Lamar Miller leads Miami Dolphins' running back battle

One of the more intriguing position battles this offseason is taking place in the Miami Dolphins' backfield.

Right now, it seems like Lamar Miller is the runaway leader to get Reggie Bush's old touches.

"Everybody's mindset is to start," Miller said Wednesday, via the Miami Herald. "We've just got to come out here and compete every day and get each other better, so whoever gets into a starting position, just help this team win."

Miller is getting the bulk of the snaps with the first team over Daniel Thomas, Mike Gillislee, Jonas Gray and Marcus Thigpen.

On Wednesday, coach Joe Philbin defined the competition as "wide open" and warned not to make too much out of who is getting reps with which unit.

"We're going to watch the tape and see how our players pick up the blitz, run routes, see how they run the ball when they have the opportunity and go from there," Philbin said.

It is interesting Philbin mentioned pass protection first. As the Herald points out, Miller's struggles in protecting the quarterback probably kept him off the field toward the beginning of the 2012 season. If he shores up his blocking, he might end up seeing the majority of snaps this year.

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The U Reloaded Documentary Trailer

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Leonard Hankerson healthy

Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan said WR Leonard Hankerson is fully healthy for the first time in his career. The team is expecting Hankerson to develop more this year.

Fantasy Tip: Hankerson showed improvements in his second year with Robert Griffin III entrenched at quarterback. Despite the increase in targets he saw, he'll likely be the third- or fourth-string wideout in Washington, making a deep sleeper or nice post-draft pick-up.

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Kenny Phillips expected back on the field next week

Kenny Phillips is, as you might expect, taking time off from OTAs to rest a sore knee.

But a source close to Phillips said he’s expected to be back on the field next week when the Eagles have a mandatory minicamp, according to Geoff Mosher of

Phillips missed nine games last year with knee problems, leading to the Giants allowing him to walk out the door.

He’s been a good player when well, but that’s not the kind of thing you can count on at this point.

When he did work early in OTAs, he was on the second team behind Nate Allen and Patrick Chung, in what could be an indication the Eagles aren’t banking everything on him playing.

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Redskins Leonard Hankerson: Pressure Is On

ASHBURN, Va. (WUSA) -- Do we label Leonard Hankerson yet? So many of Mike Shanahan's draft picks have panned out in Washington, it's become a puzzling matter if a homegrown player starts to lag behind.

When the University of Miami product was drafted in the third round of the 2011 draft, Redskins fans and the organization rejoiced, visualizing a solution to the ever problematic wide receiver position. I was one of those believers. 

Hankerson stood tall at 6-foot-2. He broke Michael Irvin's receiving records at a college oozing with remarkable NFL talent for two decades. What was thought to be a minor hands problem dropped Hankerson in the draft. In round number three, he seemed like an absolute steal. 

Here we stand, two full seasons later, with an army of receivers taken in the same draft who are already blossoming stars. A.J. Green and Julio Jones are the obvious studs, both perennial all-pro players. But second round picks Torrey Smith (Ravens) and Randall Cobb (Packers) have also each arguably become their franchise's biggest playmaker -- in crowded depth charts nonetheless. Shoot, even the Raiders Denarius Moore (a fifth round pick in 2011) posted 51 catches and seven touchdowns last season with Carson Palmer as his quarterback. Carson Palmer. 

So there isn't doubting the Redskins receiver is lagging behind several of his peers. Pesky little Aldrick Robinson was arguably more important to the offense last season than "Hank Time," -- see his full stats here. Sure you can argue the hip injury derailed most of Hankerson's rookie season -- one which he didn't suit up during the first five games because he wasn't ready. Sure you can argue 2012 was his first season with a dependable quarterback -- but Hankerson often went missing, recording only nine receptions in five December games.

The clock is ticking on whether Hankerson will reach his potential.

"Last season could've been a whole lot better. There's some plays last year I could've made," said Hankerson following Thursday's OTA session. "I'd grade myself a C. I had 500 or something yards. But we all can do better."

Most avid NFL film watchers will concur that Hankerson does indeed possess key attributes to become an above average pro. He's not scared of the middle of the field, he's shown ability to get deep separation from cornerbacks and his size alone distances himself from the rest of the Redskins receiving corps -- some have raved about his increased muscles in OTA's.

Here's the thing that Shanahan and Hankerson both brought up: this is his first real offseason. In 2011 the lockout slowed down his mental speed of the NFL, and last season most of training camp was spent not going at 100 percent because of hip surgery.

So now Leonard Hankerson, 24, has zero excuses to finally show the skills that made him a legendary Miami Hurricane. Some Redskins sources speculate that fellow receiver Josh Morgan will have the upper hand to begin the season as the starter alongside Pierre Garcon. Morgan was bogged down by several injuries and still managed to be semi-productive. Hankerson seems to welcome the challenge. 

"There is eight, nine, ten receivers on the depth chart. We all compete with each other. Of course it's all friendly. The coaches look for the guy who makes the play. That's what I'm trying to do," said Hankerson.

Hankerson's answer to this final question is what should concern most Redskins fans. He may lack the killer instinct that Alfred Morris and many other young players on this team carry inside themselves. Hankerson shouldn't be shy about wanting to become a dominant receiver.

Q: If you put up the same exact numbers this year as you did last year, would you be heavily disappointed?

A: "I just look forward to going out there helping my team doing every little bit I can do -- helping us win games you know. The numbers don't really matter. I'm just going out there and putting the team first, doing whatever I can to help us win."

Some will view that as a selfless answer. Some will agree with me. And I won't judge an athlete on one answer alone. But like mentioned earlier, Hankerson's leash is shortening by the season. He needs to start treating every down like it's his last. He has shown the skills and has the quarterback to join Randall Cobb and Torrey Smith as a game changing receiver. If he does duplicate those average 2012 numbers, the Redskins biggest need in the 2014 draft will indeed be wide receiver.

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Ed Reed will rehab at Houston Texans minicamp

Houston Texans safety Ed Reed, who has missed organized team workouts after undergoing hip surgery in late April, is rehabbing in Atlanta.

"I had a long conversation with Ed yesterday," coach Gary Kubiak said Wednesday, via "I think he actually got back to Atlanta on Saturday. We have him in a rehab program there in Atlanta."

Reed's injury came as a surprise to the Texans after they signed him away from the Baltimore Ravens.

Kubiak said Reed will spend time with his former team next week for a private ring ceremony on June 7 and a visit to the White House to commemorate the Ravens' Super Bowl XLVII win.

"That's pretty important for him to get that stuff done there, but he will be back here as we approach the mandatory minicamp and be here for the rehab process," Kubiak said. The team's three-day minicamp starts June 11.

"So you guys should see him in about a week."

The Texans also hope to have Reed on the field by the beginning or middle of training camp, which begins July 26, according to the Texans' website.

