian has an opinion on the topic that they are trying to impose on the work, but I really appreciated that Karpf didn’t appear to be trying to push one opinion over another. It was neither an attack piece nor a glamour piece. The depiction of Laettner was as honest as the man. My only criticism of the documentary was that they talk about how Laettner’s repuation followed him through the pros and to this day, and yet we saw very little between college and present day. I would have liked to hear and see more about his NBA career and why he never became a star at the pro level.

Even though Laettner never became the NBA star that he was in college, his legacy lives on. In four years at Duke he led his team to four Final Fours and two National Championships. His game-winning shot against Kentucky will be engraved in the minds of college basketball fans forever, and this documentary is proof that his reputation has the most hated player in NCAA history will never be forgotten.



Tillman Departure Marks the End of an Era


Charles TillmanThe Charles Tillman era has come to an end in Chicago as the creator and master of the “Peanut Punch” made his windy city departure official, inking a one-year deal with the Carolina Panthers. The signing marks the end of Tillman’s 12 year stay in Chicago, which included two Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl appearance in 2006. The move will reunite Tillman with Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who ran the defense in Chicago from 2004-2006. 

While Tillman will go down as one of the best defensive backs in franchise history, the last two seasons have been frustrating for the veteran. A torn right tricep two seasons ago kept Tillman out eight games and he went on to miss all but two games of last season after suffering the same injury.

Tillman, Lance Briggs and Roberto Garza were the only remaining starting position players left on the roster from that 2006 team (kicker Robbie Gould still remains), and with Garza’s release and Briggs all but gone, this marks the end of an era for the Bears and their most successful defense since the 1985 “Monsters of the Midway”.

The truth is, everything started to change when Lovie Smith was fired at the end of 2012. That season was also Brian Urlacher’s last, whose tenure with the Bears came to a rocky end when his agents proposed a two-year, $11 million contract to the Bears, and Bears management came back with a “take-it-or-leave-it” offer of one year at $2 million which he decided to leave. To call the break up between Urlacher and the Bears unfriendly would be an understatement, and with the hiring of Marc Trestman in 2013, the Bears marched out two of the worst defenses in franchise history in consecutive seasons. The defense never truly believed in Trestman or defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who failed to provide the team with any kind of defensive prowess or identity.

And while it is easy to focus on the bad ending with Urlacher, the unrest with Briggs last season and the injuries that have plagued TIllman the last couple seasons, it is important to not only acknowledge but to celebrate the great Bears teams on which they played significant roles. The defense carried the team during Tillman’s time in blue and orange, with the defense priding themselves on forcing turnovers and scoring points. It wasn’t just a strength of the team, it was necessary. With struggling offenses led by Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton, the Bears relied on the defense to win them games and they consistently came through, often scoring more points on defense than on offense. This defense was not as good as the ’85 Bears or even the ’63 Bears, but they did lead a team to a Super Bowl. It was a special team and Tillman will  no doubt be remembered as one of the pillars of that group.

Through all of the drama of the last couple seasons, Tillman has remained a consummate professional. He was not only a hero on the field, but in the community as well. The Charles Tillman foundation has given more than $1 million to families in need. Tillman won the NFL Salute to Service Award in 2012, and in 2014 received the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award.

Letting Tillman walk was probably the right decision for the Bears as they try to  remake their defense, but his leadership will be missed. As of right now there is no clear leader on the Bears, something they’ve been lacking of late. A new era is starting in Chicago. How this next chapter will look is yet to be seen and who will lead them forward is still a question mark – but hopefully they can learn from someone like Tillman, who always led with passion, dedication and class.

Northwestern Quarterback Battle Wide Open

Northwestern University Football against University Maine September 21, 2013 in Evanston, Ill.Northwestern football opened up spring practice on Saturday, as onlookers got their first taste of the spring roster. This looks to be a transition year for the Wildcats, starting the year without many senior starters from last season including quarterback Trevor Siemian, wide receiver Kyle Prater and safety Ibraheim Campbell, who are off to the draft this May. This off-season will be about getting this team on the same page and defining roles in a lot of major positions.

Saturday saw more focus on the offense, and the biggest stage appears to belong to the battle at quarterback. The projected starter seems to be Zack Oliver, who was the only player other than Siemian to take snaps last season. His experience, however limited, could be the difference when it comes to the final decision made by head coach Pat Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mick McCall. While Oliver seemed the most confident, he told reporters that McCall let all of the quarterbacks know there would be an open competition at the position, between himself, Clayton Thorson, Daniel Kubiuk and Matt Alviti. Alviti was the highest rated recruit in Northwestern’s 2013 class, and rated him as the nation’s No. 2 dual-threat quarterback.

