Miller: Bears hold edge at QB in 'Battle of the Backups'

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Miller: Bears hold edge at QB in 'Battle of the Backups'

With the report that San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback Alex Smith has been ruled out of tonights Monday night tilt against the Chicago Bears, this could be the break the Bears needed to even up this contest.

I wrote a column last week explaining how repetitions are distributed between starting quarterbacks and their backups. The key emphasized in the article was the experience of quality backup quarterbacks like Jason Campbell and Byron Leftwich of the Steelers.

If you did not see last nights SteelersRavens game, Byron Leftwich played very well. There are vast differences between Jason Campbell and second-year backup Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers, who now will receive the start tonight. This game just tilted in the Bears' favor.

Kaepernick ran a Pistol Offense at the lower division Nevada-Reno in college. He is very athletic, but is still very young in the process of progression reading systems in NFL offenses. It is not only the complicated system giving Kaepernick problems, but also the understanding of intricate defenses and how to attack them. He is a raw talent who will fall back on his own athleticism to get himself out of trouble.

Kaepernicks issue tonight is the Bears speed on defense. The Bears will neutralize Kaepernicks ability to run, forcing him to make decisions from the pocket. Bears fans have witnessed veteran quarterbacks this season who have struggled against the Bears from this aspect alone. The prime example would be watching Texans quarterback Matt Schaub throw two interceptions against this group last week.

Kaepernick also did not get the benefit of working with the starting unit all week. This is a big miscalculation by 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh if this is true. Harbaugh must have been putting all his eggs in one basket Alex Smith would be cleared. It has been reported that Smith and Kaepernick have been sharing repetitions with the first group all week.

This is a big difference between Kaepernick and Campbell before this game. Campbell has been there and done that, where Kaepernick will make his first NFL start with limited knowledge, repetitions and most likely a more limited gameplan adjusted to fit Kaepernick's inexperience against one of the best defenses in the league.

It would help the Bears if defensive end Shea McClellins athleticism was on the field to spy Kaepernick if he decides to run like they did against Cam Newton of the Panthers, but McClellin has been ruled out.

McClellins absence is not the difference because the Bears two challenges are to stop Frank gore on the ground and to now force Kaepernick to make decisions from the pocket. If the Bears accomplish these two keys, they return home victors from a west coast jaunt.

Well-traveled Khaly Thiam settling in with the Fire

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Well-traveled Khaly Thiam settling in with the Fire

Khaly Thiam's still young soccer career had already taken him to multiple countries and continents. When he joined the Chicago Fire earlier this week he added another country and continent to that list.

The Fire officially added the 22-year-old Senegalese midfielder on loan on Wednesday. His first training session with the team was on Thursday. The club hopes he will be available in the May 11 match in Vancouver, pending getting his visa to go through in time.

“I am getting on with everybody," Thiam said. "It is football and everything, but this team they are really great guys. I am friendly with the coaches, the players, everybody is helping me to integrate into the team.”

Thiam learned English through a private teacher in Senegal and speaks with a British accent, but said he wasn't able to practice the language until he moved to Europe. He first joined the Novara Primavera, the Italian Serie B club's youth and reserve team. He then moved to Hungary, where he had been since 2012.

“I first went to Italy for one tournament there," Thiam said. "One month in the Primavera with Novara when I played this tournament. Then I went to Hungary for a first division team. From there I got my first professional contract.”

The Fire acquired Thiam's MLS discovery rights from the Columbus Crew. If Thiam starts 12 matches or the Fire make the move permanent, the Fire will send general allocation money to the Crew. If neither of those happen, the Fire will give the Crew a second round pick in the 2017 draft.

Thiam has not yet been able to check out Chicago or explore and he won't have much of a chance for a while either. The Fire leave for a three-game road trip on Tuesday and will not return until after the May 18 match at the New York Red Bulls.

After growing up in Africa and beginning his professional career in Europe, coming to the U.S. is another new adventure for Thiam. Thiam took the chance to join the Fire after hearing good things about MLS.

“I came here for the soccer because now I see the soccer is building up and the level is coming up," he said. "I came here to see what was going on here.”

Thiam will be a welcome addition to a Fire midfield which has struggled to keep possession, the Fire are currently last in MLS in that category. He also comes at a time when the roster is dealing with a number of nagging injuries in the midfield and attack ahead of a crowded schedule featuring two midweek games in the next two weeks.

David Accam and Alex Morrell worked out separately from the rest of the team on Friday. Gilberto, who has a hamstring injury, did some running on the side. Matt Polster, who missed the 1-1 draw against D.C. United on April 30 with a calf injury, left practice early.