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Donnell Bennett named Coral Springs Christian football coach

Coral Springs Christian needed a football coach and they got a good one in Donnell Bennett..

Athletic Director Steve Fitzgerald confirmed that Bennett had been hired to take over the football program of Thursday

"We need to create a football environment here," Bennett said. "There are great people here and I feel this is the right time in my life to coach here. I'm looking forward to the challenge."

Bennett, 40, resigned from Northeast after four seasons at the Oakland Park school. He finished his tenure at Northeast with a 30-16 record. The Hurricanes qualified for the 2012 playoffs as the District 14-7A champion before losing to Dwyer in the regional quarterfinals.

Bennett is a graduate of Cardinal Gibbons High, played college at the University of Miami and was a running back in the NFL for eight seasons with the Kansas Coty Chiefs and Washington Redskins. He retired from the NFL following thr 2001 season.

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Blue Cure Benefit: Meet Texan Chris Myers

HOUSTON - Football fans know NFL Pro Bowl Center for the Houston Texans Chris Myers as a great athlete but he is so much more. Besides being a world class husband and father, Chris is an advocate for many local charitable causes and lends his support throughout the Houston community. 

One of the many causes he supports is the Blue Cure Foundation and he invites you to join him along with KHOU 11 News Anchor Lily Jang, Dr. Carolyn Farb, Don Vaughn and other to Party for a Cure benefit at Hotel ZaZa on Friday, May 31 from 7-10 p.m.

A LIVE auction will take place at the event at the DJ stand with Judge Eric Andell. One of the many items offered during the LIVE auction is a Houston Texans ticket package donated by Chris Myers. The package includes 4 on-field training camp practice passes and 4 tickets, 1 parking pass and 4 post game passes to the November 3rd Sunday night game vs the Indianapolis Colts!

Click here to purchase your tickets and to make your reservation.

Event admission is a $35 charitable donation per person and you will help celebrate the launch of Men’s Health Awareness month while benefiting a great cause.

The first 200 guests to arrive will each receive a free Blue Cure t-shirt, courtesy of Rusty Hardin and Associates, LLP. All guests who attend will receive a signature ZaZa Drink and swag bag. Guest will be able to groove to the music of DJs Don Vaughan and Lewis Grell and have an opportunity to mingle with several KHOU 11 personalities and local sports celebrities!

More LIVE Auction Items Dinner for 20 at Carrabba’s in the Wine Room, Kirby Restaurant Portrait by Photographer Sofia van der Dys Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Package for Two Jonathan Blake Designer Gown Valobra Master Jewelers Bracelet Autographed Blue Cure T-Shirt by Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger Saks 5th Avenue Black Revival Briefcase by Salvatore Ferragamo Hotel ZaZa Dallas Package

Portrait Session with Internationally Published Photographer Sofia van der Dys Sofia is praised for her eye and her passion for capturing special moments.  Her clients include: Vanity Fair UK, Carolyn Farb, 002 Magazine, Jonathan Blake, Valobra Jewelers, Tracy Locke, Sculpt Fitness, The Rothko Chapel, and The Remington to name a few. Photograph can be taken on location or at her studio. Value: $500

Directoire Blue Lindsey Dress by Jonathan Blake Designs Four Ply Silk Crepe, Extremely Versatile Dress to have in Your Wardrobe. Goes with a Variety of Shoes and Accessories. Works for any occasion. Flattering for every shape. Available in 90 Colors. You will look lovely in The Jonathan Blake Dress in your size. Value: $750

Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Package Two tickets to Private Directors Club in Reliant Stadium (appetizers, lunch/dinner, and desserts, open bar with your own personal attendant) One night stay in a 4-5 Diamond, Houston Hotel Limo or Town Car to and from your Hotel. Live Concert performance of your choice upon availability Value: $1,000

Carrabba’s Dinner for 20 in the Wine Room with Rose Carrabba Johnny Carrabba has donated a special evening, a dinner for 20, in his new wine room at Carrabba’s on Kirby. Johnny Carrabba will select an exclusive menu from his favorites for this special dinner. This most sought after room at the new restaurant. It is very cozy with its fireplace. It’s a perfect space for dinner with friends or that important dinner meeting. Alcohol, tax and gratuity are not included. Date to be mutually agreeable. Value: $1,500

Saks 5th Avenue Black Revival Briefcast by Salvatore Ferragamo Understated, elegant, and functional leather Black Revival Briefcase by Salvatore Ferragamo is the perfect accessory for any man.Textured leather with polished silvertone hardware, Fold-over front flap with sliding combo lock; slit and phone pocket under flap. Value: $1,600

Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger Blue Cure T-Shirt Arnold Schwarzenegger Signed Blue Cure T-Shirt. Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the most recognized individuals on the planet. Hollywood A-List Actor featured in the Terminator series, Kindergarten Cop, Twins, Total Recall, The Conan Franchise and more. Coming up for Arnold this year, he returns to the Legend of Conan. Arnold won the Mr. Universe title at 20 and went on to win the Mr. Olympia contest 7 times. Arnold was elected California’s 38th Governor in 2003 and re-elected in 2006. Arnold has been called “The People’s Governor” and has worked with leaders of both major parties. His leadership puts California at the forefront of the nation in addressing climate change, renewable energies, stem-cell research and putting in place health care and political reforms and is very proud of providing the best possible education to every child. Value: Priceless

Hotel ZaZa Dallas Package Two Nights in a Magnificent Seven Suite. Bottle of Champagne on Arrival. Four Course Dinner for Two at Dragonfly with Wine Pairings. ZaSpa Escape for Two. Platinum Motor Cars: Italian weekend in the Ferrari and 5 hours of chauffeured service in the Rolls Royce Phantom. Value: Priceless

Valobra Master Jewelers Bracelet by Valobra Jewelry- Franco Valobra

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Knicks Reportedly Love Miami’s Shane Larkin

With the New York Knicks holding the No. 24 pick in June’s NBA Draft, many expect the franchise to target their point guard of the future.

That man very well could be Miami’s Shane Larkin.

According to Joe Kotoch of, the Knicks love the idea of potentially drafting Larkin should he fall to them in the first round.

The son of MLB Hall of Famer Barry Larkin had a breakout year in leading the Hurricanes to an ACC Championship. The sophomore averaged 14.5 points, 4.8 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game and single handily carried the Canes to their best season in quite some time. He also put up very respectable shooting numbers, knocking down 47.9 percent of his shots from the floor and 40.6 of his attempts from behind the arc.

He continued opening eyes at the NBA Combine in Chicago when he recorded a 44-inch vertical leap — a combine record.

If a guy like Larkin falls to the Knicks at No. 24 it would be a gift.

With Jason Kidd at 40 and Pablo Prigioni at 35, the pick would make perfect sense.

