February 25, 2007

Inside spring drills: Big East preview

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A banner year for the Big East continued into a banner offseason.

The conference went 5-0 in bowl games, and their coaches were sought after by others in the professional and collegiate ranks.

Louisville's Bobby Petrino bolted for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati's Mark Dantonio moved to Michigan State. The Cardinals and Bearcats plucked two well-respected coaches (Steve Kragthorpe and Brian Kelly) from the non-BCS ranks to take charge.

The biggest wins for the Big East may have been retaining two of its high-profile coaches. Rich Rodriguez decided to stay at West Virginia rather than move on to Alabama, and Greg Schiano opted to remain at Rutgers rather than returning to Miami.

There's change coming in the conference during the spring, however. Louisville and Cincinnati will have new coaching staffs. West Virginia and South Florida have watched key assistants come and go. Pittsburgh must re-tool its team after losing its offensive (quarterback Tyler Palko) and defensive (linebacker H.B. Blades, cornerback Darelle Revis) playmakers.

Find out who will step up and what position battles will be decided during the spring in the Big East spring breakdown:

Breakout Performers | Impact Newcomers | Position Battles | New Schemes | Best by Position

BIG EAST: PROJECTED 2007 FINISH (With 2006 records)
1. Louisville (12-1, 6-1): The defending Big East champions got a big boost in the spring with the return of starting quarterback Brian Brohm and his top two receivers, Mario Urrutia and Harry Douglas. The offense could be just as prolific under new coach Steve Kragthorpe. There are several openings on defense that need to be filled - not the least of which is the void left by star tackle Amobi Okoye's departure to the NFL.
2. West Virginia (11-2, 5-2): The Mountaineers will remain a Big East challenger at least as long as their top two playmakers Pat White and Steve Slaton are on board. The challenge in Morgantown during the spring will be to improve a defense that ranked 62nd in the country in total defense. Rich Rodriguez resisted overtures from Alabama to stay in Morgantown, but three offensive assistants left. During the spring, keep an eye on how West Virginia works on developing depth beyond White with QB Jarrett Brown and a host of running backs behind Slaton.
3. South Florida (9-4, 4-3): Get ready for South Florida to be a trendy pick for breakout team in the conference. The Bulls beat West Virginia last year and Louisville the previous year. Freshmen such as starting quarterback Matt Grothe made major contributions last year and should continue to develop. The arrival of Mike Ford at running back should give the offense a boost, but the dismissal of promising defensive end Josh Julmiste will hurt. We'll find out how seriously to take the Bulls after a Sept. 8 trip to Auburn.
4. Rutgers (11-2, 5-2): We'll start by saying the new and improved Rutgers, like its coach, has some staying power. The Scarlet Knights return running back Ray Rice, who should contend for the Heisman Trophy as a junior. Rutgers could improve offensively if quarterback Mike Teel becomes more consistent. Fullback Brian Leonard didn't show up on the stat sheet as much as he did in past years, so how Rutgers responds to losing its senior leader will be a storyline of the spring. Defensively, the Scarlet Knights must replace five starters off a top-10 defense.
5. Cincinnati (8-5, 4-3): Out with defensive-minded Mark Dantonio, in with Brian Kelly and his spread offense. No team in the Big East will have as much of a makeover during the spring as the Bearcats. Cincinnati, which lost to Ohio State and Virginia Tech out of conference early in the season, ended the year on a high note. The Bearcats handed Rutgers its first loss of the season and earned a win under Kelly in the bowl game against Western Michigan.
6. Pittsburgh (6-6, 2-5): A 6-1 start to the season brought plenty of optimism, but that was quickly eroded by a five-game losing streak to end the year. Dave Wannstedt is 11-12 in his return to his alma mater. Wannstedt has brought in back-to-back top-25 signing classes, but expect some growing pains as the Panthers replace the star players off last year's team.
7. Connecticut (4-8, 1-6): Connecticut is looking for a rebound season. Its win total has decreased every year since 2003. The Huskies have their work cut out for them this spring. They hope to improve a pass offense and rush defense that were among the worst in the country. A chief concern is finding a quarterback, something the Huskies have not been able to do since Dan Orlovsky's departure. All-time leading rusher Terry Caulley is gone, but running back Donald Brown is more than capable as a replacement.
8. Syracuse (4-8, 1-6): It's baby steps for the Orange. After winning one game in 2005, Syracuse won four last season. Despite adding to the win total, Syracuse is still struggling to keep up with the rest of the conference. The Orange's offense and defense were among the worst in the country. Andrew Robinson will step in at quarterback for three-year starter Perry Patterson, but at least he will have the luxury of working under the same offensive coordinator. On defense, coach Greg Robinson has ceded the coordinator duties to linebackers coach Steve Russ.

