February 9, 2011

Big East spring primer: Plenty of new faces

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With new coaches at Connecticut and Pittsburgh, a new coach-in-waiting at West Virginia and extensive staff changes at Rutgers, spring drills in the Big East will have their share of introductions.

While coaching staffs continue to change in the league, the Big East will have some stability at quarterback; six of eight teams return starters, twice as many as from a year ago.

Here's a look at the start and end dates for spring drills, as well as a quick look at what each team hopes to accomplish.

CINCINNATI
Practice begins: March 29
Spring game: April 16
Final practice: April 23
The buzz: The first task will be to upgrade a defense that ranked second-to-last in the Big East in '10 and last in 2009. The Bearcats can't blame youth anymore as they return every starter from last season, led by LB J.K. Schaffer. Only six teams nationally forced fewer turnovers than Cincinnati (14). On offense, the priority will be to bolster a line that returns only two starters off an ineffective unit.
CONNECTICUT
Practice begins: March 15
Spring game: April 16
The buzz: New coach Paul Pasqualoni inherits the Big East's BCS representative. The defense returns largely intact, though LB Sio Moore, a Rivals.com all-conference performer, must take a leadership role with the departures of stalwarts Lawrence Wilson and Scott Lutrus. The offense could get a makeover without leading rusher Jordan Todman, G Zach Hurd and on-again, off-again starting QB Zach Frazer. QB Michael Box started one game last season (4-of-12, one interception against Louisville) but he'll be pressured by early enrollee Michael Nebrich.
LOUISVILLE
Practice begins: March 23
Spring game: April 15
The buzz: Louisville will undergo a makeover on offense with RB Bilal Powell and two senior quarterbacks gone. Former walk-on Will Stein started twice at quarterback in 2009. He'll have the spring to pad his credentials before touted freshman Teddy Bridgewater arrives over the summer. The Cardinals return just four offensive starters, including only one (C Mario Benavides) on the line.
PITTSBURGH
Practice begins: March 17
Spring game: April 16
The buzz: New coach Todd Graham was known for his high-flying spread offenses at Rice and Tulsa. He inherits a group used to playing in Dave Wannstedt's run-first, pro-style scheme. With RB Dion Lewis, WR Jon Baldwin and LT Jason Pinkston gone, the centerpiece of the offense is Ray Graham, who rushed for 922 yards and eight touchdowns as a backup last season. The secondary will have two new starters and could be troublesome.
RUTGERS
Practice begins: March 29
Spring game: April 30
The buzz: Greg Schiano overhauled the offensive staff, bringing in former Pitt coordinator Frank Cignetti to revive the power-run game. Cignetti has most of the starting cast returning, minus C Howard Barbieri, but the offense relied heavily on freshman WR Jeremy Deering running out of the "Wildcat." With Tom Savage transferring, sophomore Chas Dodd will have the spring to prepare as the starting quarterback. The defensive line needs a makeover with three starters departing.
USF
Practice begins: March 3
Spring game: To be determined
The buzz: The Bulls' offense was inconsistent all season. B.J. Daniels threw 13 interceptions, the receivers struggled to distinguish themselves and the rushing attack ranked sixth in the Big East. Second-year coach Skip Holtz needs that unit to improve despite the return of just four starters on that side of the ball. The defense will miss T Terrell McClain and Es David Bedford and Craig Marshall.
SYRACUSE
Practice begins: March 8
Spring game: April 16
The buzz: The defense was one of the major reasons for last season's turnaround, but two of the key cogs - LBs Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue - are gone. Marquis Spruill had a standout campaign as a freshman, and needs to be a leader for a young group of linebackers. The biggest loss on offense is C Ryan Bartholomew, who was the team's best lineman for three seasons.
WEST VIRGINIA
Practice begins: March 28
Spring game: April 29 (tentative)
The buzz: Dana Holgorsen, offensive coordinator this season and coach next season, will try to boost a stagnant offense. With his track record and eight returning starters, including four linemen and QB Geno Smith, the offense looks to be in good hands. The defense was ranked seventh nationally last season but it's looking for new leaders as many of the key players - T Chris Neild, LB J.T. Thomas and Ss Sidney Glover and Robert Sands - are gone.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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