The Knicks need a good young quick point guard who can handle himself at both ends of the floor, something Raymond Felton cannot. In Larkin, the Knicks would be getting a dynamic young point guard with plenty of upside and a guy who could become a perfect complement for Felton in the short-term.

What the Knicks need is a guy who can push the pace when needed, which may be Larkin’s biggest strength.

Offensively, defenders have no idea how to guard him as he can pull up from NBA range or drive right by you. He is so smooth and shoots the ball with such ease coming off the dribble. He’s outstanding in the pick-and-roll and is very balanced in terms of scoring. He is also a very creative passer with excellent vision.

At 5’11″, size will obviously be one of his biggest issues, but he does have a very quick release on his jump shot. Larkin is just as good of a shooter spotting up as he is off the bounce and has the basketball IQ to move without the ball in his hands as well.

Defensively will present the biggest obstacles for Larkin as he is neither tall nor strong. He is a very smart defender though and will have to use those smarts to have success in the NBA.

Larkin has all the upside in the world and could become a very good BA point guard within time. In the short-term though he could provide a spark off the bench for the Knicks.

At No. 24 he could be the best guard left on the board and if he is available for the Knicks, they may be foolish to pass on him.

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Ed Reed will be present for Texans’ minicamp

Coach Gary Kubiak says new free safety Ed Reed, who’s coming off hip surgery, will at least be on the sideline for Texans’ minicamp June 11-13. Reed had a torn labrum that was bothering him and, after the arthroscopic procedure, he stayed in Colorado where it was done to begin his rehab work.

The 11-year veteran Reed, a nine-time Pro Bowler who was signed away from the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens during free agency, won’t be making an appearance during the Texans’ voluntary OTAs, which conclude next week.

“I had a long conversation with Ed yesterday,” Kubiak said. “I think he actually got back to Atlanta on Saturday. We have him in a rehab program there. Next week, I think, is (Baltimore’s) Super Bowl ring ceremony and (the team is) going to the White House, so that’s pretty important for him. But he will be back here for the rehab process as we approach the mandatory minicamp, so you guys (in the media) should see him in about a week.”

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proCane NFL Rookie Hopefulls' Dreams On Hold

Seattle cut proCane LB Ramon Buchanan after rookie minicamp, and Tampa did not sign ex-Cane Robert Marve, Dalton Botts and Jeremy Lewis after tryouts.

Jacory Harris, will be competing to make the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos.

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Sean Spence expects to play in '13

PITTSBURGH -- Sean Spence's coaches appear split over whether the linebacker's mangled left knee will be ready to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013.

Spence, however, has no such concerns.

"The goal is for me to play this season," Spence said Wednesday during organized team activities. "That's the way I'm preparing."

Though he declined to mark a specific return date, Spence insists he can see the finish line for his recovery from a gruesome injury that cut short his rookie year before it even began. Spence was blitzing late in the third quarter of the team's final preseason game against Carolina when his knee gave out and bent awkwardly.

The third-round pick out of Miami (Fla.) needed to be taken off the field on a stretcher after tearing all three major ligaments and sustaining extensive nerve damage in the knee.

"I knew right away that something wasn't right," Spence said. "The knee went back. It didn't hurt as much as I thought it should have hurt, but I think I was in shock more than anything."

So were the Steelers, who were hoping Spence could become the eventual successor to James Farrior at inside linebacker. Instead he spent all of Pittsburgh's disappointing 8-8 season wearing a brace and wondering if his career was in jeopardy.

That doesn't appear to be an issue anymore. At least, not to Spence.

"I know a lot of people have not been able to come back after damage like that, but I'm going to see if I can be one of the only ones," he said. "Actually, I know that I'm going to beat the odds. I'm not really worried about that."

Spence's coaches can't seem to agree. Coach Mike Tomlin said before last month's draft that Spence was progressing as planned but linebackers coach Keith Butler appeared to be more cautious, indicating there would be little chance of Spence playing this season, if at all.

The Steelers re-signed veteran Larry Foote in the offseason and grabbed Florida State's Vince Williams in the sixth round of the draft. Williams is considered a project while Foote turns 33 next month. Spence remains very much a part of Pittsburgh's long-term plans. He would just prefer to be a part of the short-term one as well.

Though Spence says he can run and "do everything," he will not be on the field during OTAs or minicamp. His goal is to be ready when training camp opens in July but that seems a bit ambitious. Spence allows that might be too soon, but he doesn't see himself sitting out the year again.

"You do want to play it safe, in a situation like this, but at the same time if I'm good enough to go, I'm gonna go," he said. "I probably will take things slow, but I have trust myself in doing what I know I can do. And if I think I can go, I'll go."

Spence was a tackling machine for the Hurricanes, making 317 stops in four seasons, including 10.5 sacks. His speed makes him an asset in coverage and when he was drafted, the Steelers saw an opportunity to pair him with veteran Lawrence Timmons in the middle of Pittsburgh's 3-4 scheme.

It's too soon to tell if Spence's burst will return, but he is using the downtime to become a better student of the game. Adjusting from college to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's complex system can be difficult for the most talented players. Spence hopes the studying he's done over the last year will help speed up the process whenever he puts the shoulder pads back on.

"I think I'm up to speed, and I know this defense pretty well," he said. "I'm still learning from guys like Larry Foote. I sit next to him in meetings, so he helps me out a lot. And I'm taking a lot of mental reps on the field, so I'm learning from them as well.

"They're almost as good as physical reps."


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VIDEO: Leonard Hankerson - 2012 All Regular Season Targets/Catches

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VIDEO: Mike Reiss Talks To Marcus Forston

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Lamar Miller hoping to run the show

Lamar Miller didn’t hesitate. The hole was there. So he hit it. Hard.

And a heartbeat later, Miller was in the end zone, proving — at least in shorts and helmets — that 218 pounds is plenty big enough to be an effective short-yardage back.

Of course, Miller hopes his role is far more expansive than that. The Dolphins’ second-year rusher doesn’t want any prefix attached to his title except one: every-down.

“Everybody’s mind-set is to start,” Miller said Wednesday after the day’s 90-minute organized team activities. “We’ve just got to come out here and compete every day and get each other better, so whoever gets into a starting position, just help this team win.”

Technically, the competition to succeed Reggie Bush as the Dolphins’ featured back is “wide open,” as Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said Wednesday. Daniel Thomas, Mike Gillislee, Jonas Gray and Marcus Thigpen also are in the mix.

But through May, Miller appears to have a leg up on the field, both in repetitions and in production.

He is taking the bulk of snaps with the first team, and when he does, he has been effective, showing the same explosiveness he did at the University of Miami.
“I think he’s just more comfortable,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “He knows the offense. He’s been in it for a year. He knows the protections. Now he can just go out and let his athletic ability shine for itself.”

In March, before free agency began, the Dolphins sent out signals that they were ready to move on from Bush, who averaged more than 1,000 yards in each of his two seasons with the Dolphins.