Rutgers WR Kenny Britt
Quinton Andrews, S, West Virginia: Andrews started every game as a redshirt freshman last year and led the Mountaineers in tackles (80) and interceptions (five). Despite those impressive numbers, he didn't make the All-Big East team. Look for him to improve in coverage as a sophomore and pair with Eric Wicks to form one of the top safety duos in the conference.
Aaron Berry, CB, Pittsburgh: Tyler Palko was the starting quarterback and H.B. Blades piled on the tackles, but cornerback Darelle Revis will be tougher to replace than either of them. The sophomore Berry, who was a four-star recruit in 2005, will get a crack at the position opposite rising senior Kennard Cox.
Kenny Britt and Tim Brown, WRs, Rutgers: Last season, the Scarlet Knights' passing game took a back seat with the emergence of Ray Rice, but expect it to take more of the spotlight this year with second-year starter Mike Teel under center. Britt and Brown should prove to be capable receiving threats. Britt, a four-star recruit in 2006, was second on the team in receiving last season despite not catching a pass until the seventh game. Brown caught six passes for 191 yards and three touchdowns in the final two games of the year. A full year from the two should force opponents to pay more attention to the Rutgers passing game.
Earl Heyman, DL, Louisville: Louisville is quickly becoming a hotbed for top defensive linemen. The junior Heyman could be the next standout following Elvis Dumervil and Amobi Okoye. Heyman started every game last year but moved between tackle and end. Now that Okoye - a likely first-round pick in April's draft - is gone and Deantwan Whitehead is a year older, Heyman should contribute more at tackle.
Derrick Stewart, WR, Cincinnati: Few will benefit from the arrival of Brian Kelly's wide open offense more than Stewart. He led the Bearcats in receiving last year with 675 yards and 20.5 yards per catch. The big-play Stewart could enter the upper echelon of a deep group of receivers in the Big East, especially if he has stability at the quarterback position.

Five impact newcomers
Pittsburgh RB LeSean McCoy
Anthony Davis, OL, Rutgers: Although he won't arrive on campus until the fall, Davis could lay claim to a starting spot as a true freshman. A four-star Rivals100 member, Davis remained in his hometown for college. With his size (6-foot-5, 341 pounds) he could play guard or tackle, but guard would be more likely with both of Rutgers' starting tackles returning.
Mike Ford, RB, South Florida: The Sarasota, Fla., native signed with Alabama out of high school but spent the last two years in prep school before deciding to return closer to home. The former five-star recruit should boost a Bulls offense that relied heavily on redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Grothe, who led the team in rushing last year.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Pittsburgh: Like Ford, McCoy is another prep school player who had a change of heart in the last year. McCoy committed to Miami out of high school but signed with Pitt after a year at New Berlin (N.Y.) Milford Academy. McCoy should provide a power option to counter LaRod Stephens-Howling's speed game.
Adam Rosner, OL, Syracuse: Syracuse's offensive line has nowhere to go but up, but Rosner is a big reason the Orange's line should drastically improve in 2007. A four-star recruit in 2005, Rosner will compete for a starting spot at tackle as a redshirt freshman.
Woodny Turenne, CB, Louisville: The five-star junior college transfer could step in for one of the cornerback spots vacated by William Gay and Gavin Smart. He was the top-ranked junior college player in the class of 2007.