“Gilberto, Morrell, Polster they are in the final phase (of recovery)," Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said. "Accam also, but we also have to work on Accam’s fitness because he was out longer. We have to take care of his fitness. We don’t want any new issues with him. We have to be smart and manage the load, minutes and everything once he is ready."

John Goossens was not at practice and could still be out for a few weeks after suffering a sprained LCL just before the D.C. match.

Ex-Pitt running back Chris James announces transfer to Badgers

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Ex-Pitt running back Chris James announces transfer to Badgers

Wisconsin landed a Power 5 transfer running back Friday.

Like the Badgers need another running back.

Former Pittsburgh ball carrier Chris James, a Chicago native, announced on Twitter that he's coming to Madison, re-teaming with Paul Chryst and the coaching staff that recruited him to the Panthers a few years back.

James was a four-star recruit coming out of Notre Dame College Prep in 2014, ranked by Rivals as the No. 22 running back in that class. He was recruited to Pitt by Joe Rudolph, currently the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, and picked the Panthers over the Badgers and offers from a host of other Big Ten teams including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota and Purdue.

James rushed for 437 yards on 87 carries, scoring four touchdowns as a freshman in 2014. Last season, he rushed for 253 yards on 56 carries.

Per NCAA rules, James will have to sit out the upcoming season, but he'll have two years of eligibility remaining starting in 2017.

That's good news for the Badgers, who will see two thirds of their three-headed running back monster — Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale are seniors, Taiwan Deal is a sophomore — depart after the 2016 campaign.

Is Javier Baez the next Ben Zobrist for Cubs?

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Is Javier Baez the next Ben Zobrist for Cubs?

Ben Zobrist’s hot streak has earned the veteran newcomer to the North Side a lot of attention of late.

The Cubs’ everyday second baseman is hitting .325/.431/.600 with three home runs and 16 RBIs in his last 11 games. But he’s also showed off some of that much-advertised versatility in recent games, too, playing both second base and right field in two of the last four contests. It’s the first move off second base this season for the guy who signed with a utility-player pedigree, moving all around during his time playing for Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay.

That versatility can be found all over this Cubs roster, but perhaps no player has gained more attention for it than Javier Baez, who has taken on a utility role for Maddon.

And because the youth of this Cubs team always has fans and media members looking down the road a few years, the question was posed ahead of Friday’s game against the Nationals: Is Baez the next Zobrist?

In terms of starring as a career utility player — Zobrist made his first All-Star Game in a season where he appeared at seven different positions — Maddon doesn't think so.

“He’s probably going to settle in one spot on the infield. Probably,” Maddon said. “His defense, it’s really different in a good way. Zo was a shortstop, and we took him off shortstop. And he went to the outfield/second base … which really, his abilities are conducive to that. I’m not saying that Javy can’t be that. Of course he can be. But I think you might eventually want him to just nail down a spot, I think, probably in the middle of the field somewhere because he could contribute more there normally. But for right now, I love where he is at regarding this super-utility kind of an attitude.

“Is he going to be Zobrist? I don’t think so, but it’s possible.”

Baez has wowed early this season with both his glove and his bat — he’s reached base in 16 of his 43 plate appearances this season — and he’s certainly been versatile, playing at five different positions already in just 15 games.

The versatility of Baez is perfect for Maddon, who loves putting players in every possible spot on the field and in the lineup. He’s done it with Kris Bryant, swapping the All Star between third base and the outfield, and Kyle Schwarber, who was set to play outfield and catch on a fairly regular basis prior to his season-ending injury on the season-opening road trip.

And in addition to being a puzzle piece that fits in numerous spots, Baez and his prowess with both his glove and his bat make it so Maddon can give some rest to another young infielder in Addison Russell without much of a drop in production.

“That’s a beautiful thing, and I think we’ve been able to do that all over the field with different guys when we give guys rest,” Maddon said. “Our guys that are in waiting are really good. So I feel good about that. It’s wonderful to be able to keep Addison strong mentally and physically during the course of the year, like you’re not losing anything by putting the other guy at shortstop. All this stuff … this is something that Theo (Epstein) and Jed (Hoyer) had set up before I’d gotten here.”

The most glowing praise Maddon gave Baez on Friday had to do with his maturity and how the 23-year-old has changed in just his third season in the big leagues.

“He just really has accelerated maturity-wise,” Maddon said. “The maturation of his game and his outlook on the day is really staggeringly different than it was last year, and I’m not putting him down, he’s just really grown up quickly. To his credit. We’ve done a lot of talking with him, done a lot of explaining with him. He smiles easily right now, and he gets his role on a daily basis and how important it is to us. Give him all the credit in the world.”