Spring football primer: Burning questions for each Big East team
The latest realignment shuffle left the Big East on the brink of irrelevance, with Pittsburgh, Syracuse, West Virginia and expected new member TCU all signing with other leagues. But in the face of eradication, commissioner John Marinatto restocked his dwindling stable. He added Boise State, Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, San Diego State and SMU for 2013 and Navy as a football-only member for 2015. It's the dawn of a new era -- and with change comes opportunity.
With WVU off to the Big 12 and reinforcements still a year away, seven schools will vie for the Big East title in 2012. (Temple, a Big East football member from 1991-2004, is reportedly in talks to rejoin the league as soon as this season.) As spring practice kicks off in the wide-open league, here are the burning questions facing each team.
Few teams have as much to replace as Cincinnati, which graduates running back Isaiah Pead (the Big East's offensive player of the year), linebacker J.K. Schaffer (at least 100 tackles in three straight seasons) and quarterback Zach Collaros (6,270 passing yards since 2009). The losses deprive Butch Jones of critical veteran leadership, and while Munchie Legaux seems the heir apparent under center -- he threw for 688 yards and five touchdowns during Collaros' four-game absence -- the other voids may be tougher to fill. Backup tailback George Winn boasts just 78 career carries, and no returning linebacker tallied more than 60 tackles in 2011.
Cincinnati is a logical candidate to supplant West Virginia as the Big East's alpha dog, as it's won at least a share of the conference crown in three of the past four seasons. But to build off recent success, a discernibly raw roster with just 11 returning starters will have to skip expected growing pains. That means significant maturation from Legaux, wideout Anthony McClung, running back Jameel Poteat and linebacker Dwight Jackson, among others, this spring.
Though running back Lyle McCombs surfaced as the feature back of the future, rushing for 1,151 yards and seven touchdowns during his breakout freshman campaign, the Huskies' offense was largely mediocre. UConn averaged 313 yards per game in 2011, last in the Big East and 108th in the nation, and surrendered 41 sacks (seventh, 112th). As spring practice begins, coach Paul Pasqualoni will begin searching for answers.
The biggest questions lie at quarterback and offensive line. Though senior signal-caller Johnny McEntree returns, heralded early enrollee Casey Cochran, the two-time Gatorade Connecticut Player of the Year, should challenge for the starting role. And further compounding their porous pass protection, the Huskies lose center Moe Petrus and offensive tackle Mike Ryan. That places an onus on younger stalwarts Kevin Friend and Tyler Bullock, among others, to develop.
While the Big East lacks a prohibitive favorite, Louisville has the makings of a burgeoning 2012 frontrunner. It returns nine starters from the nation's No. 23 defense (including All-Big East cornerback Adrian Bushell and safety Hakeem Smith) as well as the bulk of a blossoming offense that found its stride at the end of last year. The Cardinals averaged 30.7 points over their final three games despite relying on a trio of freshmen wideouts (Michaelee Harris, Eli Rogers, DeVante Parker) and first-year quarterback Bridgewater.
This season, however, hinges on Bridgewater's progression. The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder threw for 2,129 yards and 14 touchdowns, but tossed six interceptions in his final five games, including three in a Belk Bowl loss to NC State. The potential is there. If he's able to kick his turnover habit and use his legs more effectively (he totaled just 66 rushing yards in '11) this spring, Bridgewater could set the stage for the Cardinals' first BCS berth since 2007.
After parting ways with three failed coaches in the span of 13 months, the Panthers may have finally found their leader in former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Chryst. The Badgers were a perennial rushing juggernaut during his tenure: Over Chryst's seven-year stint, Wisconsin averaged 2,683 rushing yards per season and produced such standouts as Montee Ball and John Clay.
While hiccups are to be expected -- embattled quarterback Tino Sunseri will learn his third offensive system in three years -- the smashmouth scheme seems like an ideal fit at Pitt: It mirrors the city's blue collar identity, and the pieces are already in place to make it flourish. Running back Ray Graham raced for 958 yards before suffering a season-ending knee injury last year, and freshman Rushel Shell broke the WPIAL rushing record with 9,078 career yards. As spring practice begins, how quickly can the offense internalize Chryst's system?
After rolling to victories in four of their final five games, the Scarlet Knights suffered multiple setbacks to begin the 2012 offseason. Receiver Sanu, who finished with a Big East record 115 receptions, 1,206 yards and seven touchdowns, declared for the NFL draft, and coach Greg Schiano departed for the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It tempered Rutgers' expectations -- especially given the quarterback situation. Though junior Chas Dodd and sophomore Gary Nova return, neither was particularly consistent last year. Lacking Sanu as a safety net, will either pose a legitimate passing threat?
Questions abound, but so does hope. Rutgers returns it leading rusher (Jawan Jamison) and top two defenders (linebacker Khaseem Greene and safety Duron Harmon) while adding its strongest recruiting class to date. Look for new coach Kyle Flood to address major concerns this spring -- like helping Dodd and Nova further their rapports with wideouts Brandon Coleman, Quron Pratt and Mark Harrison -- in order to help the Knights contend for their first Big East title in program history come fall.
Entering last year's meeting with Pittsburgh, the Bulls were 4-0. They'd won a thriller over Notre Dame, outscored opponents 182-68 and were firing on all cylinders: Turnover-prone quarterback B.J. Daniels had tossed eight touchdowns to one interception, and a previously anemic offense (105th in the nation in 2010) was averaging 523 yards per game.
Then the wheels came off. Beginning Sept. 29, the Bulls went 1-7. South Florida transformed from a BCS dark horse into a Big East bottom feeder seemingly overnight.
Here's the good news: Skip Holtz returns 17 starters, the most of any team in the conference. Daniels (2,604 passing yards, 601 rushing yards in '11) has another spring to mature, and running back Demetris Murray (503 yards, eight TDs) could be even more dangerous as a senior. The emergence of linebacker DeDe Lattimore should also accelerate the acclimation of new defensive coordinator Chris Cosh, who comes over from Kansas State.
But the question remains: After collapsing so suddenly last season, can the Bulls right the ship and maintain momentum in 2012?
For all of Syracuse's recent basketball success, its football program has flailed with equal regularity. The Orange have won just nine conference games since 2005 (an average of 1.3 per year) and crumbled during last year's stretch run, dropping five in a row after upsetting West Virginia.
But spring brings renewed optimism. Quarterback Ryan Nassib returns after setting career-highs in yards (2,685), touchdowns (22) and completion percentage (62.4), and safety Shamarko Thomas comes back after finishing third on the team in tackles (67). Though second-team All-Big East selections Alec Lemon and Marquis Spruill will miss spring practice while rehabbing from surgeries, several newcomers should have opportunities to shine. Keep an eye on early enrollee quarterback Ashton Broyld, in particular. He amassed 1,961 passing yards, 1,540 rushing yards and 48 total touchdowns in 2010 before missing last season with a knee injury -- and could provide a sorely needed offensive jolt.