On Wednesday, Philbin explained why.

“We liked the guys we had,” he said.

“We thought there was potential there. We thought there was opportunity for growth and development out of those guys, and we’ll see how that goes here in the next couple weeks and months.”

Philbin said that despite the open competition at this point, too much should not be read into who’s working the most with which unit. Instead, the springtime is about installation as much as it is evaluation, and exposing the players to as many situations as possible.

“We’re going to watch the tape and see how our players pick up the blitz, run routes, see how they run the ball when they have the opportunity and go from there,” Philbin said.

It’s telling that Philbin mentioned pass protection first in the list of skills. For Miller, that probably kept him off the field early in the 2012 season.
Miller said he is focused on improving his blocking this offseason and expects that to show up when the competition begins in earnest come training camp.

As for the workload associated with a No. 1 running back — 250 or so carries over the course of the season — he doesn’t think that will be a problem. Miller rushed the ball 227 times in his final season at UM, and that was during a shorter season than in the NFL.

“It’s about staying in better condition and staying healthy,” Miller said, adding, “I feel like I’m more of an explosive, speed type of guy. I’m just trying to keep it going.”

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VooDoo activate James Bryant

Searching for answers, grasping at straws, the struggling New Orleans VooDoo have activated linebacker James Bryant from league suspension and placed linebacker Robert Henderson on league suspension, effectively releasing him. New Orleans also reassigned center Natiel Curry, taking him off the roster.

Despite not playing last Saturday against Chicago, Bryant should provide a boost. He is second on the VooDoo with 30 1/2 tackles, including four for losses and a pair of sacks. Henderson had 8 1/2 tackles on the season.

Coach Pat O' Hara worked newly acquired offensive lineman Bryce Tennison at fullback while fullback Jeramie Richardson may move to linebacker, his natural position. Tennison is 6'3, 305-pounds.

New Orleans (1-8) has lost eight straight games and will host the Cleveland Gladiators (2-7) Saturday night at 7 p.m. at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

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Jason Fox favorite to start at right tackle?

JasonFoxLions's Tim Twentyman suggests Jason Fox is the leading candidate to start at right tackle.

Fox, a 2010 fourth-rounder, has appeared in all of five career games, and he's expected to compete with Corey Hilliard for the job. After the Lions experienced some of the best O-line continuity over the past few years, they'll be employing three new starters up front at left and right tackle and right guard.

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Colin McCarthy to host free football camp

Titans linebacker Colin McCarthy is scheduled to host a free football clinic in Brentwood on July 13 designed for high school football players who want to improve their overall skills training.

The clinic will be held at Quest Sports Center in Brentwood, and will focus on training high school athletes for college combines.

“I wanted to share the opportunity to work with high school athletes in the area to provide training and encouragement,” McCarthy said.  “There isn’t a clinic like this in Tennessee and I was able to participate in something similar when I was in high school.   I saw it as a real advantage and I want to give the same opportunity to these athletes who want to take their training and knowledge to the next level.”

The clinic is open to student athletes (sophomores, juniors and seniors) in the region with a recommendation from their high school football coach.  For more information, call 615-669-6058, email or log on to Events page.

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Magic discover valuable asset in undrafted DeQuan Jones

ORLANDO, Fla. -- With all the attention paid last week to where the Orlando Magic and 13 other teams will be picking next month, it is worth remembering that there is a place in the NBA for the undrafted free agent.

DeQuan Jones is an example of that.

Despite starting in only two games as a senior at the University of Miami and never averaging as much as six points a contest in any of his four years there, the 6-foot-8 small forward turned in a rookie season that a handful of lottery picks and several players chosen in the second half of the first round might look upon with envy. 

Jones earned a spot on the roster with his speed and athletic ability in training camp and the preseason, and first-year Magic coach Jacque Vaughn inserted him into the starting lineup after Hedo Turkoglu fractured his left hand in the regular-season opener.

For a while, it felt like a flashback to the franchise's "heart and hustle" era when Doc Rivers was an unproven head coach and the Magic occasionally utilized a lineup comprised of nothing but undrafted players such as Darrell Armstrong, Bo Outlaw and Ben Wallace.

Those similarities didn't last for long. The Magic flirted with the .500 mark through their first 25 games before their inexperience and a string of injuries jolted them back to reality. And the lasting image of Jones might be when, after both Maurice Harkless and Tobias Harris had fouled out of a game at Miami, he came in cold off the bench and was entrusted with the thankless task of trying to defend LeBron James with the outcome on the line.

Jones, who had gone against James in some pickup games while still in college, had no better luck trying to stop the NBA's MVP in the closing seconds than Paul George of the Indiana Pacers did in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. The 97-96 loss to the Heat marked one of eight times the Magic were beaten by three or fewer points.

Coming so close twice to defeating both the Heat and the Chicago Bulls gives Jones cause to think the Magic aren't as far away from playoff contention as their 20-62 record would suggest.

"I believe we're very close," he said. "This season was a direct reflection of just being in a lot of close games and with our youth being against us, so to speak, just not knowing how to close out games with the lack of experience. But I believe we can contend for a playoff spot next year."

Although the Magic are expected to continue to be in a rebuilding mode, it's unlikely they would take a small forward with the No. 2 pick in the draft. That could give Jones a decent chance at sticking around with a group of players he came to enjoy and respect.

"I know we have a lot of great guys on our team," Jones said. "But most of all, they're competitors. And whenever you deal with those types of issues, that brings out the best in you."

Fellow rookie Doron Lamb didn't have to overcome quite the same odds Jones did, but his road to the NBA was by no means smooth. Lamb, the 42nd overall selection, was inactive for 22 games with the Milwaukee Bucks and spent six games in the Development League before they packaged him with Harris and Beno Udrih in a deal before the trading deadline.

The 21-year-old guard out of Kentucky gave the Magic a taste of what he might develop into when he knocked down four 3-point field goals in their overtime win over the Bucks. Lamb is the third-youngest player on the team next to Harkless and Harris and thus figures to be part of the summer league squad the Magic will field July 7-12.

What He Did Right
It was commendable for Jones to make the roster as an undrafted rookie, much less start in 17 games. His speed and athleticism were evident, even while averaging less than 13 minutes a game. During the stretch of a few weeks in January, he was starting ahead of first-round pick Maurice Harkless at small forward and getting more playing time than him.

Where He Needs to Improve
On a team full of young players who can be categorized as works in progress, he might need the most work of all. He may never become someone for whom plays are run, but that shouldn't keep him from developing a dependable jump shot or becoming a better ball-handler. Despite his raw talent, he didn't block many shots.

Best Game
March 27 at Charlotte. This was one of the four occasions when he scored in double figures. He made six of his nine field-goal attempts, including some open jump shots, and finished with a career-high 13 points. A week later, he played 36 minutes off the bench at Chicago as the Magic almost knocked off the Bulls.

