Brooks' Miranda emerges as a big-time recruit

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Brooks' Miranda emerges as a big-time recruit

You probably never have heard of Jesus Miranda. He is a place kicker at Brooks High School, a Chicago Public Leaguer. Kickers in the Public League are as plentiful as dinosaurs. Good ones, that is.

But Miranda is the real deal. The 6-foot, 140-pound junior has scholarship offers from Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin, USC, Oregon, Tennessee, Georgia, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Boston College.

Compare that list to any of the more celebrated prospects in the class of 2014 -- Marist's Nic Weishar, Plainfield South's Clifton Garrett, Bolingbrook's Parrker Westphal, De La Salle's Jamarco Jones, Crete-Monee's Nyles Morgan and Glenbard North's Justin Jackson -- and Miranda has all the credibility of Google, Apple and Yahoo.

Colleges don't offer kickers unless they look like George Blanda, Lou Groza or Jan Stenerud, the only place kickers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Miranda is so good that he earned All-Public League recognition as a sophomore despite playing in only six games.

Not bad for a kid who grew up playing soccer, wears jersey number 11 for Brazilian soccer star Neymar, has no goal posts on his practice field, converts 55-yard field goals in workouts, booted a 70-yard kickoff between the uprights during a game, likely will attend Wisconsin and dreams of being a linebacker like Brian Urlacher.

Miranda, who grew up on Chicago's Southeast Side, still would be playing soccer if Brooks football coach James Brown, desperate for a kicker and a punter, hadn't appealed to the soccer team for players to try out. Miranda, who began playing soccer when he was 4 years old, was reluctant at first. But his uncle said: "Try it. You might like it." Miranda liked it so much that he quit soccer.

"Jesus was the best soccer player at our school," Brown said. "I saw him walking in the hall. The soccer team practices on the same field as the football team. I asked all the soccer players to try out. I needed a punter and kicker. He tried out. The ball exploded off his foot. He has a highlight tape on YouTube. He kicks off into the end zone for touchbacks."

It didn't take long for Miranda to realize that football, not soccer, was his future.

"I saw I was talented. I said to myself: 'What sport could I get farther in life with?' I decided to stick with football. I came to Brooks to play soccer. But I get a bigger thrill out of kicking a field goal than making a goal in soccer." he said.

"Being a kicker is a special position. Football can get me to college. For me, it was an easy transition. 'How do you kick that ball?' my soccer teammates ask. I kick it as if I was kicking a soccer ball, inside my foot. I notice most kids kick the ball with the laces, on the top part of the shoe. But I do it inside."

It was late September and the football season was well underway when Miranda, then a sophomore, decided to join the squad. He continued to play soccer -- "it was still my main sport," he said -- but he converted seven field goals in six games, including a 47-yarder, and was named all-city. After the season, he decided to stop playing soccer.

"It was tough to give up soccer," he admitted. "I grew up with it. I learned to love it. I still see friends. They make fun of me. 'Why did you switch? Why do you like football?" they ask. Now I love football like I used to love soccer."

Nebraska was the first school to contact Miranda. On the last day of August, they asked him to fill out a questionnaire. They still are talking. But Illinois made the first offer -- by accident.

"Their special teams coach came to practice to see one of our defensive backs," Miranda said. "But he was injured. Coach Brown said to look at the kicker. He went back to Illinois and they offered three games into the season. Then all those other schools began to contact me.

"My reaction? I'm happy. And I'm shocked. When I started playing football, I thought it would be just a high school thing. I didn't know what I was capable of. Coach Brown said: 'You will be the one who takes us out of all this. We will all come out together.' It has all be pretty amazing."

Miranda, who has a 4.0 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale, said he will make some unofficial campus visits next summer. But he admits he prefers Wisconsin. "It is my dream school. I've been to some games. I went to the Big Ten championship game last year. The atmosphere is amazing. It's close to home. I would love to go there," he said.

Wisconsin also has expressed interest in Brooks quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw, another all-city selection who happens to be Miranda's holder on place kicks. "We would like to go (to Wisconsin) together," Miranda said.

As he looks ahead to his senior year and the conclusion of his recruiting process, he is eager to improve his consistency and accuracy. In the summer, he attends Kohl's kicking camp.

