Most Big Ten teams used spring practice to rebuild and reconstruct problems areas – the offensive line in most cases. But Ohio State appeared to merely refine things as the Buckeyes prepare for a run at a third consecutive league title. We've also included a look at Notre Dame; if nothing else, the Irish share a geographic identity with the Big Ten teams.
OVERVIEW: Juice Williams has relied on superb athletic ability in the past, but this spring, he showed signs of becoming a more rounded quarterback. His progress couldn't come at a better time because the Illini figure to throw more often this season after tailback Rashard Mendenhall's early departure to the NFL. Junior tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who had an outstanding spring, makes that even more likely and figures to become a bigger part of the offense. The Illini, who also must replace All-America guard Martin O'Donnell, were encouraged by the play of sophomore guard Randall Hunt.
LINGERING QUESTION: Will the Illini suffer without Mendenhall? Junior Daniel Dufrene was unable to establish himself as Mendenhall's successor, which opened the possibility that several players could share tailback duties in '08.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Missouri at St. Louis
OVERVIEW:The good news is that quarterback Ben Chappell showed a strong, accurate arm and rarely turned the ball over this spring. The bad news is he got so much action because All-Big Ten quarterback Kellen Lewis was suspended during spring practice. The Hoosiers have concerns about who will be catching passes, too. James Hardy was an early entry into the NFL draft, James Bailey transferred and Andrew Means could be taken in the baseball draft. Walk-on Collin Taylor was the leading receiver in two of three scrimmages.
LINGERING QUESTION: What is Lewis' status? He was suspended for breaking unspecified team rules, and there has been no word about his future.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Western Kentucky
OVERVIEW: Even though the Hawkeyes were disappointing last season, they weren't bad defensively and that figures to continue. Brett Greenwood had a productive spring at free safety. Meanwhile, Tyler Sash and Lance Tillison demonstrated they are ready to play bigger roles at strong safety and will challenge Harold Dalton for the starting assignment. The emergence of linebacker Pat Angerer also was encouraging; he has struggled with injuries, but after his play this spring, the starting job in the middle is up for grabs between he and Jacody Coleman. Improving a dormant offense is vital, and although Jake Christensen is the incumbent starter at quarterback, Rick Stanzi is pressuring him. That competition will carry into August.
LINGERING QUESTION: The Hawkeyes' offense ranked 110th nationally last season, so there are a lot of questions there, particularly in the line. Bryan Bulaga, Dace Richardson, Rafael Eubanks and Seth Olsen missed all or a lot of spring practice. Can that unit hold up?
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Maine
OVERVIEW: As expected, the transition from Lloyd Carr to Rich Rodriguez wasn't without major bumps. Guard Justin Boren transferred to Ohio State, leaving the Wolverines with just one returning starter in the offensive line. It's been accepted that the defense will have to lead the way for the Wolverines in 2008, and that unit might have gotten stronger. Safety was an area of concern, but Steve Brown was exceptional this spring and Charles Stewart was solid, too. The secondary already had the luxury of returning starters Donovan Warren and Morgan Trent at cornerback.
LINGERING QUESTION: So, who is going to direct Rodriguez's spread offense? Steven Threet seemed to take the lead over Nick Sheridan at quarterback, but it was by no means settled this spring. Incoming freshman Justin Feagin could contend for significant playing time.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Utah
OVERVIEW: Significant losses were incurred on defense, so bolstering that unit was an important goal. The Spartans lost both ends from '07, but that was eased by the play of Trevor Anderson, a transfer who had earned All-Big East acclaim at Cincinnati. Linebacker, which already was an area of strength, may have gotten even better with speedy Ryan Allison apparently making a successful switch from wide receiver to weakside linebacker.
LINGERING QUESTION: Can the Spartans assemble a line good enough that tailback Javon Ringer can be most effective? Michigan State will be counting on young, developing players there, such as redshirt freshmen guards Joel Foreman and Jared McGaha.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, at Cal
OVERVIEW:Repairing the nation's worst defense was the primary focus in Minneapolis this spring, and second-year coach Tim Brewster felt progress was made. Free safety Tramaine Brock – a junior college transfer who enrolled in January – drew raves, and Brewster is sold on cornerback Marcus Sherels. The line, which was a liability a year ago, showed it may be able to help with a pass rush next season. Offensively, quarterback Adam Weber had a strong spring. Tailback Duane Bennett was impressive at times, but fumbling could be an issue.
