Notre Dame's James runs '42 follow' to success


Notre Dame's James runs '42 follow' to success

A running back without five dependable offensive linemen blocking in front of him is like a target in a shooting gallery.

Ask Chris James.

Without his offensive line--"the bulldozers," he calls them--Notre Dame's 5-foot-10, 200-pound junior bulldozer wouldn't be what he is, one of the most prolific and explosive and durable ball-carriers in the state.

"Once I knew I would have to rely on them, we built a bond," James said. "They were more excited to block for me this season. We talk to each other in the hallways and on Facebook. We have a tight relationship."

The "bulldozers" 6-foot-2, 226-pound senior left tackle Sean Nicholson, 5-foot-10, 240-pound senior left guard Mike Maligranda, 5-foot-10, 230-pound senior center Bob DeLeonardis, 6-foot-4, 260-pound right guard Nick Bargione and 6-foot-1, 250-pound junior right tackle Mike Mulcrone.

His favorite play is "42 follow," in which he lines up seven yards deep in an I formation and follows 5-11, 215-pound junior fullback Tom Sora between Bargione and Mulcrone on the right side of the line. "It's always open," James said.

With them paving the way, James has rushed 277 times for 1,910 yards and 27 touchdowns for the 7-4 Dons. He has fumbled only twice. In the opening game of the Class 7A playoff, he set a school record by carrying 47 times for 327 yards and seven touchdowns in a 46-27 victory over Grayslake North.

Last Friday, James powered for 164 yards on nine carries and scored two touchdowns, including a 61-yarder, as Notre Dame trounced Steinmetz 35-8. After building a 35-0 halftime lead, James rushed only three times in the third quarter before taking the rest of the night off.

The Dons, who have qualified for the quarterfinals for the first time since 1997, will host Lake Forest (8-3) on Friday in Niles.

College recruiters are taking notice. James has no offers but he has attracted considerable interest from Arkansas, Oregon, Wisconsin, Duke, Ohio State and Purdue.

"Arkansas is my dream school," he said. "I visited there in the off-season. They've been my top school since then. I liked the atmosphere, how they take football so seriously."

Michael Hennessey said what separates James from other running backs is "he has explosiveness and a twitch to his step that he can ignite a long run at any point in time," coach Mike Hennessey said. "He has great 50-60 yard runs straight up and down. Once he gets by a linebacker, the defensive backs are lost trying to catch him."

Hennessey, in his 26th year as head coach at the Niles school, said he could recall only two other running backs who reminded him of James--St. Rita's Billy Marek and Gordon Tech's Leroy Foster. And that covers more than
30 years.

"He is head and shoulders above any running back we have had," Hennessey said. "He is bigger and just as explosive as Foster. Marek was a slasher, not a bulldozer like James. I wouldn't trade Chris for any running back in our league (including Joliet Catholic's more celebrated Ty Isaac)."

James has his own comparisons. Originally, he wanted to wear jersey number 25 because he is a big Reggie Bush fan coming into high school. But friends and teammates compare his style to former Alabama star Trent Richardson, now with the Cleveland Browns, so he opted for number 3.

"My style is comparable to Richardson," James said. "I'm smart, explosive, elusive, strong and durable. And I have size. I still make something happen even if nothing is there."

He stumbled only once, in a 21-6 loss to Nazareth in Week 6. He was limited to only 33 yards in 16 carries. "He got bottled up. The defense took away a lot of things. They blitzed their linebackers a lot and took away our emphasis on the line of scrimmage," Hennessey said.

But the Dons have bounced back. "We've worked our butts off for so long. We're determined to be the best team that coach Hennessey has seen in a long time. We're really motivated," James said.

A year ago, James split carries with senior Connor Garvin, now at Northern Illinois. To prepare for the 2012 season, he added 15 pounds, reduced his speed from 4.5 to 4.43 seconds for 40 yards, engaged in speed training and weight training.

"I knew I had to be durable. I knew the team would need me," he said. "I wasn't patient last year. Now I see how the blocks are set up and I see the hole and explode through it."

After starting 4-1, Notre Dame lost to Nazareth and Marist to fall to 4-3. But the Dons defeated Joliet Catholic 42-33, marking their first victory over the perennial state power in 23 years.

"That was a turning point. It was a very lifting thing to beat Joliet Catholic," Hennessey said. "They are the mark of excellence in our conference. It wasn't just another game. It was a big game in the season, a steppingstone. Our kids have been resilient and able to fight back."

Jon Lester says Cubs haven’t done anything yet: ‘Nobody likes second place’

Jon Lester says Cubs haven’t done anything yet: ‘Nobody likes second place’

As Cubs players and generations of fans celebrated Christmas in October, Jon Lester had to be The Grinch for a moment. Sure, the Cubs would party from Saturday night into Sunday morning, probably get “a little bit” drunk and enjoy the franchise’s first National League pennant in 71 years. But the reality of the Cleveland Indians would set in once the Cubs got rid of this hangover.

“We ain’t done anything yet,” Lester said during the Wrigley Field celebration after the Cubs eliminated the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Nobody likes second place.”

There are enough Boston Red Sox connections in this World Series that Lester already knows what to expect, starting with Indians manager Terry Francona, who became a father figure as he dealt with a cancer scare as a rookie.

There are ex-teammates from those championship teams in 2007 (Coco Crisp) and 2013 (Mike Napoli, Andrew Miller) at Fenway Park. There is the accumulated experience from throwing 119 postseason innings (2.50 ERA) and becoming one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation.