Looking Ahead
Given all the playing time Harkless and Tobias Harris received over the final seven weeks, it's hard to picture Jones being more than a low-cost insurance policy next season. He's a free agent after making the rookie minimum salary of less than $475,000.

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Chris Perez diagnosed with mild rotator cuff tendinitis

Chris Perez underwent an MRI exam after being placed on the disabled list with a shoulder injury and the Indians announced that he’s been diagnosed with mild rotator cuff tendinitis.

Jordan Bastian of reports that the plan is for Perez to be totally shut down for 5-7 days, at which point he’ll try to resume throwing.

In the meantime Vinnie Pestano will take over as the Indians’ closer and considering how well he’s pitched in a setup role for multiple seasons could conceivably have a pretty tight grip on ninth-inning duties whenever Perez is ready to return.

And Perez won’t even be able to kill time on Twitter while he’s sidelined, because he deleted his account last week after getting nasty comments following back-to-back poor appearances.

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Ryan Braun donating ~$60,000 to give Brewers fans discounted tickets

When the Milwaukee Brewers began their "Brewers Win, You Win" promotion at the beginning of the month, I don't think the marketing folks figured the club would win so few games.

Feeling confident after finishing the month of April by winning 12 of 15, the Brewers launched a campaign that would knock a dollar off the price of Terrace Box seats for the June 3-5 series against the Athletics with every game that the Brewers won in the month of May. Unfortunately, Milwaukee has won just five games since the promotion started.

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Travis Benjamin displaying sure hands

Cleveland Browns WR Travis Benjamin has impressed the coaching staff with his sure hands this offseason. He averaged 16.6 yards per reception in 2012, and his speed has offensive coordinator Norv Turner trying to figure out how to take advantage of Benjamin's speed.

Fantasy Tip: Benjamin should be left for your waiver wire in fantasy football drafts, unless he drastically moves up the depth chart.

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Darryl Sharpton back at practice

For the first time since his days in Coral Gables, Florida, Darryl Sharpton is calling plays and running a defense.

The inside linebacker spent the first week of organized team activities (OTA’s) getting his teammates aligned and into the right position prior to the snap. And it’s a familiar task, according to the former Miami Hurricane.

“It’s kind of like riding a bicycle,” Sharpton said. “My first two or three years here I was used to just getting the calls, listening and lining up. Now I’m the one making the calls.”

Brian Cushing is still rehabbing his knee injury, so Sharpton has filled the void while the defensive captain has been out. Sharpton injured his hip in the regular season finale at Indianapolis. Head coach Gary Kubiak said he’d keep the fourth-year veteran out of special teams work to “be protective”.

“It feels good to be back out there, and doing what I do best,” Sharpton said. “And that’s play football.”

Brooks Reed, who lined up alongside Sharpton at the other inside linebacker spot frequently during the first three OTA’s, said Sharpton’s a natural fit for the position.

“He knows what to do, he’s a smart guy, and obviously physical,” Reed said. “He’ll do a great job.”

Safety Danieal Manning likes what he’s seen from Sharpton during the first few days of practice, and believes 2013 will be a year to remember.

“He’s getting comfortable with the defense, comfortable with the guys,” Manning said. “I think this season will be a breakout season for him. He’s flying around in all those drills. He’s flying around on the field.”

Sharpton’s 2011 and 2012 campaigns were truncated to just eight and seven games, respectively, because of injuries. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph is excited to see Sharpton back, and also thinks his presence will be a major plus for the defense.

“Obviously he can help us,” Joseph said. “He can come in and play the run and the pass. Just getting a guy back like that is just tremendous for this defense.”
While he’s played in each of the last three seasons, he hasn’t been in as much of a leadership role. Being there now has conjured up some memories from his collegiate days.

“It’s something I haven’t done in a while,” Sharpton said. “Not since I was at the University of Miami. But being put in this role, it feels good. I know a whole lot more about the defense. I’m having to call more plays and line guys up. So it’s extra responsibility, but I look forward to it.”

Sharpton and the Texans resume work at the Methodist Training Center on the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday following Memorial Day.

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Kenny Phillips sits out with knee injury

Eagles FS Kenny Phillips missed Tuesday's OTA practice with an undisclosed injury to his surgically repaired knee.

Coach Chip Kelly wouldn't go into detail, only saying Phillips was "out with (a) knee injury." It's possible he suffered a setback, but until the Eagles elaborate we're inclined to believe it's due to general soreness. Phillips has battled knee injuries since entering the league.

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Ray Lewis pledges to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro

More than three months after playing the final football game of a storied 17-year career, Ray Lewis has apparently found his next challenge.

The former Ravens linebacker said today on his Twitter page that he will climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to raise money and awareness for clean water projects in East Africa. Lewis will undertake the mission, which he has billed TackleKili, next month.

Kilimanjaro is the highest free-standing mountain in the world and is over 19,000 feet above sea level.

"I am so FIRED UP for this adventure, but until then, I need your help to bring clean water wells to thousands of children and families," Lewis said in a statement.

Lewis is asking for donations through the web site. Those who register will be eligible to win a Lewis autographed Ravens helmet.

Lewis, known for his rigorous offseason workout routines, played 228 regular-season games over 17 seasons, all with the Ravens. In his final game, the Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers to win Super Bowl XLVII and send Lewis out on top.

He was a 13-time Pro Bowl selection and a two-time Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year. In announcing his retirement Wednesday, former Chicago Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher called Lewis the best to ever play the position.

Lewis, 38, has accepted an NFL analyst role with ESPN for the coming season.

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Brandon Harris going thru concussion protocol

Texans CB Brandon Harris is going through concussion protocol after getting knocked out in OTAs this week.

"We’re putting him through the protocol that you would do during the regular season," coach Gary Kubiak said. "A guy gets dinged like that, gets knocked out like he did, we’ll put him through the total protocol. You probably won’t see him for a good week as he goes through the process." Harris collided with first-round WR DeAndre Hopkins earlier in the week. He might sit until minicamp.

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Frank Gore on list of sidelined 49ers

Running back Frank Gore hasn’t had surgery and he isn’t rehabbing an injury from last year, but he was on an elliptical alongside Staley during Tuesday’s practice. Coach Jim Harbaugh offered no details about the nature of the issue that Gore is dealing with, saying only that he doesn’t believe the running back has a major injury.

“Just working through something,” Harbaugh said, via Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. “Nothing too serious.”

Assuming Harbaugh’s diagnosis is correct, this might be a good thing for Gore when all is said and done. Gore’s running style and heavy usage mean that he has taken a beating over the course of his eight-year career, so there’s not much downside to a little extra rest in the offseason after playing in every game over the last two years.

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Life after Ray Lewis for Ravens

Ray Lewis' signature fire and brimstone speeches were the trademark of his leadership style.

