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

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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."

Noise around QB Mark Sanchez misses bigger, far more important goal for Bears ’17 offseason

Noise around QB Mark Sanchez misses bigger, far more important goal for Bears ’17 offseason

The tumult around the Bears quarterback position this offseason – signing Mike Glennon, cutting Jay Cutler, not signing Brian Hoyer, now signing Mark Sanchez – was to be expected. (Well, not all the brouhaha around Sanchez; if there has ever been more hyperventilating around the arriving backup quarterback, it’s escaping my recollections of a quarter-century on the beat.)

All of that, and a lot of the noise around Mike Glennon is really missing a larger point. A couple, really.

GM Ryan Pace established fixing the quarterback situation as a top priority, something it has been just about since Jim McMahon left, with the exception of a few Jay Cutler years. Doing that to any meaningful degree with the castoff options available in free agency or via trades wasn’t ever going to happen. What Pace has done with the quarterback situation, however, is more than a little intriguing.

The quarterback additions and subtractions, coupled with also suggest a draft plan far from locked in on a quarterback. The signings of Glennon and Sanchez don’t mean the Bears have solved their quarterback position, but it does mean the Bears have positioned themselves with the distinct option of NOT taking a quarterback – this year.

But here’s the bigger point.

Even with the optimum quarterback solution unavailable – Pace arguably did go best-available in his and the coaches’ minds with Glennon and Sanchez, all derision aside – Pace’s goal needs to be building a team that can reach a high playoff level regardless of quarterback.

Meaning: defense. And while the 2017 free agent and draft classes did not offer must-have quarterbacks in most evaluations, there are those elite-level defensive talents, and every indication is that the Bears will look there, in the draft, and should be. It had that feeling when the Bears, with ample, money to spend, backed away from day one free-agency runs at a couple of pricey defensive backs. The Bears simply think they can do better for less in the draft.

A perspective: With a defense at its levels during the Brian Urlacher era, the Bears could reach the NFC championship game with what they have at quarterback now. They did, twice, with Rex Grossman and with Cutler. Sanchez got to AFC championship games in each of his first two seasons. The Bears reached a Super Bowl with Rex Grossman as their quarterback. They went 13-3 in 2001 with a solid-but-unspectacular Jim Miller as their quarterback. They reached the 2005 playoffs with Kyle Orton as their starter most of that year, and should have been in the 2008 playoffs with him as well. The Bears reached the NFC championship game in 2010 with Cutler.

There is a common denominator in all of these situations, and it is within Pace’s grasp, and that was an elite defense. Rex Ryan had one with the Jets and Sanchez, Grossman and Orton and Cutler had theirs with Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Mike Brown, Tommie Harris, Charles Tillman, etc.

Forget the quarterback situation for now. Nothing anyone, including Pace, can really do anything about it (other than land possibly Deshaun Watson, based on their turnout at his Pro Day).

But if Pace and his personnel staff do this right, they can lay in the foundation for something elite on defense that will transcend the quarterback, or at least allow the Bears to play more than 16 games in a season even if they do not have a great quarterback. With the Urlacher core defense, the Bears went to postseasons with four different quarterbacks.

The prime directive now for Ryan Pace is to create precisely that model again.

Johnny Oduya feeling better, more up to speed with Blackhawks

Johnny Oduya feeling better, more up to speed with Blackhawks

Perhaps the best thing about the Johnny Oduya trade back to the Blackhawks, for both parties involved, was that Oduya wasn't needed immediately.

It's not that the Blackhawks didn't want the veteran defenseman, who helped them win Cups in 2013 and 2015, back in the lineup as soon as possible. Oduya was coming off an ankle injury, one he re-aggravated and missed about a month when he was with the Dallas Stars. He needed time to fully heal and with the Blackhawks in good shape in the standings and with solid depth at defense, he could.

Now with the playoffs right around the corner, Oduya is feeling more like himself.

Outside of missing two games that were the second halves of back-to-backs, Oduya has been playing steadily since March 9. Oduya's minutes have ranged from around 16 to 21 in games. He said he's now 100 percent healthy from his injury and he's feeling the difference on the ice.

"It makes a big difference," Oduya said on Thursday, prior to facing the Stars for the first time since his trade back to Chicago. "I mean, obviously sometimes you get more or less lucky, depending on what you get and the style of play and what you do or not. Skating is a part of my game I try to use as much as possible to get in good position and try to take away time from the opposition as much as possible.

"Even with battling and things like that, of course it's nice to feel more confident," Oduya added. "In any situation, you're in you want to feel confident on the ice."

The Blackhawks have seen that confidence in previous postseason runs and are looking to see it again in Oduya. Coach Joel Quenneville considers Oduya, "Mr. Reliability."

"You look back at what he delivered for us, not just the regular season, but he's been solid and reliable in the playoffs. He's assumed some important matchups and important minutes," Quenneville said. "Last year, we didn't have him on the back end and watching him this year, it was the perfect fit him coming back."

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The Blackhawks' defensive group hasn't changed much since Oduya's first stint here. The system probably hasn't been altered much, either. Still, Oduya's not taking anything for granted and is trying to get back on the same page quickly.

"Same as the last time I came into a great hockey team and I really just want to get up to speed and up to date as quickly as possible," Oduya said. "Little things that may have changed. I want to fit in as well as I can. That's the idea anyone has coming in late in the year. The guys here make it pretty easy; the coaching staff is familiar with the way I play and helps speed up things a little more."

The Blackhawks are trying to be their best heading into the postseason. So is Oduya. He needed a little extra time to get back to health and he may still need a little time to get back to speed, but he's just about there. 

"I feel pretty good. Of course it's a lot easier when you have guys around you you've seen before, a coaching staff," Oduya said. "It's a work in progress, anyway. I want to be better, I want to evolve with the team and want us to be better, too. It's a work in progress."