LINGERING QUESTION: Have Minnesota's young defensive backs improved enough to bolster a weak pass defense? The Gophers allowed 28 touchdown passes in 2007, and that number has to be reduced. Brock's emergence figures to boost the secondary, but whether that will be enough to make a significant difference remains to be seen.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Northern Illinois
OVERVIEW: The no-huddle offense, which Northwestern used in a Big Ten title run in 2000, has made a comeback in Evanston. New offensive coordinator Mick McCall, who came from Bowling Green, likes to push the tempo with the no-huddle, but how much the Wildcats will use it this fall remains uncertain. What is certain is the improvement made by freshman defensive end Vince Browne, who had an excellent spring in place of projected starter Kevin Mims. Mims missed spring practice to recover from offseason surgery.
LINGERING QUESTION: The Wildcats entered the spring needing to identify three new possible starters in the offensive line. Redshirt freshman Al Netter stood out at left tackle, but there is uncertainty at both guard spots and depth remains an issue.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Syracuse
OVERVIEW: As if the defense wasn't already good enough, Thad Gibson and Tyler Moeller emerged as solid speed pass rushers and may be able to ease the loss of NFL first-rounder Vernon Gholston at end. Star tailback Chris Wells and leading wide receiver Brian Robiskie sat out the spring. That opened up more opportunities for tailback Brandon Saine and wide receiver Brian Hartline, who were impressive. Saine will be Wells' backup, but the coaches have put in a "PonyBack" formation to get them on the field at the same time.
LINGERING QUESTION: Although all four starters return in the secondary, there is some question as to who will start. Cornerback Donald Washington and strong safety Jamario O'Neal fell out of favor because of off-field issues and need to get back in good graces, or they could lose their starting jobs.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Youngstown State
OVERVIEW: There was so much controversy surrounding the team this spring that football almost was an afterthought. Coach Joe Paterno did not get a new contract; several players were suspended, and one was dismissed from the team; and linebacker Sean Lee, an All-American candidate, suffered a knee injury that will force him to miss the season. But there was some good news. Taking advantage of the absence of suspended tight end Andrew Quarless, redshirt freshman Andrew Szczerba distinguished himself with strong performances in scrimmages and the Blue-White game. In addition, Stefan Wisniewski had a strong spring and could challenge Mike Lucian for the starting job at right guard.
LINGERING QUESTION: How will the Nittany Lions cope with the loss of Lee, their top defensive player? Penn State has good depth at linebacker, but replacing his production and leadership won't be easy.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Coastal Carolina
OVERVIEW: Injuries were such a problem that coach Joe Tiller compared his final spring practice to his first. There were so many injuries that Tiller considered having a final spring scrimmage instead of a spring game. But there was some good news. Center Cory Benton was exceptional and Jason Werner cemented his starting status at weakside linebacker. End Ryan Kerrigan was the Boilermakers' best pass rusher – and their most physical lineman in run defense, too.
LINGERING QUESTION: Will Purdue be able to restock its depleted receiving corps? Junior college transfer Aaron Valentin and fifth-year senior Brandon Whittington had solid springs, but Whittington broke his foot in the final week and more receivers need to surface.
FIRST GAME: Sept. 6, vs. Northern Colorado
OVERVIEW: If Wisconsin is healthy in 2008, it could be strong contender for the Big Ten title. But if the spring is any indication, staying healthy won't be easy. The Badgers had multiple injuries, especially on defense, where four projected starters on the line, two cornerbacks and a linebacker missed practice time. At one point, coach Bret Bielema considered canceling the spring game because of all the injuries. A quarterback competition between Allan Evridge and Dustin Sherer will extend into August camp.
LINGERING QUESTION: The Badgers were vulnerable at safety in 2007, and although starters Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant return, sophomore Jay Valai got a lot of work at strong safety and may move past Pleasant on the depth chart.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 30, vs. Akron
OVERVIEW: The running game was anemic last season, but will get a jolt of iron in the form of tailback Robert Hughes, who was impressive all spring and rushed for 100 yards in the spring game. Though he weighs 240 pounds, he runs with the agility of someone much smaller and likely will win a starting job. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen should benefit from Hughes' presence. The Irish also may get a boost in the secondary. Kyle McCarthy showed he's ready to step in for departed Tom Zbikowski at strong safety, and Harrison Smith shined in a three-safety set.
LINGERING QUESTION: Though Hughes looks good and Clausen figures to improve in his second year, there is a huge need for an improved offensive line. Last season, the Irish ranked 116th in rushing and allowed 58 sacks. There also are doubts about the defensive line. Pat Kuntz sat out the semester but should return. Ian Williams, a freshman All-America last year, also is back. Overall, though, that remains an unproven area.
FIRST GAME: Sept. 6, vs. San Diego State
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.