Now that the future Hall of Fame middle linebacker has retired, the Ravens' locker room chemistry is in transition. It's a decidedly quieter one.

Besides outspoken star outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, most of the Ravens' top players have low-key personalities.

A different kind of leadership structure might emerge with Lewis as well as veteran free safety Ed Reed no longer on the roster, one with several different voices, albeit in a less pronounced way than previous incarnations of the AFC North franchise.

"The guys will fill it right up," Ravens coach John Harbaugh predicted. "The leadership lid maybe gets pushed off, maybe, and some other guys grow up behind into that opportunity. That's what will happen. I can see guys doing it already."

Among the leaders on the Ravens are Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, who's a confident public speaker, and quarterback Joe Flacco, who has a stoic, unflappable approach to the game. Signed to a $120.6 million blockbuster contract in March, Flacco tends to lead by example.

“Joe has been a great leader," Harbaugh said. "Joe has done a great job throughout his career in his own way. One thing about Joe: Nothing is going to change Joe. Joe is going to be who he is.

"I don’t think a change in the roster is going to change Joe, who he is. A change in the contract isn’t going to change Joe. Joe is Joe, and that’s what you love about him.”

Harbaugh acknowledged that not having Lewis does represent a significant change.

The two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player was the face of the franchise for the past 17 years. Now Lewis is gone and has joined ESPN as a football analyst.

“I’ve thought about it," Harbaugh said. "Ray was never here during the offseason anyway, so I’d say it’s business as usual. How about that? (laughter) It’s normal, but Ray’s a part of us. He’s always going to be a part of us, just like all the other guys that have played here are always a part of us. Those guys are always welcome. They are back from time to time.

"Truly, when you are a part of a football team, anybody that has played any sport, football is the one that I know, you do walk together forever as teammates. So those guys are still a part of it, and this team goes forward and tries to build a legacy and see what they can do with it. That’s what’s exciting.”

Harbaugh mentioned newcomer Elvis Dumervil, a Pro Bowl outside linebacker signed to a $35 million contract after a fax debacle led to him being cut by the Denver Broncos, as someone who's developing into a leader because of his strong work ethic.

Dumervil was deferential to Lewis' legacy when asked about replacing Lewis' impact, on and off the field.

“You can’t, man," Dumervil said. "He’s a first-ballot [Hall of Famer], arguably one of the best players ever. All you can do, I think, you can learn from your past, and I think the history, the past he’s left here was remarkable and sort of set in stone. So his place will always be marked here, and you’ve just got to learn from that and try to keep it going.

"First of all, you've just got to go out and play. I think as Ray went out, he demonstrated, he played, and he walked the walk, he talked the talk. I think, soon enough, when the tides get rolling. That’s why I think it’s important to come out to offseason training, OTAs and those things, let the younger guys [see you]. You know it’s a profession, you’ve got to be professional about it, and you take your job seriously.”

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Olivier Vernon: Dolphins Youth Camper To Dolphins Draft Pick

Little did they know it back then, but a decade ago the Miami Dolphins were developing their first true homegrown prospect in 12-year-old Olivier Vernon.

Vernon, now 22, remembers his experience at the team’s youth football camp in 2003 like it just happened. It was then that Vernon decided for himself that football and not soccer was going to be his passion and he planned his future.

“Actually, during my first week of OTAs last year that was going through my head,” said Vernon, a defensive end who was chosen in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Dolphins out of the University of Miami. “Where we have lunch now, that’s where I would eat lunch as a kid because that’s where we had the little snacks and stuff. Then they brought us into the team meeting room and we watched the season highlights of the Dolphins. What are the odds of me being in the team meeting room again as a Miami Dolphin?”

If the resume Vernon put together for a high school a project is any indication, he already was setting some favorable odds. His objective at the top of the page read, “To obtain a position in the National Football League.” Clearly a lofty goal to some at the time, but Vernon was serious.

The fact that he was named the MVP of the Dolphins football camp in that summer of 2003 added credence to Vernon’s vision, and that was the third consecutive summer he participated.

His father, Lascelles, was a soccer player back in his native Jamaica before an unfortunate accident ended his career in high school, so while initially he was saddened by his son’s choice to stop soccer for football, he had no doubt that Olivier would reach his goal.

“Anything he puts his mind to he always sees it through and he doesn’t like to lose,” Lascelles Vernon said. “He’s very competitive and that’s what he wanted to do since he was a kid. It was very exciting watching him at Dolphins camp and everyone was amazed at how fast he was and how much stamina he had. That came from soccer and he was excited to tour the facilities and meet the Dolphins players.”

Bernadette Vernon proudly displays the jerseys her son wore all those years ago in Davie, including one with former Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler’s autograph on the back among others. She also kept the autographed Dolphins football Olivier received for being named as the camp's MVP along with lots of photos of him and his friends practicing and playing.

After watching her son excel at soccer as well as an art student, Bernadette also was caught a little off guard about his newfound passion for football. He pursued it at Miami American High School and used the skills he learned at Dolphins Camp to get a leg up on the competition and his mother realized this would be his calling.

“He knew what he wanted do from the time he was in middle school and I saw how much fun he was having at that football camp,” said Bernadette, who got to watch Olivier play in the same stadium as the Dolphins with the Miami Hurricanes. “It’s incredible. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to remind me that it’s real and that my son who wrote on his resume that he was going to be in the NFL is there now.”

Vernon can laugh now about what he was like as a young camper taking instructions from former Dolphins and NFL players.

He even got to experience a role reversal last year with the rest of his rookie closs as the student became the teacher at a special rookie clinic for kids. There was no doubt Vernon enjoyed sharing his story with them.

“Kids look up to people like us at this level,” he said. “I let them know that dreams can come true and that I was sitting right where they were when I was their age dreaming about being here.”

Oliver Vernon’s dream started at the Dolphins Academy football camps 10 years ago, sign up today and maybe yours will start there as well.

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Shane Larkin stands tall in the crowd

CHICAGO -- You tend to believe Shane Larkin when he says the NBA's current crop of hyper-talented point guards doesn't intimidate him. From the moment Larkin made basketball his full-time focus, he's been peppered with doubts.

He's aware he's undersized -- measuring at 5'11, Larkin is the shortest player at the draft combine who will garner consideration in the first round. He's aware that some teams question his playmaking skills after he averaged under five assists per game as a sophomore at Miami. And he's aware that point guard is the most stacked position in the NBA.

As Larkin starts to name the league's best point guards, he says their names with a certain reverence. He doesn't stop at Russell Westbrook or Tony Parker, he keeps going. Jrue Holiday, John Wall, Stephen Curry, the list goes on. Larkin's job at the next level will not be an easy one. He'll be tasked with matching wits against some of the league's most skilled and athletic players, many a few inches taller than he, from the moment he steps onto a pro court. Just don't tell Shane Larkin that his height will work against him.

