Spring football preview: Burning questions for each Big Ten team
The Big Ten is full of change this offseason, from the logo to the much-mocked division names to, you know, the fact that Nebraska is now a member. The conference also welcomes three new coaches (Michigan's Brady Hoke, Indiana's Kevin Wilson and Minnesota's Jerry Kill) and says goodbye to a bevy of standout players (Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Michigan State's Greg Jones and most of Ohio State's defense).
As a new era dawns, here are some of the most pressing questions at the Big Ten's 12 campuses this spring.
During his nine years on Bob Stoops' Oklahoma staff and five years as coordinator, Wilson was adept at changing the Sooners' offense from year to year based on personnel. In his first year at Indiana, he's working with a blank canvas. Standout quarterback Ben Chappell and receiver Tandon Doss have departed, with third-year sophomores Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker expected to compete for Chappell's vacated job. Whoever wins will have at least one accomplished receiver (Damario Belcher) and two tight ends (Ted Bolser and Max Dedmond) to throw to and a promising tailback behind him assuming Darius Willis returns healthy. Wilson's hurry-up offenses at Oklahoma were frenetic, and the Hoosiers will likely spend much of the spring trying to get up to speed.
Ron Zook has taken the Illini to two bowl games in his six seasons. His 2007 Rose Bowl team featured 1,681-yard rusher Rashard Mendenhall, and last year's Texas Bowl team was paced by 1,697-yard star Mikel Leshoure. Like Mendenhall, Leshoure bolted a year early for the pros. Illinois has a potential budding star returning in sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, but given recent history, it sure seems important that Zook find another workhorse in his stable. Running back by committee has never been Zook's thing. Rising senior Jason Ford, who rushed for a combined 1,068 yards the past two seasons, figures to get first crack, but many believe the 6-foot, 205-pound Bud Golden, who saw limited action as a redshirt freshman last season, could be the Illini's next great back.
This will be one of the most important offseasons of Ferentz's 13-year tenure in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes are looking to improve after a disappointing 7-5 regular season in 2010. They must replace one of the largest (26 players) and most productive senior classes in the country as well as NFL-bound safety Tyler Sash and dismissed running back Adam Robinson. And they must deal with the aftermath of a bizarre January episode that saw 13 players hospitalized with a rare muscle disorder following grueling conditioning workouts. Junior quarterback James Vandenberg, who made two starts in 2009, takes over for standout Ricky Stanzi, and sophomore tailback Marcus Coker is coming off a breakout performance in the Insight Bowl. But Iowa's biggest issue right now may be leadership and morale.
Hoke and coordinator Al Borges -- a West Coast devotee -- plan to run a drastically different offense than Rich Rodriguez's spread-and-shred attack. "To a degree ... we're blowing a lot of it up," Borges told the
Texas coach Mack Brown recently discussed how the "hangover" that enveloped his program following its BCS championship loss to Alabama contributed to its drastic slide last season. The stakes were lower when the Spartans faced the Tide in the Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day, but the result was far more humbling: a 49-7 blowout that put a stain on Michigan State's 11-win season. We'll see if Mark Dantonio's program uses the result as fuel during the offseason, because on paper, Michigan State's 2011 squad could be better. Quarterback Kirk Cousins, tailback Edwin Baker and receiver B.J. Cunningham highlight a core of 14 returning starters. A key issue in the spring is whether new leaders emerge on defense to help fill the gaping void left by two-time All-America linebacker Greg Jones.
One of the top dual-threat quarterback recruits in the country in 2008, MarQueis Gray has spent his first three seasons alternating between quarterback (where he backed up four-year starter Adam Weber) and receiver (he had 42 catches for 587 yards last year). Meanwhile he watched the coach that recruited him, Tim Brewster, get fired following a 1-6 start last year. Both Gray and the Gophers will get new life under coach Jerry Kill, whose Northern Illinois offense last season featured its own dual-threat quarterback, Chandler Harnish. Gray will get first shot at the starter's job and has at least one talented receiver to work with in senior Da'Jon McKnight, but whether Gray makes a splash will depend on how quickly he picks up coordinator Matt Limegrover's playbook this spring.
