Spring football preview: Burning questions for each Big East team
If you're a coach in the Big East, it's best to keep your résumé updated.
Bosses don't last long in the conference that has slipped to the bottom of the Power Six. Win the league, and you're off to a better job (Randy Edsall, Brian Kelly, Rich Rodriguez, Bobby Petrino). Do well but not well enough, and you wind up fired (Dave Wannstedt, lame-duck Bill Stewart). Finish at the bottom, and that means a pink slip, too (Steve Kragthorpe, Greg Robinson). The result is a league that has one coach, Rutgers' Greg Schiano, who has been at his current job longer than two years (discounting Stewart's situation at West Virginia).
All the coaching upheaval makes for an interesting spring around the league as players try to adapt to new systems. Here are some burning questions to track.
The Bearcats return all 11 defensive starters, but that may or may not be good news. Cincinnati was last in the Big East in scoring defense, and all seven league opponents scored more than their average points per game against the Bearcats. Pitt's Dion Lewis ran for 261 yards and four touchdowns against Cincinnati, Louisville's Bilal Powell ran for 209 yards and two scores and Rutgers' Mark Harrison posted 240 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Needless to say, the Bearcats can't allow performances like that if they're going to work their way back into Big East contention.
If nothing else, the spring will serve to increase the team's depth. Cornerback Dominique Battle, who started the first three games in 2010 before tearing his ACL, is expected back, as is highly touted freshman linebacker Solomon Tentman, who injured his knee last summer and missed the whole season. Juco transfer Malcolm Murray, a safety, enrolled in January and should play right away, adding some experience to the only BCS defense that did not start a senior last year.
Turnovers will be a point of emphasis, as the Bearcats finished 119th in turnover margin, forcing just 14 while coughing it up 29 times.
There are plenty of burning questions surrounding the revamped Huskies following the departure of Edsall and the hiring of Paul Pasqualoni. The biggest appears to be at running back. After rushing for 389 yards and four touchdowns as Jordan Todman's backup in 2010 and returning a kick for a touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl, Robbie Frey was the logical choice to inherit Todman's duties. But Frey graduated and decided to pursue his football career and graduate degree at Division II Kutztown State in the fall, leaving a gaping hole in the UConn backfield.
Pasqualoni has indicated that incoming freshmen Max DeLorenzo (the bruiser) and Deshon Foxx (the speedster) will be given every opportunity this fall to compete for playing time, and former USC running back D.J. Shoemate will get a look this spring. Shoemate, who fell out of favor after fumbling twice on 28 carries during the first four games of 2010 and didn't get a carry the rest of the way, may benefit from the coaching change. Sophomore Martin Hyppolite and senior Jonathan Jean-Louis split time between linebacker and running back last season and will likely start off the spring on offense. Lyle McCombs, who sat out last year as a redshirt, was arrested for marijuana possession and is indefinitely suspended.
Todman averaged over 30 carries per game in the seven wins he suited up for last season, and while Pasqualoni has pledged to field a more balanced offense, UConn will be breaking in a new quarterback. Finding a feature back will likely be priority No. 1 this spring.
Charlie Strong may be starting a true freshman quarterback as he tries to build off his surprising bowl season in Year One at Louisville -- but that may not be a bad thing. Bridgewater was one of the most sought-after quarterbacks in the class of 2011 and was going to be the center piece of Randy Shannon's class at Miami before Shannon was fired. Bridgewater, a Miami native, then switched his commitment to Louisville and is already enrolled and ready for spring practice.
Bridgewater, who threw a touchdown at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, is one of just three quarterbacks listed on the spring roster. Will Stein is a walk-on who started twice in 2009 and played one game off the bench in 2010. The other listed quarterback is sophomore Dominique Brown, who played receiver last season. It appeared Louisville native DaMarcus Smith, another highly rated duel-threat QB, would provide competition for Bridgewater, but Smith had a late change of heart and signed with Central Florida, essentially leaving the job to Bridgewater.
There will be a lot of pressure on Bridgewater to take charge in the spring as expectations begin to rise again in Louisville. Unfortunately for Bridgewater, he'll need to develop alongside four new starters on the offensive line.
