May 16, 2006

Spring growing pains for Big Ten, Notre Dame

Just when Big Ten offensive coordinators were spared planning for A.J. Hawk, Chad Greenway, Tamba Hali and the like, they inherited a new set of challenges.

The conference sent 10 defensive players to the NFL on the first day, including five in the first round. Despite those facts, several teams in the conference ended the spring going through growing pains on offense.

Both of the Big Ten's Offensive Players of the Year Penn State's Michael Robinson (the coaches' pick) and Northwestern's Brett Basanez (the media's pick) left their teams looking for replacements with mixed results.

At Wisconsin, first-year coach Bret Bielema will look for third-year starting quarterback John Stocco to take a leap similar to the ones Robinson and Basanez took last year.

The ground game is again a priority for Michigan and Minnesota. The Wolverines hope to keep starting running back Michael Hart and his blockers healthy. The Gophers hope to keep the running back spot, now manned by Amir Pinnix, productive.

The conference might not have much of a grace period. As we learned in spring, schools like Ohio State and Iowa are quickly reloading on the other side of the ball.

Lastly, we realize Notre Dame isn't in the Big Ten. However, we're putting them in this report because the independent team doesn't have a conference home. The Irish didn't answer many questions this spring, but their first game isn't until Sept. 2.

Illinois (2-9, 0-8)
The most important thing: Wholesale changes on offensive line.
Jeff Johnson of OrangeandBlueNews.com: "The offensive line was the most improved unit this spring despite turnover at several spots. Oklahoma transfer Akim Millington moved into a starting position at left tackle. Junior Charles Myles who won the most improved offensive player award this spring moved from defensive tackle to win the starting right tackle job. After starting 11 games at center last season, senior Matt Maddox moved back to guard where he started every game as a freshman and sophomore."
Player to watch: Safety Justin Sanders
Johnson: "Sanders, a transfer from Northeast Mississippi Community College, came in and won the free safety job. He made an impact in both pass coverage and run support this spring."
Indiana (4-7, 1-7)
The most important thing: Line will be the key to offense.
T.J. King of InsideIndiana.com/Peegs.com: "Junior quarterback Blake Powers returns - along with his top four receivers from a year ago - to make the Hoosiers' passing game a legitimate threat again. Indiana also added two speedsters in the backfield who can help on the ground and in the passing game. The only thing that could hold the offense back this season is a young and inexperienced front line. Only two starters return from a year ago, and the unit will need to improve quickly to make the offense click this fall."
Player to watch: Safety Austin Thomas
King: "The Hoosiers' defense needs more toughness, and the 6-foot-2 Thomas should bring that, after surrendering nearly 40 points per game in Big Ten play last year. He impressed during his redshirt season a year ago with his physical play and spent this spring making big plays on a regular basis. Thomas could be a difference-maker for Indiana this fall."
Iowa (7-5, 5-3)
The most important thing: New faces on defense look solid.
Tom Kakert of HawkeyeReport.com: "The Hawkeyes have some holes to fill on the defensive side, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where four starters have graduated. Gone are first-day NFL draft picks Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge. Based on what we learned this spring, Iowa has several more-than-able replacements in line. At linebacker, Mike Humpal drew mounds of praise from coach Kirk Ferentz and will replace Greenway. At corner, Adam Shada had plenty of playing time last year and has shown solid skills. Charles Godfrey could be the best overall athlete on the Hawkeyes squad."
Player to watch: Wide receiver Herb Grigsby
Kakert: "With quarterback Drew Tate on board and receivers Ed Hinkel and Clinton Solomon gone, Grigsby has become the No. 1 target at wide receiver. He showed flashes last season but separated himself from the pack during the spring. The junior could be set for a breakout season this fall."
Michigan (7-5, 5-3)
The most important thing: Run game will rebound behind healthy Hart, healthy line.
Chris Balas of TheWolverine.com: "The offensive line was never completely healthy last season. Even those left standing were playing through injury. When running back Michael Hart went down early, the Wolverines were not only inexperienced at both tailback and fullback, they lacked continuity on the line. Hart is back and better than ever, according to coaches. Sophomore Kevin Grady is down to 215 pounds, and his vision is greatly improved. True freshman Carlos Brown adds an element of speed and should get some carries."
Player to watch: Defensive end Tim Jamison