Despite producing 10 wins, Nebraska's 2010 season was marked by disgust -- from the fans, who watched the Huskers' offense disintegrate over the course of the season; from the head coach, who expressed his displeasure vividly on the sideline; and from freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez, whose sizzling debut was ultimately tempered by injuries, a clash with Pelini and rumors of his impending transfer. Martinez remains in Lincoln, where his new offensive coordinator and position coach, former running backs coach Tim Beck, is looking to revive a unit that mustered one measly touchdown against Washington in the Holiday Bowl. With Beck expected to put more emphasis on the spread passing game, it will be interesting to see whether a healthy Martinez regains his star power this spring.
Moments after throwing a game-winning touchdown to beat Iowa last November, standout quarterback Dan Persa ruptured his Achilles tendon -- and Northwestern's season was essentially finished. The Wildcats, 7-3 at the time, lost their last two regular season games and the TicketCity Bowl against Texas Tech in part because they were so dependent on the quarterback position. Northwestern running backs accounted for just 1,240 rushing yards last season. As a redshirt freshman last fall, Mike Trumpy notched two 100-yard games before missing the last two games with a wrist injury. He'll compete for carries with classmate Adonis Smith, who saw limited action last season, and senior Jacob Schmidt. Coach Pat Fitzgerald is presumably hoping one of the youngsters steps up as the go-to guy.
With Terrelle Pryor one of five suspended Buckeyes slated to sit the first five games of the season, and with Pryor expected to be limited in drills while recovering from foot surgery, Ohio State's coaches can focus on finding his replacement for September -- and perhaps his eventual successor to boot. The candidates: senior Joe Bauserman, sophomore Kenny Guiton and early enrollee Braxton Miller. Tressel traditionally gives the veteran first crack, which means Bauserman is the odds-on favorite. But Miller, one of the two highest-rated quarterback prospects in the country, is a potentially lethal dual-threat athlete who will get plenty of looks. It's not inconceivable he could be starting by the time the Buckeyes visit Miami on Sept. 17.
After Bolden lost his starting job to Matt McGloin and saw no playing time in the Outback Bowl despite McGloin's five interceptions, Bolden's father announced that his son -- the first true freshman quarterback ever to start a season opener for Joe Paterno -- would seek to transfer. Penn State denied Bolden's release, and coaches eventually talked him off the ledge, but Bolden recently told
Two of coach Danny Hope's key offensive players will return this spring, albeit in limited roles: Quarterback Robert Marve, who tore his ACL midway through last season, will participate in some passing drills, while top rusher Ralph Bolden, who missed all of last season with his own knee injury, will be held out of scrimmages. Quarterback Rob Henry, who finished out last season in place of Marve, will still run the first-string offense, with Hope looking to fill in some new pieces. One of those could be running back Akeem Shavers, a speedy 5-11, 200 pound transfer from Tyler (Texas) Junior College. Purdue could desperately use a lift in the running game after losing its only productive ballcarriers from last season, Dan Dierking and Keith Carlos.
Like all great Barry Alvarez/Bret Bielema squads, the Badgers' 2010 Rose Bowl team was marked by its dominance in the trenches. But gone are All-Americas Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt on offense and Lott Trophy winner J.J. Watt on defense. Wisconsin has its usual stable of powerful running backs (James White and Montee Ball both return) but it won't matter if no one can block for them. Redshirt freshman tackle Casey Dehn and sophomore guard Travis Frederick will get a chance to make a bid for the vacated starting jobs this spring. Defensively, Bielma has previously singled out rising sophomore Pat Muldoon and redshirt freshman Warren Herring as two of his most promising youngsters up front.