“I don’t want to sound like a smart-ass, but we got a long ways to go,” Lester said. “I know that manager on their side’s going to be prepared. I know their coaching staff’s going to be ready. I know their players are going to be ready, just based on one player alone, and that’s Mike Napoli. I know what he brings to the table. He helped transform our 2013 team.

“Come Tuesday, we got to put the gloves back on. We got to get ready to fight and grind and do what we’ve done well all year. We got four more games to win.”

After limiting the Dodgers to two runs in 13 innings, and being named the NL Championship Series’ co-MVP along with Javier Baez, Lester should be a worthy Game 1 starter opposite Corey Kluber, the 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner.

This is why Lester took a leap of faith with Cubs bosses/ex-Red Sox executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and chairman Tom Ricketts’ family and what had been a last-place team in 2014.

Two seasons into the $155 million contract that signaled the Cubs would be serious about contending – and not just in the Baseball America/Baseball Prospectus prospect rankings – the franchise has won 200 games and four playoff rounds and remained in position to dominate for years to come.

“Theo and Jed and the front office and Tom and all these guys had a belief,” Lester said. “I believed in that belief. The talent here speaks for itself. I didn’t do anything – I came here because I wanted to win in Chicago. I’m just happy to be here and be a part of this and get to this point.

“(But) we’re four hard wins away from doing what we set out to do in spring training.”

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As bright as the future looks on the North Side, Lester will be 33 next season and his left arm has already accounted for more than 2,000 innings during his decorated career. John Lackey turned 38 on Sunday. Jake Arrieta only has one more season before becoming a free agent.

The Cubs built their franchise around young hitters, with the idea that they can figure out the pitching later with free agents, change-of-scenery trades and bounce-back guys. Easier said than done. They have a true No. 1 starter now in Lester, who as a free agent watched a recruiting video that imagined what it would be like when the Cubs win the World Series.

“This isn’t it,” Lester said. “It’s been a tough playoffs for us to this point and it’s only going to get tougher. We’re going to enjoy it. We’re going to show up Tuesday in Cleveland ready to play. We’ll see what happens.”

Three quick fixes for some Bears woes while searching for a turnaround

Three quick fixes for some Bears woes while searching for a turnaround

Positives were difficult to find in last Thursday’s 26-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers. So maybe the place to look for improvement lies in just getting rid of a few negatives.

As far as positives, Leonard Floyd would be the obvious one, with two sacks, one a strip and fumble recovery for a TD. Ka’Deem Carey would be another, with 10 carries for 48 yards, his second straight game with high-impact running; Jordan Howard has been shackled for two weeks, so the Bears have needed another backfield-committee member contributing. Jeremy Langford may have trouble finding work when he comes back from his ankle injury.

But negatives have far outweighed positives, which is how you get to 1-6. Fixing three of those will go a long way toward improving their chances against a Minnesota Vikings team that appeared eminently beatable in losing at Philadelphia on Sunday:

Stop the penalty hemorrhaging

For the third straight game the Bears had 10 penalties walked off against them. This "streak" started after eight infractions in the win over Detroit. The 10 in Green Bay cost the Bears 108 yards in a game where their offense netted just 189. Seven of the penalties were charged to the defense, six of which gave the Packers first downs.

The three offensive penalties were mental. A wide receiver (Alshon Jeffery) lined up offsides. The quarterback (Matt Barkley) drew a delay flag. An offensive lineman (Ted Larsen) was illegally downfield.

All of which point to a discipline problem getting worse, not better. Whether the fault lies with players losing focus or coaches not instilling a mindset is a debate, but meaningless if the problem is not addressed. “There were a lot of penalties out there,” said cornerback De’Vante Bausby, who committed three of those penalties. “We had a good scheme and plan but we just didn’t finish in the second half as a group.”

Stop the dinking

While Brian Hoyer replacing Jay Cutler scaled back the downfield element of the offense, the loss of an emerging Kevin White should not be understated. The de facto rookie may not have gotten in the end zone but he was leading the team in receptions before he suffered a broken leg in the win over Detroit.

Since the loss of White, however, the offense has shrunk. The Bears averaged 7.5 yards per pass attempt through four games with White. Without White the average is 7.0, and that is including the blip in Indianapolis, which stands as a complete anomaly. The average was 5.9 in the Jacksonville loss and 5.0 in Green Bay.

Hoyer’s ball-security orientation has been a positive, but also a limiting factor. Cutler last year had one of the best ball-security seasons of his career, yet the offense was able to average 7.5 yards per attempt.

The Bears scored two of their three rushing touchdowns in games with White, who may not yet be the field-stretcher his 4.35 speed but the prospect of White arguably made for a more threatening offense than even with the contributions of Cam Meredith.

Stop the Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings have suffered injuries at a rate like the Bears’ but have overcome them. Until Sunday in Philadelphia, when the Eagles sacked Sam Bradford six times and hit him more than a dozen other times. The Vikings never sacked Carson Wentz, who wasn’t special but was good enough while Minnesota was self-destructing.

The Vikings have beaten the Bears the last three times they’ve met, the first time that’s happened since 1999 and 2000, which is also the last time the Bears started 1-6. And the Bears have lost three straight.

The Bears were able to end the first three-game skid by focusing on one game: the Lions. The result was shutting down a very good offense, the lowest yardage-allowed (263) of the season and the firmest commitment to the run game (29) attempts.

Morale inside the locker room can only be revived by a win. One game. This game.