Kelly hoping to deploy Atkinson more out of crowded backfield

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Kelly hoping to deploy Atkinson more out of crowded backfield

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- George Atkinson III isn't getting challenged to many races anymore.

Everett Golson -- who thinks he's the fastest player on the team, according to running back Cierre Wood -- didn't finish a footrace with Atkinson. And Wood, who has as much bravado as anyone, admitted Atkinson would burn him after about 20 yards.

"After the Miami game they figured that I have the crown," Atkinson laughed.

Speed has always been Atkinson's strong suit. He runs indoor and outdoor track for Notre Dame, and his 100-meter time of 10.36 seconds was the second-fastest every by an Irish track runner. The only guy ahead of him: Rocket Ismail.

Atkinson has racked up 290 yards on 32 carries, good for an average of 9.1 yards per attempt -- the fifth-highest rate among FBS rushers.

But Atkinson's working to be more than just a speed guy. He's focused on improving into a complete back, one who can be counted on to hang on to the football and be a reliable passing target. It was Atkinson's shortcomings in both those areas that led to coach Brian Kelly lumping him in with Everett Golson as "heart attack" guys during spring ball.

"He was not fun to watch in preseason camp when you threw the ball to him," Kelly recalled.

"I realize that I want to expand my role," Atkinson said. "I just dont want to be carrying the ball, I want to be out there running routes and stuff. Yesterday, I wanted to go one-on-ones, so I got a couple routes in. So I just want to be more dimensional, less one-dimensional and have more dimensions about my game."

But with a crowded backfield featuring upperclassmen in Wood and Theo Riddick, Atkinson has often been the odd man out. That, however, may begin to change.

"We still have to continue to get more touches for George Atkinson," Kelly said Tuesday. "It's less about Cierre and Theo, because they know their role, they have accepted their role. George has, as well. We just think that from a coaching standpoint, if there is anything amongst the three backs, we have to get George some more touches."

More plays for Atkinson likely means fewer for Riddick and Wood. While Wood has begun to accept his diminished role compared to last year, he's still someone who maintains he's at his best when he's carrying the ball three, four, five times in a row.

"I dont have the luxury of going in there for a long series or a long drive," Wood said. "So I gotta make do with what I have and make it the best that I can make it.

Wood, who was suspended for the first two games of the season, has rushed 47 times for 279 yards, an average of 5.9 yards per carry. Compare that to Riddick, who's only averaging 3.9 yards per carry, and the difference is stark. While Riddick said stats aren't his thing and Kelly downplayed the importance of YPC, the same isn't necessarily true for Wood.

"I believe there isnt nobody out there that can tackle me, there isnt nobody out there that I havent faced that Im not better than," Wood said. "So with that being said, I go into every run that I get or every play, period, thinking that Im the baddest. And it shows as far as yards per carry goes."

Juggling a crowded backfield may seem like a headache, but taking a step back, it may be more of a good problem to have than anything else.

"Its hard for any defense because they dont know what theyre going to get, we all run in different styles and whatnot," Wood said. "George is just pure speed, Theo, hes really, really elusive and is hard to tackle and stuff like that, and me, a combination of all two, really. Its just really hard for a defense to key one thing."

Bears challenged to replace coaches involved in three all-rookie selections

Bears challenged to replace coaches involved in three all-rookie selections

As a sign of good things to come, three Bears were selected to the NFL's all-rookie teams. But there's a negative thread running through the honors of linebacker Leonard Floyd being named to the rookie defensive team, and the selections of center Cody Whitehair and running back Jordan Howard to the rookie offensive team.
 
The concern lies not in the players or the personnel department under GM Ryan Pace that designated them for drafting. It is in the fact that the position coaches for all three rookie standouts are all gone from the staff of coach John Fox.
 
Finding talent is difficult enough. Developing it is the crucial next step in the football process, and what was evident in the rookie years of Floyd, Whitehair and Howard was that each developed into NFL-grade players with some very solid coaching.

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Offensive line coach Dave Magazu was not brought back, reportedly in favor of former Miami Dolphins assistant offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn, as reported by Sirius XM radio and Sporting News.
 
Stan Drayton, who coached Carlos Hyde and Ezekiel Elliott at Ohio State, then Howard this year, left for the University of Texas.

Outside linebackers coach Clint Hurtt appeared to be exiting for the New York Jets, although sources report that the deal may not go through.
 
Coaches can't create talent but they can certainly foster and maximize it. Replacing the mentors of their three top rookies from arguably the best draft class since 2004 (Tommie Harris, Tank Johnson, Bernard Berrian, Nathan Vasher) now becomes a talent search in its own right.

