Big Ten spring football primer: Burning questions for each team
Michigan State's coaches and players were last seen dancing in a jubilant locker room following their Rose Bowl victory over Stanford on New Year's Day. The Spartans are the reigning darlings of the Big Ten after snapping Ohio State's 24-game winning streak last December and ending their own 26-year Rose Bowl drought a month later. They may still be floating when it comes time to return to practice.
Across the rest of the conference, however, most teams enter this spring with a bitter taste from last season. The Buckeyes started 12-0 but won neither the championship they sought nor their bowl game against Clemson. Wisconsin was mostly successful in coach Gary Andersen's debut season, but ended with consecutive losses to Penn State and South Carolina. Still, those frustrations pale in comparison to those of such teams as slumping Michigan, snakebitten Northwestern and reeling Purdue. The happiest teams in the conference might be Maryland and Rutgers, which are simply thrilled to be joining a more prestigious league.
The good news? Everybody gets to reset in the spring.
• Illinois: Is there hope for the Illini defense?
The obvious storyline at Illinois is Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt's quest to take over as the starting quarterback. But quarterback play wasn't the reason coach Tim Beckman's team went 1-7 in the Big Ten in 2013 (up from 0-8 the year before). In fact, the Fighting Illini's offense improved considerably under coordinator Bill Cubit. The defense, on the other hand, struggled mightily. It couldn't stop the run, couldn't pressure opposing passers and finished 115th nationally in yards allowed per play (6.66). Still, Beckman retained coordinator Tim Banks, and the unit returns eight starters. The position group most in need of a facelift is the defensive line. Touted Miami-area recruit Paul James III and juco transfer Joe Fotu both enrolled this semester and could make an immediate impact.
• Indiana: Can the Hoosiers' young defense improve?
That's the question Indiana faces after allowing more yards per game (527.9) than all but two teams nationally. Coach Kevin Wilson fired coordinator Doug Mallory after the Hoosiers finished last in the conference in total defense for a third consecutive season. They have slightly more reason for optimism than Illinois, because for one, they managed to win three Big Ten games last year. But their defense was also exceptionally young last fall. Indiana returns 10 starters, three of whom -- defensive tackle Ralphael Green and linebackers T.J. Simmons and Clyde Newton -- were freshmen. New coordinator Brian Knorr, who spent the past six seasons at Wake Forest, will install his 3-4 scheme this spring.
• Iowa: Can the Hawkeyes make another leap?
Kirk Ferentz's team returned to respectability last season, improving from 4-8 to 8-5, though it did so mostly by holding serve. Iowa beat seven FBS teams with a combined winning percentage of .391, while its five losses came against foes with a combined winning percentage of .824. Still, the Hawkeyes developed a solid nucleus of key performers, most notably quarterback Jake Rudock, running back Mark Weisman, wideout Kevonte Martin-Manley, offensive lineman Brandon Scherff and defensive tackle Carl Davis. For Iowa to return to the conference's upper tier, the Hawkeyes need to become more explosive on offense, starting with the offseason development of a potentially deep receiving corps. They also need to identify replacements for stalwart linebackers James Morris and Anthony Hitchens.
• Maryland: Are the Terps ready for prime time?
They better be, because Maryland's debut Big Ten schedule includes the conference's top three teams from last year, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin, as well as Iowa, Michigan and Penn State. Coach Randy Edsall's squad improved from 4-8 to 7-6 last season even after suffering another brutal spate of injuries. Star receiver Stefon Diggs, recovering from a broken leg, may return to the field this spring. Also returning are two offensive weapons, running back Wes Brown and receiver Marcus Leak, who showed promise early in their careers but missed the entire 2013 campaign. (Brown was suspended; Leak left for personal reasons.) Quarterback C.J. Brown, back for a sixth season, should welcome the help.
• Michigan: Are former four-star recruits ready to become real stars?
After an 11-win campaign and a Sugar Bowl victory in his first year in Ann Arbor in 2011, coach Brady Hoke has regressed to 8-5 and 7-6, respectively, in the past two seasons. His biggest wins have come in February, with the Wolverines landing top-10 recruiting classes in '12 and '13, but Michigan fans are still waiting for most of those blue-chip prospects to deliver. The offensive line, in particular, could not have been worse last fall; it caused problems for quarterback Devin Gardner and the running backs -- and that was before the unit lost All-America tackle Taylor Lewan to the NFL draft. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, formerly of Alabama, needs to see significant growth from former highly touted lineman Kyle Kalis, as well as rising sophomore tailbacks Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith.
Defensive end Shilique Calhoun is one of the returning standouts from a Michigan State defense that ranked first nationally in 2013.
• Michigan State: Can the Spartans' D keep dominating?
Michigan State's triumphant 13-1 season, capped by victories over top-five foes Ohio State and Stanford, fittingly ended with a fourth-down stop in the Rose Bowl. Coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who was recently rewarded with a new $900,000 salary, produced the nation's No. 1 defense in 2013, the Spartans' third straight top-five finish. After losing standouts such as Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard, linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and safety Isaiah Lewis, however, Michigan State needs to reload. It should field another suffocating pass rush, led by defensive ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush, but this spring presents an opportunity for such younger players as redshirt freshmen linebackers Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, and rising sophomore cornerback Darian Hicks, to push for prominent roles.