Like West Virginia, Pitt will be learning a new offense this spring. Todd Graham's Tulsa teams put up huge numbers the last few years, finishing in the top five nationally in total yards in three of Graham's four seasons. His stated goal is to have more snaps than any other team, telling
The quarterback is obviously the key piece in the no-huddle attack, and Sunseri had an up-and-down season in his first year as a starter for the Panthers, throwing 16 touchdowns to nine interceptions while being sacked 21 times. He struggled in the red zone and threw at least one pick in eight of Pitt's 13 games.
Graham has not committed to Sunseri as his starter just yet. With top receiver Jonathan Baldwin and top rusher Dion Lewis off to the NFL, the quarterback will take on even greater responsibility in 2011. Graham wants to find out who will be the best fit for his high-speed attack.
Greg Schiano, who is hearing some grumbling from the Rutgers faithful, hired ex-Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti to reinstall the run-oriented, pro-style offense Rutgers favored from 2005-08. The Scarlet Knights ranked 114th in total offense last season, which led to the firing of Kirk Ciarrocca.
The quarterback job belongs to Chas Dodd, who beat out Tom Savage last year, prompting Savage to transfer to Arizona this offseason. Running back Savon Huggins, one of the nation's top recruits, will give Cignetti someone to lean on when he arrives in August. Cignetti also wants to emphasize the tight end, so look for ex-quarterback D.C. Jefferson to be a focal point in the spring now that he's the team's top tight end.
Improving the offensive line, which surrendered the most sacks in the nation (61) and lost center Howard Barbieri, will be a major focus this spring as well.
When Daniels led South Florida to a victory over Florida State in his first career start, throwing for 215 yards and rushing for 126, the Bulls sensed they had their quarterback of the future. Daniels ran for nine scores and threw for 14 as a freshman, giving hope that he would continue to be productive as a sophomore.
But Daniels struggled in his first year in Skip Holtz's offense, throwing just 11 touchdowns against 13 interceptions and seeing his rushing total drop by over 500 yards. Heading into the Meineke Car Care Bowl against Clemson, it was questionable whether a healthy Daniels would even start over walk-on Bobby Eveld. Daniels did start, and had one of his strongest games of the year with two passing touchdowns, a rushing touchdown and a completion percentage of 74 in a 31-26 win.
Daniels will benefit this spring from the return of experienced receivers A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin, both of whom missed 2010 to injury. A pair of transfer running backs, Darrell Scott from Colorado and Dontae Aycock from Auburn, will also work their way into the offense. But if South Florida is to break through and finally win a Big East title after years of coming close, Daniels will have to fulfill the potential he flashed as a freshman.
The Orange enjoyed a breakthrough 8-5 season last year that culminated in a 36-34 win over Kansas State in the Pinstripe Bowl. And while the Orange put up some offensive numbers at Yankee Stadium, it was the nation's seventh-ranked defense that keyed the turnaround in Doug Marrone's second season.
Syracuse loses seven starters from that unit, including leading tacklers Hogue and Smith, both of whom were invited to participate at last month's NFL combine. Sophomore Marquis Spruill, who played middle linebacker at Fork Union Military Academy, will return to the middle after spending his freshman season as an outside linebacker. Spruill was the team's third-best linebacker last year, but will be expected to anchor the unit from the middle. On the outside, junior college transfer Siriki Diabate is one to watch. Diabate was a NJCAA All-American and his league's defensive player of the year in 2010. Also, converted safety Dyshawn Davis will get a long look on the weak side. Whoever emerges will be counted on to keep Syracuse's defense near the top of the league while the offense continues to develop.
Holgorsen is bringing a new wide-open system to Morgantown, and he has had little trouble installing his scheme smoothly at other programs. Holgorsen went to Houston from Texas Tech in 2008 and improved the Cougars from 23rd nationally in scoring (34.5) to 10th (40.6) in his first year. He joined Oklahoma State in 2010 and upgraded the Cowboys' scoring output from 28.4 per game to 44.2 in one year.
Can he do it a third time? West Virginia ranked 78th in scoring last year (25.2), but the Mountaineers return quarterback Geno Smith and a host of talented receivers. Smith had foot surgery in January and will presumably be limited during spring practice. He's undoubtedly been in the film room plenty, but Holgorsen prefers Smith be on the field. Early enrollees Brian Athey and Paul Millard will be available for spring practice, as will backup Coley White. Smith will be the key figure, however. If Holgorsen pulls his magic again, Smith's 24-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio figures to improve substantially in 2011.