The last White Sox rebuild: Bobby Howry remembers aftermath of '97 'White Flag' trade

The last White Sox rebuild: Bobby Howry remembers aftermath of '97 'White Flag' trade

Bobby Howry wasn't aware of the fact he was part of one of the more infamous transactions in White Sox history until a few years after it happened. 

In 1997, with the White Sox only 3 1/2 games behind the division-leading Cleveland Indians, general manager Ron Schueler pulled the trigger on a massive trade that left many around Chicago — including some in the White Sox clubhouse — scratching their heads. Heading to the San Francisco Giants was the team's best starting pitcher (left-hander Wilson Alvarez), a reliable rotation piece (Doug Drabek) and a closer coming off a 1996 All-Star appearance (Roberto Hernandez). In return, the White Sox acquired six minor leaguers: right-handers Howry, Lorenzo Barcelo, Keith Foulke, left-hander Ken Vining, shortstop Mike Caruso and outfielder Brian Manning. Only Foulke had major league experience, and it wasn't exactly good (an 8.26 ERA in 44 2/3 innings). 

Howry was largely oblivious to the shocking nature of the trade that brought him from the Giants to White Sox until, before the 1999 season, he was featured in a commercial that referenced the "White Flag trade."

"I don't even know if I knew it was called that before then," Howry recalled last weekend at the Sheraton Grand Chicago at Cubs Convention. 

The trade was a stark signal that youth would be emphasized on 35th and Shields. Both Alvarez and Hernandez were set to become free agents after the 1997 season, and the 40-year-old Darwin wasn't a long-term piece, either. With youngsters like Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Lee rising through the farm system, the move was made with an eye on the future and maximizing the return on players who weren't going to be long-term pieces. 

Sound familiar? 

It's hardly a perfect comparison, but when the White Sox traded Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox in December for four minor leaguers — headlined by top-100 prospects in Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech — it was the first rebuilding blockbuster trade the organization had made since the 1997 White Flag deal. Shortly after trading their staff ace at the 2016 Winter Meetings, the White Sox shipped Adam Eaton — their best position player — to the Washington Nationals for a package of prospects featuring two more highly-regarded youngsters in Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez. 

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And there still could be more moves on the horizon, too, for Rick Hahn's White Sox (Jose Quintana has been the subject of persistent rumors since the Winter Meetings). But for those looking for an optimistic outlook of the White Sox rebuilding plans, it's worth noting that the club's last youth movement, to an extent, was successful.

Only Howry (3.74 ERA over 294 games) and Foulke (2.87 ERA, 100 saves over 346 games) became significant long-term pieces for the White Sox from those six players brought over in 1997. And it wasn't like Schueler dealt away any of the franchise's cornerstones — like Frank Thomas, Albert Belle and Robin Ventura — but with future starters in Lee, Ordonez and Chris Singleton on their way the White Sox were able to go young. A swap of promising youthful players (Mike Cameron for Paul Konerko) proved to be successful a year and a half later. 

And with a couple of shrewd moves — namely, dealing Jamie Navarro and John Snyder to the Milwaukee Brewers for Cal Eldred and Jose Valentin — the "Kids Can Play" White Sox stormed to an American League Central title in 2000. 

"It was great," Howry said of developing with so many young players in the late 1999's and 2000. "You come in and you feel a lot more comfortable when you got a lot of young guys and you're all coming up together and building together. It's not like you're walking into a primarily veteran clubhouse where you're kind of having to duck and hide all the time. We had a great group of guys and we built together over a couple of years, and putting that together was a lot of fun."

What sparked things in 2000, Howry said, was that ferocious brawl with the Detroit Tigers on April 22 in which 11 players were ejected (the fight left Foulke needing five stitches and former Tigers catcher/first baseman Robert Fick doused in beer). 

"About the time we had that fight with Detroit, that big brawl, all of a sudden after then we just seemed to kind of come together and everything started to click and it took off," Howry said. 

The White Sox went 80-81 in 1998 and slipped to 75-86 in 1999, but their 95-67 record in 2000 was the best in the league — though it only amounted to a three-game sweep at the hands of the wild-card winning Seattle Mariners. 

Still, the White Flag trade had a happy ending two and a half years later. While with the White Sox, Howry didn't feel pressure to perform under the circumstances with which he arrived, which probably helped those young players grow together into eventual division champions. 

"I was 23 years old," Howry said. "At 23 years old, I didn't really — I was just like, okay, I'm still playing, I got a place to play. I didn't really put a whole lot of thought into three veteran guys for six minor leaguers."