“It all starts with being comfortable with the guys around you, trusting the linemen, trusting the receivers, and when you can build that trust and when you can hold each other accountable, this team can be great”, Alviti said. All three quarterbacks who spoke to reporters Saturday cited mobility as an important part of the offensive game plan going into next season, and all three feel like they can move.

Clayton Thorson, a freshman out of Wheaton North, told reporters that the quarterback group has done a good job working together so far in the offseason.

“Its a great competition”, Thorson said. “We’re all friends and we all help each other out”.

Thorson didn’t play at all last season, but his familiarity with the system could give him a leg up on Alviti. He is more comfortable with the offense, and led them to the only touchdown scoring drive of the day, a screen pass to running back Austin Anderson.

“When you get Austin Anderson in space”, Thorson smiled, “he’s gonna score”.

Anderson, a red shirt freshman out of Plano, Texas, was the standout of practice as he showed off his lightening speed and mobility. Anderson, who models his game after Emmitt Smith, will be trying to give Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault some competition for the starting job, which would appear to be going to Jackson after rushing for over 1100 yards and ten touchdowns last season. Vault, who was originally recruited as a wide receiver, believes it will come down to putting the best offense on the field.

While it is important not to read too much into a spring practice thats open to the public, this does certainly appear to be a rebuilding year for the Wildcats with an eye on the future.

Ryan Pace Sending Mixed Messages

The Chicago Bears announced the signing of Ray McDonald last Tuesday as they attempt to re-establish themselves as the “Monsters of the Midway,” coming off of two very un-monster-like seasons. McDonald is exactly the kind of football player the Bears are looking for to fit Vic Fangio’s 3-4 scheme, a system that will look unfamiliar to Bears fans. Fangio coached McDonald in San Francisco and he’s an elite edge pass rusher, a position where the Bears are in desperate need of help. From a purely football perspective, this is a great move.

But McDonalds’s story does not start and end on the football field. He has been having legal trouble on and off for the last five years, starting with a DUI in 2010 and an arrest two years later for not providing proof that he completed the “first-offender” program. In May 2014, police were called to his house in regard to a domestic disturbance, and later that year he was arrested on suspicion of domestic abuse charges involving his fiancee, but charges were never filed due to insufficient evidence. McDonald was cut by the 49ers a couple months later, citing “a pattern of poor decision-making.” If you need any more reason to suspect guilt, take a look at this text conversation documented on Deadspin.

When Ryan Pace was introduced as general manager of the Bears, he preached character in his opening press conference. The Bears were coming off the most dysfunctional season in recent memory on and off the field and this new regime was supposed to represent the Bears turning the corner in both talent and personality, so this McDonald signing doesn’t make sense to me.

Given all the drama coming out of the locker room last season, why take on a player with multiple legal issues that are still pending? What’s more, given the current state of the league, why take on a player with a history of domestic violence? Have they not seen the effect this had on the Ravens, Panthers and Vikings last year? I have a hard time being able to separate the football issues and the legal issues in this case, especially because of the way Pace started as Bears’ GM.

If he had come to the podium and said the Bears were prepared to win on the field whatever the cost (the Dallas Cowboys model), I would understand this signing a lot more. But this potentially questions the credibility of the new GM in his first major move.

By signing McDonald, the Bears are telling their fan base to trust them that he is going to be cleared of all charges. If you’re Pace or George McCaskey, is McDonald worth the risk? Is he worth the potential legal and media distractions? And is this signing worth the Bears potentially looking like a team that thinks its okay for their players to be domestic abusers? I believe that human beings deserve second chances in most cases, but what has McDonald done to prove that he deserves one? This is potentially a big hit to the fans’ trust in this new regime before they’ve had a chance to play a single snap.

Now, there is a scenario that sees charges dropped and McDonald having a Pro Bowl season for a revamped Bears defense. These cases are still open and given McDonald’s countersuit against one of his accusers, it’s all very possible that he could be cleared. But this is not just one offense we are talking about here. This is an extremely talented player who was dropped from a good team because of a series of offenses over multiple years.

If the NFL is serious about taking a stand against domestic violence, as they claim to be, players like McDonald need to be removed from the league until it is proven that they are 100 percent cleared of these charges. The NFL can come out and say whatever they want about policy and rule changes, but until they are held accountable it’s just talk.This is not new to the NFL, this is just new to the public spotlight.

Are we supposed to believe that there were no issues with domestic violence until recently? Of course not, the NFL has just not been held accountable until recently. And what pressure does the NFL have on them to follow through? No matter what heinous offenses their players commit, people are still going to watch the NFL.

Again, if this were a pure football move I would be totally behind it. But in today’s NFL you’re not just signing the player, you’re signing the person and everything the comes with him. In the case of Ray McDonald the question yet unanswered will be – are the skills that come with the football player worth the issues that come with the person? My gut is to want to give Pace and company the benefit of the doubt to start, but they’ll be on a real short leash with this one.