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Durand Scott Impresses at Nets Draft Combine

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It never hurts to have a guy on your team who can do a little bit of everything. As he makes his way through the NBA Draft process this spring, former Rice High School and University of Miami star Durand Scott believes he can be that guy.

An ACC All-Defensive Team selection and the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, Scott, a 125-game starter at shooting guard over four seasons for the Hurricanes, showed he can play offense too. He ended his career with 1,650 points, good for eighth in program history, in addition to 404 assists, which sits fifth all-time. As a senior, he averaged 13.1 points and 4.0 rebounds per game as Miami enjoyed a landmark 29-7 season, winning the ACC regular season and conference tournament crowns to earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

After previously working out for the Los Angeles Lakers, Scott made his way to the 44-player Nets Draft Combine on Wednesday looking to prove that he can be that defensive stopper, while also showing his offense can translate to the next level. Matched up with the smaller, quicker Phil Pressey, a junior point guard from Missouri, Scott made the most of the opportunity. Once the workout went to 5-on-5 play, Scott forced the Cousy Award finalist into three early turnovers and a poor shooting day, while showing good decision-making on the offensive end.

“I’m very happy I had the opportunity to come out here and compete with one of the best guys in the country,” Scott said. “I had a chance to put my skills out there and showcase and play the best I possibly can.”

All of the attributes that gave executives and scouts from all 30 NBA teams a positive impression of Scott have not yet translated into a rising stock. With the draft just over one month away, the 6-foot-5, 203-pound does not appear on any reputable mock draft. That didn’t stop at least one veteran NBA scout from deeming the Bronx native as draft-worthy.

“I thought he played very well today, he just knows how to play,” the scout told after witnessing the workout at PNY Center. “He hit some nice 3’s, made some good passes, drove, and played under control. I think he’d be a nice second-round selection for someone.”

Represented by Andy Miller and ASM Sports, Scott may not be he hitting many draft boards just yet, but he is going to have the opportunity to raise his stock in the coming weeks. A source confirmed to on Thursday evening that Scott will work out for the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday, with scheduled workouts with the Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers and Dallas Mavericks coming as well.

Additionally, Scott will participate in ASM Pro Day, a 17-player draft combine, on May 31 in Las Vegas.

With Scott having gotten his feet wet in terms of workouts with the Lakers, he now knows what to expect going in.

“It was my first workout, so I kind of wanted to get my feet wet and just to see what workouts are gonna be like,” Scott said. How hard it is, what to expect, things like that and I think it went pretty well. All you can do is play hard as you can. It’s basketball, you know? At the same time, it is your future. I’ve just been enjoying the process.”

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Shane Larkin makes most of short stop in Boston

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers has always been brutally honest with his advice for Shane Larkin. Like the time after Rivers' son, Austin, defeated Larkin's high school squad in a Florida state championship hoops battle.

"Doc saw me after the game and said, 'Great game. Just keep doing what you’re doing. I’m glad my son beat you, but at the same time, you’re a great player, you’re going to do great things,'" said Larkin, smiling as he recalled the slightly backhanded compliment in a losing effort. "I have a great relationship with [Doc]. If there’s a chance of being able to play for him in the NBA, that’s just like a dream."

As Orlando residents, Larkin has known Rivers for the better part of a decade, dating back to when he and Austin were teammates on a 9-year-old AAU All-Star team in the early 2000s. The pair soon became the Larry and Magic of local high school hoops, meeting in two state title clashes (Austin's Winter Park twice bested Larkin's Dr. Phillips). The two would even cross paths again in college -- both wearing No. 0 at that level -- in a Duke-Miami showdown two seasons ago. Could coach Rivers' familiarity with Larkin convince the Celtics to consider Larkin with the 16th overall pick in next month's draft?

Larkin was the top-ranked guard of the eight backcourt players the Celtics auditioned over two days of pre-draft workouts at their training facility last week. Larkin is currently ranked the 19th best player (and fourth best point guard) on's Top 100 draft board, and is pegged as a mid first-round pick.

The 5-foot-11 Larkin is undersized, but he has showcased speed (producing the fastest ¾ court sprint at this month's draft combine) and leaping ability (posting the second-highest max vertical ever at 44 inches; he thanks his dancing mother for his hops). But that's not his only athletic pedigree -- his father is 12-time MLB All-Star and Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, while his uncles were stars on both the hardwood and gridiron -- and there's obvious intrigue in his game giving just his bloodlines.

Boston was Larkin's first stop on a workout shuttle that was scheduled to also take him to Milwaukee, Utah, and Phoenix while hoping to better his draft standing.

"I just need to come in here and show how athletic I am, show that I can defend and show that I’m willing to work," said Larkin. "I’m an undersized guy, so I have to work harder than everybody else. Just go out there and show them those things that's what is going to help me play in the NBA.

"It’s a great learning process. It’s great to know what people doubt about you so you can go in there and work as hard at that, so when they watch you play, you try to show them that even though they’re doubting it and they don’t think you can do it, you go out there and show them that you can. It’s been a great process. As a kid, you always dream about playing in the NBA. This is a dream. I’m living my dream."

If you've heard of Larkin, you've probably heard the often-relayed story about how basketball ended up as his sport of choice. After shadowing his father at Cincinnati Reds camp as a kid and learning how to hit from Hall of Famers like Pete Rose and Tony Perez, a YMCA coach questioned 8-year-old Larkin's stance, sending him into a season-long funk, and Larkin hasn't played the sport in organized format since then. He flirted with football (his uncle Mike played at Notre Dame), but a gridiron injury his freshman year of high school forced him to miss time in basketball and that downtime only confirmed his love for hoops.

Like Austin leans on his NBA-tested father, Larkin has a family support system as he embarks on his pro career.

"My uncle [Mike] has been more hands on, but my Dad has pretty much been my Dad and has supported me through everything," he said. "If I had a bad workout somewhere, I’d call him. He’d be like, ‘Just brush it off. There’s going to be another workout another day. It’s just another workout.' He’s just been really supportive throughout the process."

Larkin felt right at home in Boston. Not only did he cross paths with Rivers, but Jay Larranaga -- son of Miami coach, Jim Larranaga -- helmed the pre-draft workouts and the up-close look only confirmed what his eyes saw watching Hurricanes games.

"I’ve seen him a lot," said Larranaga. "For me, I think he showed the things I’ve watched over the last two years in playing for my father. I know what [general manager] Danny [Ainge] has seen, I’m sure he’s seen him a lot as well. Shane, I thought he did what he normally does. He’s a very athletic, unselfish, tough player."

With Rajon Rondo set to return from ACL surgery this season, Larkin knows he'd be deep on the depth chart his rookie season if he were swooped up by Boston. He's fine with that possibility.