Balas: "Teammates have raved about Jamison's natural ability as a pass rusher and his hitting ability since he arrived on campus. Only a knee injury suffered during his freshman year has held him back. With a week left in spring practice, coach Lloyd Carr singled Jamison out as one of the best players of the session. He has improved against the run and should be a force on the edge as a pass rusher."
Michigan State (5-6, 2-6)
The most important thing: Shuffling the secondary should pay off well.
James Comparoni of SpartanMag.com: "Senior Greg Cooper moved to cornerback during the spring. After he struggled for two years as a starter at safety, Cooper pleasantly surprised the coaches as a cornerback. In a sink-or-swim situation, Cooper ended the spring ahead of promising sophomore Ross Weaver at the position. The Spartans manufactured a little depth in moving Cooper, but Michigan State still lacks numbers. Coach John L. Smith said the corners are getting to the point where they will be able to man-up more and become more creative and aggressive with pressures."
Player to watch: Safety Nehemiah Warrick
Comparoni: "Not only did junior college transfer Nehemiah Warrick deliver a quick K.O. in the competition to replace the graduated Eric Smith - a third-round pick by the New York Jets - but coaches also credit him for creating a swagger on defense. The impact he made on the team in a three-week stint during spring practice was noteworthy."
Minnesota (7-4, 4-4)
The most important thing: Replicating success in the run game will be a challenge.
Zach Johnson of GopherIllustrated.com: "Minnesota has had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in each of the last three years. As of now, none of those running backs is on the Gophers' roster. Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney each went to the NFL. Gary Russell, who rushed for 1,130 yards in 2005 as Maroney's backup, is in community college hoping to regain his eligibility. Junior Amir Pinnix is hoping to get the majority of the carries this year, but he was a non-factor in spring practice because of minor injuries. Pinnix had a huge game last year at home against Michigan State when he ran for more than 200 yards and was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week. Some question Pinnix's ability to be the featured back over the course of the Big Ten schedule."
Player to watch: Quarterback Bryan Cupito
Johnson: "Cupito is entering his fifth and final season with the Gophers and this third year as the starting quarterback. Cupito has been given mixed reviews in his first two seasons under center and is hoping to put together a solid senior campaign. With the Gophers' ground game under scrutiny, Cupito will have to have a huge year if the Gophers hope to score with the same frequency as they have in recent years."
Northwestern (7-5, 5-3)
The most important thing: There's no rush to name Basanez's successor.
Louie Vaccher of WildcatReport.com: "Three signal-callers are vying to replace four-year starter Brett Basanez sophomore C.J. Bacher and redshirt freshmen Andrew Brewer and Mike Kafka. Bacher looked to be the best passer this spring and is the only one to have taken a snap in a college game. Brewer proved he is a tremendous athlete with great running instincts, while Kafka may offer the Wildcats the best combination of running and throwing. Bacher will probably go into fall camp as the guy to beat, but don't be surprised if coach Randy Walker waits until the day before the Wildcats' Aug. 31 opener at Miami (Ohio) to name his starter."
Player to watch: Linebacker Nick Roach
Vaccher: "Roach had a breakout sophomore season in 2004, but injuries - including a broken tailbone - slowed him down in 2005. Now, the 6-foot-2, 245-pound senior is poised for a big year. With all-time leading tackler Tim McGarigle gone, Roach will be the unquestioned leader of the Wildcats' defense. Northwestern is planning to play a 3-4 more often next season, particularly on passing downs, so look for Roach to put heat on opposing quarterbacks from the outside linebacker/end position."
Ohio State (10-2, 7-1)
The most important thing: Defense will be better than expected.
Adam Jardy of BuckeyeSports.com: "After the Buckeyes saw nine of their 11 starters from last season depart to the NFL, the immediate concern was how to replace linebackers A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter and safety Donte Whitner. Answers have come in the form of linebackers John Kerr and James Laurinaitis and cornerback Kurt Coleman, who all showed a knack for getting to the ball during the spring game. What the Ohio State defense is suddenly lacking in experience, it is compensating for with speed and young talent. Much of the country will be surprised with both the quickness of the secondary and the depth at the linebacker."
Player to watch: Cornerback Kurt Coleman