Leidner made four starts at quarterback during the Golden Gophers' surprising 8-5 season, but it was clear that the coaches didn't have much faith in him as a passer. Leidner -- a redshirt sophomore who Minnesota fans hope will evolve into their version of another Jerry Kill-coached quarterback, former Northern Illinois standout Jordan Lynch -- ran for 151 yards on 24 carries against San Jose State, and 66 yards on 18 carries against Michigan before handing the reins back to Philip Nelson. But in the Texas Bowl against Syracuse, Leidner replaced an ineffective Nelson and threw for a season-high 205 yards in a 21-17 loss. Shortly after the season, Nelson transferred to Rutgers, opening the door for Leidner.
• Nebraska: Can Bo Pelini make the most of his ninth life?
Pelini is back in Lincoln for a seventh season, and while the Cornhuskers put up yet another 9-4 record last fall, they provided some encouragement with a Gator Bowl win over Georgia. Rising sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. made seven starts at quarterback last year and will look to fend off redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton. Meanwhile, the Cornhuskers need to find replacements for all-conference cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. And Nebraska needs a playmaker or two to upgrade a special teams unit that finished 123rd out of 125 teams nationally in punt return average (3.04 yards per return).
• Northwestern: Can the 'Cats reverse their backslide?
On the morning of Oct. 5, 2013, coach Pat Fitzgerald's program was the toast of college football. Coming off a 10-win campaign the year before and off to a 4-0 start, No. 16 Northwestern hosted ESPN's College GameDay prior to a prime-time showdown with Ohio State. But after narrowly losing to the Buckeyes, the Wildcats dropped six straight and failed to win again until an anticlimactic regular-season finale against Illinois. At one point, the 'Cats lost four consecutive games in the last minute or overtime. After splitting time with departed quarterback and recent athlete activist Kain Colter, senior Trevor Siemian will take over as the starter. But redshirt freshman Matt Alviti, a former four-star recruit, could emerge as much the same change-of-pace spread-option threat as Colter was.
• Ohio State: Will new faces revive the Buckeyes' D?
Urban Meyer's team won 12 games last season and very nearly played for the national title despite allowing more passing touchdowns (31) than all but five teams nationally. Enter a new co-defensive coordinator, Chris Ash, who was formerly Bret Bielema's understudy at Wisconsin and Arkansas, and longtime Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson. They'll use this spring to evaluate a host of young, talented players looking to emerge as solid contributors, including sophomore linebacker Trey Johnson (who may replace departed All-America Ryan Shazier), sophomore safety Cam Burrows, redshirt freshman cornerbacks Eli Apple and Gareon Conley and five-star early enrollee linebacker Raekwon McMillan.
• Penn State: How quickly will the Nittany Lions buy into James Franklin?
Remarkably, Franklin is the Big Ten's only new head coach this spring. He inherits a team that has performed admirably the past two seasons (going 8-4 and 7-5), especially considering the NCAA torpedoed the program with sanctions in 2012 that included a bowl ban that still has two years remaining. Franklin's boundless energy struck an immediate chord with Vanderbilt's players upon his arrival in Nashville three years ago. He'll look to foster similar confidence at Penn State, which returns quarterback Christian Hackenberg but loses three starting offensive linemen and its top two receivers, and which is still dealing with limited depth across the board.
• Purdue: Where do the Boilermakers begin?
Purdue was just plain awful in coach Darrell Hazell's first season: Not only did the Boilermakers go 1-11, but they lost by at least 20 points on eight different occasions. Clearly, Hazell needs to drastically upgrade the program's talent, a process that won't happen overnight. But that doesn't mean that Purdue can't make strides in 2014. The offense, in particular, featured some bright spots last season, most notably then-freshman quarterback Danny Etling. An offensive line that also relied heavily on freshmen needs to make considerable spring improvement. Producing a competent defense could be a stiffer challenge and will likely require more than one offseason.
• Rutgers: Can the Fridge cool Kyle Flood's seat?
Third-year coach Flood hasn't done much to suggest that he's the guy to lead the Scarlet Knights into a tougher conference, but he did make one eye-opening offseason hire. Ralph Friedgen, the former Maryland coach and a renowned offensive coordinator, will now oversee Rutgers' attack. The offense finished 90th nationally in yards per play (5.29) last fall, but Friedgen does have some pieces with which to work. Running backs Paul James and Justin Goodwin and tight end Tyler Kroft return, but Friedgen's most pressing task will be pumping some confidence into oft-maligned quarterback Gary Nova, who enters his senior season with 28 career starts and 39 interceptions.
• Wisconsin: Can the Badgers' defense reload?
Wisconsin's offensive identity is no mystery, as the unit returns star running back Melvin Gordon, quarterback Joel Stave and more. But the Badgers' top-10 defense must replace five of its six leading tacklers, including linebacker Chris Borland, the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year. All three starters on the defensive line last year were seniors as well. Top defensive returnee Michael Caputo will move from safety to outside linebacker, and inside linebacker Derek Landisch and expected starting nose guard Warren Herring have considerable experience. Yet both starting safety positions are up for grabs, and this spring offers a chance for rising sophomores Leo Musso and Nate Hammon to state their cases.