"As a rookie, you’ve got to come in and you’ve got to earn everything," he said. "So coming in and having an opportunity to play behind Rajon Rondo, that can’t be a bad thing. I mean, the minutes aren’t going to be there immediately, but learning everything you can from Rondo -- he’s one of the better point guards in the NBA, an All-Star every year – it’s just going to help me become a better player. Going up against him every day in practice is going to make you better. Having an opportunity to play against someone like that would be a great experience, especially as a rookie."

And, of course, there would be the opportunity for plenty more advice from Rivers.

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Yonder Alonso Not Thinking About Opponent's Defensive Shifts

PHOENIX — Yonder Alonso breaks out into a wide grin at the mere mention of “defensive shift.”

“I don’t really think about it,” the Padres first baseman said Saturday afternoon when asked about the shift some teams are deploying against him.

The shift against Alonso has been deployed by the Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Mets and Brewers this season.

The second baseman moves to his left as well as backing up into short right field. The shortstop moves behind second base. The only infielder on the left side of the infield is the third baseman.

Alonso on Friday night beat Arizona’s shift by hitting a sharp grounder through the hole typically manned by the shortstop, driving in Carlos Quentin with the Padres’ first run. Earlier this season, Alonso dropped a bunt single when the Dodgers shifted against him.

“I don’t make adjustments to what I’m doing when they shift,” said Alonso. “I’m not a dead pull hitter. I hope they keep doing it.”

Alonso has power to both alleys. Several of the teams that shift the infield to the right, actually shade the outfield toward the left side against Alonso.

“Shifting is more a function of the pitcher,” said Padres manager Bud Black. “Defenses shift a lot based on what type of pitcher is working and how he wants to pitch a certain hitter. Some teams shift on Chase (Headley) at times.

“I do know this, Yonder has the ability to beat the shift.”

Padres hitting coach Phil Plantier said he is not surprised that teams use a shift against Alonso.

“Nothing surprises me,” Plantier said of defensive shifts. “There are thousands of charts out there. Every team has charts and graphs outlining player tendencies in great detail.

“Shifts take into consideration both the hitter and the pitcher. As a manager, you’re thinking ‘how are we going to pitch this guy ... what does the pitcher want to do ... where might he hit this pitch or that pitch.’

“And sometimes a shift is just mental to try to put a piece of doubt in the hitter’s head, take him out of the comfort zone.”

Plantier’s advice to Padres hitters facing a shift:

“Stay in your swing,” said Plantier. “Don’t change your approach for a shift. That is playing into the other team’s strategy. Yes, if you get an outside pitch that you would normally take the other way, take it the other way. But don’t change the approach just to beat the shift.”

“When I’m hitting, I’m not looking at where the infielders are playing,” said Alonso. “You notice, but you can’t focus on that. But I knew when I hit that pitch Friday night that it was a hit ... there was no shortstop where the shortstop usually is.”

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Yasmani Grandal, reinstated, glad to put suspension behind him

SEATTLE -- Catcher Yasmani Grandal sat on the bench in the visiting dugout at Safeco Field on Tuesday afternoon, the first time he'd done so in a big league ballpark this season.

He didn't appear or sound the least bit anxious after his return to the team from a 50-game suspension that he received in November due to elevated levels of testosterone.

If anything, Grandal sounded eager and like game No. 51 couldn't get here quick enough.

"It's not nerves. It's more like being excited," Grandal said, smiling.

Grandal was in the starting lineup and batting sixth on Tuesday against the Mariners, going 1-for-4 and scoring a run after completing his exile from the team to begin the season. He appeared in nine games with Triple-A Tucson recently, flying to Seattle on Monday to rejoin the Padres.

He has no intentions of going back and, from the sound of it Tuesday, it appears the 24-year-old switch-hitter will play a lot initially, according to manager Bud Black.

"For right now, Yazzy is going to get a number of starts to get up to speed and get going. We don't want to halt any momentum he has coming in," Black said.

Grandal, who hit .306 in 36 at-bats with Tucson, participated in Spring Training with the team and then remained behind to play in extended spring games and allow a meddlesome injury to his left middle finger to heal.

He spent time thinking about Tuesday, too.

"You're somewhere else [Arizona], you're not with your team. The one thing you have to do is try to get back and do whatever you can to get ready so when you do, you're ready to make that impact."

"From the offseason to Spring Training, it went by super slow. But as soon as we got done with Spring Training, it went by real quick. The next thing I knew, I had to go to Iowa [with Tucson]. And we're here now."

Last season, Grandal ran away with the starting catching duties after he was promoted for a second time on June 30. In his first start, he hit home runs from each side of the plate against the Rockies. He had a .297/.394/.469 line with eight home runs and 36 RBIs in 192 at-bats with the Padres.

Then came the positive test for elevated levels of testosterone in the offseason. Grandal didn't speak with reporters until he reported to Spring Training in February and only then did he read a statement. He did so after apologizing to his teammates.

"That was the most critical time for him, gaining back the players," Black said. "The first couple of days, it was the team apology, the individual apology to our veteran players and his remorse and what it did to the team.

"I think all that took place in the spring. I think now coming back it's not nearly the story that it was in February."

That sentiment was shared by outfielder Will Venable, who didn't see Grandal's return as a distraction at all.

"We got enough to occupy our minds as far as taking care of our own jobs and helping our team win," Venable said. "Yaz coming back will do nothing but help that.

"We're excited to get a good player back and we know Yaz and we know what it's like having him in the clubhouse. We are looking forward to going out and taking care of our business. Nothing changes now."

Upon his return, Grandal was asked if he felt he had anything to prove. He shook his head.

"If I have to prove anything, it's to the Padres. The fans need to understand that. My job comes first. The Padres are the ones who have me in the big leagues. They're the ones who have the decision to bring me up or down," Grandal said.

"If you're in the Major Leagues, you're getting another opportunity to prove yourself, to show the team you're with that you belong here. There's no baggage that you carry around."

From the reports Black received, Grandal played well in extended spring games and with Tucson. The finger that prevented him from swinging much in the offseason is healed.

"Even as far back as extended spring, he's been playing. Tucson got him a little closer to feeling like a Major Leaguer," Black said. "I think it just serves us best for him to pop right in the lineup. I think he's ready physically, I think he's mentally ready, our Triple-A staff said he's been playing well."

The Padres optioned catcher John Baker to Tucson to make room for Grandal on the 25-man roster and also designated Minor League infielder Edinson Rincon for assignment as Grandal was reinstated from the restricted list back to the 40-man roster.

Black said catcher Nick Hundley -- who is hitting .143 in May -- will also play, but at least initially Grandal will see more playing time.

"They're both going to play. We're going to see how Yazzy plays. It's a very demanding position," Black said. "Yazzy is just starting out as a Major League catcher and he's got a lot of room to grow. We feel as though we have a really good tandem.

"On Nick's half, it might be good for him to watch a couple of games in the short term. He's had, offensively, a couple of tough offensive weeks."

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