Jardy: "As a true freshman, Coleman might have nailed down one of the starting spots in the secondary. He made a leaping interception during the spring game, and players and coaches singled him out as a player having a fantastic spring. Coleman has quick instincts and seems to find a way to make plays. In a depleted secondary Coleman could find himself taking on a leadership role very quickly."
Penn State (11-1, 7-1)
The most important thing: Anthony Morelli takes leadership role.
Pat Tholey of BlueWhiteIllustrated.com: "Quarterback Michael Robinson was the heart and soul of the Nittany Lions' resurgence last year. With him gone, Penn State hands the reins over to junior Anthony Morelli. Through winter and spring, Morelli took command of the huddle and the offense. During a spring scrimmage, Morelli ran all over the field, getting people in line and even talking trash. It's a good sign to see after Penn State lost two of its most vocal captains in Robinson and cornerback Alan Zemaitis. Morelli has a cannon for an arm and proved it in the spring game by completing 13 of 16 passes for 193 yards with a wet ball."
Player to watch: Running back Rodney Kinlaw
Tholey: "With a knee injury to Austin Scott and Tony Hunt recovering from his Orange Bowl ankle sprain, Kinlaw saw more reps at tailback with the first team. Kinlaw also added 10 pounds during the offseason and is listed at 203 pounds."
Purdue (5-6, 3-5)
The most important thing: Offense could be best since 2000.
Brian Neubert of GoldandBlack.com: "While the Boilermakers defense must rebuild, the offense has the potential to carry the team despite turnover in the coaching staff. Purdue has its best offensive line since the 2000 unit that went to the Rose Bowl and put five players in the NFL. Purdue is loaded at running back after sophomores Anthony Heygood and Jaycen Taylor had terrific springs. Additionally, Purdue could have its best set of skill talent during coach Joe Tiller's tenure, with senior Kyle Ingraham and promising newcomer Selwyn Lymon joining All-Big Ten wide receiver Dorien Bryant, wideout Greg Orton and tight end Dustin Keller."
Player to watch: Safety Torri Williams
Neubert: "Coming off a medical redshirt year, Williams needs to stay healthy and return to peak shape in order to solidify a spot in a rebuilt secondary. He showed promise in 2004 as a true freshman reserve. If he is healthy and junior college transfer Justin Scott is legit, Purdue will have taken two huge steps toward erasing one of the biggest question marks on the team, the secondary."
Wisconsin (10-3, 5-3)
The most important thing: John Stocco must take control of the offense .
Paul Day of BadgerBlitz.com: "John Stocco could struggle through his senior year. With running back Brian Calhoun and wide receivers Jonathan Orr and Brandon Williams in the NFL, Stocco must quickly jell with a group of unproven receivers and a quintet of running backs attempting to replace the all-purpose Calhoun. If the unproven receivers and running backs don't have a good summer and fall camp, then the Badgers will be forced to put six true freshman receivers and a true freshman running back in the mix immediately. That does not bode well for a strong senior campaign by Stocco. Bottom line: Stocco must lead the offense."
Player to watch: Running back P.J. Hill
Day: "Replacing Brian Calhoun will inevitably be a struggle. The record-setting running back left five unproven running backs in his stead for 2006, but redshirt freshman P.J. Hill is a player to look out for. Most fans don't know too much about Hill, and after a first-quarter exit in the spring game, fans still have unanswered questions about the bruising runner. Wisconsin is a football program known for its running strength, and Hill might be capable of reminding fans of a time when Ron Dayne rumbled down the field at Camp Randall Stadium."
Notre Dame (9-3)
The most important thing: That the season doesn't start until September.
Pete Sampson of IrishIllustrated.com: "Most programs entered spring practice with a list of questions and ended drills with a list of answers. The Irish didn't answer their top spring questions, but the coaching staff didn't expect to either. Notre Dame still needs to settle on a new right tackle and two new linebackers. That's on top of figuring out how to bring more pressure with the defensive line while the secondary pulls the plug on big plays. There's a good chance incoming freshmen will factor into the answers for these questions."
Player to watch: Linebacker Maurice Crum
Sampson: "There's a good chance Crum, the one returning starter at linebacker, will shift to the middle this fall - meaning he'll have to learn a new position while trying to bring two first-time starters up to speed. Crum will have to do both after sitting out spring practice following offseason back surgery."

What We Learned from Spring Practice Series
Big Ten: Growing pains for Big Ten, Notre Dame Big 12: Rest of the conference now chasing Texas
Big East: Several teams facing QB questions ACC: Looking to rebuild in the trenches
Pac-10: Plenty of backfield talent left in Pac-10 SEC: New faces all around the SEC




 

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