"I have the leg. Give me five kicks from the 50, I can make four. But I want to make five of five," he said. "And I want to stay healthy. I've had a knee injury or groin or hamstring. This year, I messed up the right knee on my kicking leg. But I still played."

He risks his health every time he tries to make tackles on kickoffs. In games, he wants to do something to help his team. In practice, teammates scoff when he tries to play linebacker on the scout team. He has had his moments but he won't paste all of them in his scrapbook. He still is waiting for his first game-winning field goal.

"Against Payton in the state playoff, the kick returner outran his blockers and I took him down. He had a 'What did you do?' look on his face," Miranda said. "Against Harper, they returned a kick 97 yards for a touchdown. I dove for him but he gave me a juke move and I was flying in the air and took out the referee instead of the runner. That was my most embarrassing moment."

With some of the nation's elite college programs knocking at his door, he has nothing to be embarrassed about.

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Bears DL Akiem Hicks making the most of a chance the Saints never gave him

Bears DL Akiem Hicks making the most of a chance the Saints never gave him

Living well is indeed the best revenge, and sometimes nothing feels sweeter than proving doubters wrong. Akiem Hicks is savoring that exact feeling.

When the New Orleans Saints made Hicks their third-round pick in the 2013 draft, they typecast their big (6-5, 318 pounds) young defensive lineman as a one-trick pony.

“There were people in New Orleans that said, ‘You can’t rush the passer,’” Hicks recalled after the Bears’ win Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers. “They told me from my rookie year, ‘You’re going to be a run-stopper.’”

This despite Hicks collecting 6.5 sacks and 3 pass breakups as a senior at Regina in Canada. The Saints forced Hicks into the slot they’d decided he fit – nose tackle – then eventually grew disenchanted with him and traded him to New England last year – where he collect 3 sacks in spot duty.

Interestingly, Bears GM Ryan Pace was part of the Saints’ personnel operation. Whether Pace agreed with coaches’ handling of Hicks then isn’t known, but when Pace had the chance to bring Hicks to Chicago for a role different than the one the Saints forced Hicks into, Pace made it happen.

Pace likely saw those New England sacks as a foreshadowing or a sign that the New Orleans staff had miscast Hicks. The Bears defensive end now is under consideration for NFC defensive player of the week after his 10-tackle performance against San Francisco. Signing with the Bears last March 13 as a free agent was the career break Hicks has craved. For him it was a career lifeline.

“They have given me the ability to go rush the passer,” Hicks said. “So I love this organization – [GM] Ryan Pace, coach Fox, Vic [Fangio, defensive coordinator] – for just giving a guy the capability to put it out there and do what you feel like you can do.”

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Hicks has been showing what he can do, to quarterbacks. For him the best part of win over the 49ers was the two third-quarter sacks of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Those sacks gave the massive lineman, who the Saints said couldn’t rush the passer, 6 sacks for the season – more than any member of the Saints defense this season. It has been a classic instance of putting a player in position to maximize his skills, not jam someone into a bad fit.

“Akiem has been in a couple of different types of packages before with New Orleans and New England,” said coach John Fox. The Patriots switched from a long-time 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 but “we’re more of a New England-type style. But we’re playing him more at end; he played mostly a nose tackle [in New Orleans]. He’s fit really well for us as far as his physical stature.

"But he does have pass rush ability. It shows a little about his athleticism. So he’s got a combination of both.”

That “combination” has been allowed to flourish at a new level, and the Bears’ plan for Hicks was the foundation of why he wanted to sign in Chicago as a free agent. The Bears do not play their defensive linemen in a clear one-gap, get-upfield-fast scheme tailored to speed players. Nor do they play a classic two-gap, linemen-control-blockers scheme typically built on three massive space-eaters on the defensive line.

They play what one player has called a “gap and a half” system, which requires being stout as well as nimble.

One Hicks rush on Kaepernick featured a deft spin move out of a block, not the norm for 336-pound linemen. He got one sack with a quick slide out of a double-team.

“I’m not freelancing,” Hicks said. “But I’m rushing ‘fast.’ There’s a portion of the defense where you have the [run] responsibility and don’t have the freedom or liberty [to rush]. It’s a great system for me and I love what they’ve let me do.”