Position battles to watch
Cincinnati: Quarterback. The position was in question last year with Dustin Grutza and Nick Davila take their turns under center. The senior Davila started in the International Bowl. Grutza returns, but will have competition from sophomores Tony Pike and Craig Carey. Another possibility could be former Wake Forest starter Ben Mauk, who is considering a transfer to Cincinnati.
Connecticut: Quarterback. The Huskies have a similar situation to Cincinnati at quarterback. Matt Bonislawski and D.J. Hernandez split time last year with limited effectiveness. Bonislawski is gone, but Hernandez will have plenty of competition this spring form Dennis Brown and Tyler Lorenzen. Brown started two games as a true freshman in 2005, while Lorenzen played wide receiver at Iowa State before transferring.
Louisville: Wide receiver. What kind of a competition will Louisville have at receiver with Mario Urrutia and Harry Douglas? Urrutia and Douglas will get most of the attention from QB Brian Brohm, but the final spots in Louisville's spread-it-offense will be up for grabs. Patrick Carter and Chris Vaughn made limited contributions last year, while junior Scott Long and 6-foot-8 sophomore Josh Chichester are also in the mix.
Pittsburgh: Quarterback. The three-year starter Tyler Palko has left quite a void under center. Backup quarterbacks have thrown only 16 passes the last three years, so the spring will be that much more important for the Panthers. Bill Stull, the backup for the last two seasons, and redshirt freshman Kevan Smith will split time during the spring. Highly touted freshman Pat Bostick is scheduled to arrive in the fall.
Rutgers: Tight end. Clark Harris was one of the top targets - along with fullback Brian Leonard - in the Rutgers passing game in the last couple of seasons. While the Scarlet Knights wide receivers look to improve in 2007, the tight end could still be a big part of the offense. A pair of Big Ten transfers, Craig McGovern (Michigan State) and Chris Rudanovic (Indiana), are eligible after sitting out last year. Junior Kevin Brock and redshirt freshman Jesse Cisco return on the roster.
South Florida: Running back. The first year without all-time leading rusher Andre Hall was a tough one for USF. Redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Grothe led the team in rushing, followed by running backs Benjamin Williams and Ricky Ponton. Both backs return, but they will have to hold off five-star recruit Mike Ford - who signed with Alabama before going to prep school.
Syracuse: Linebacker. One of the Orange's strengths last year was a veteran group of linebackers. Now, all three of those senior starters have departed. Sophomores Ben Maljovec, Vincenzo Giruzzi and Jake Flaherty were all backups last year and will have to earn their spots during the spring. Parker Cantey redshirted last year and will compete at outside linebacker. Four-star signee Jermaine Pierce and three-stars Chad Battles and Mike Mele will provide plenty of competition when they arrive in the fall.
West Virginia: Backup running back. No one is going to challenge Steve Slaton for the starting job, but the Mountaineers are looking for some quality backups for the star. There will be plenty of opportunities for all of the candidates to show off while Slaton sits out following wrist surgery. Jetavious Best and Ed Collington return to the team, as does Jason Gwaltney - a former five-star recruit who retuned to school after a year away from football.

Teams with new schemes
Cincinnati: At Central Michigan, Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn used a spread offense to lead them to the MAC title. Despite having a redshirt freshman at quarterback, the Chippewas led the MAC in scoring and total offense while finishing second in passing. Look for Kelly to bring those philosophies to Cincinnati.
Louisville: Bobby Petrino preferred more balance with a power running game during his tenure at Louisville. Don't be surprised if new coach Steve Kragthorpe prefers to spread it out, especially with the weapons he has in the passing game. In the run game, he has the luxury of a speed back (George Stripling) and a power back (Anthony Allen). On defense, Mike Cassity remains from Petrino's staff as co-defensive coordinator with Keith Patterson from Kragthorpe's Tulsa staff.
South Florida, Syracuse: The Bulls and the Orange both made coordinator changes but promoted from within. South Florida elevated tight ends coach Greg Gregory to offensive coordinator after Rod Smith was hired as West Virginia's quarterbacks coach. Syracuse coach Greg Robinson relinquished defensive coordinator duties, passing them to linebackers coach Steve Russ.

Best by position
Defensive linemen
1. Brian Brohm, Louisville
2. Pat White, West Virginia
3. Matt Grothe, South Florida
4. Mike Teel, Rutgers
5. Andrew Robinson, Syracuse

1. Eric Foster, Rutgers
2. Jameel McClain, Syracuse
3. Jamaal Westerman, Rutgers
4. Keilen Dykes, West Virginia
5. Trevor Anderson, Cincinnati
Running backs
1. Steve Slaton, West Virginia
2. Ray Rice, Rutgers
3. Donald Brown, Connecticut
4. Delone Carter, Syracuse
5. LaRod Stephens-Howling, Pittsburgh

1. Ben Moffitt, South Florida
2. Malik Jackson, Louisville
3. Danny Lansanah, Connecticut
4. Brandon Renkart, Rutgers
5. Ryan Henegan, Connecticut
Defensive backs
1. Mario Urrutia, Louisville
2. Harry Douglas, Louisville
3. Derek Kinder, Pittsburgh
4. Darius Reynaud, West Virginia
5. Derrick Stewart, Cincinnati

1. Mike Jenkins, South Florida
2. Courtney Greene, Rutgers
3. Trae Williams, South Florida
4. Eric Wicks, West Virginia
5. Darius Butler, Connecticut
Tight ends
1. Gary Barnidge, Louisville
2. Tom Ferron, Syracuse
3. Darrell Strong, Pittsburgh
4. Steve Brouse, Connecticut
5. Connor Barwin, Cincinnati

1. Art Carmody, Louisville
2. Jeremy Ito, Rutgers
3. Pat McAfee, West Virginia
4. Patrick Shadle, Syracuse
5. Conor Lee, Pittsburgh
Offensive linemen
1. George Bussey, Louisville
2. Jeremy Zuttah, Rutgers
3. Trevor Canfield, Cincinnati
4. Pedro Sosa, Rutgers
5. Ryan Stanchek, West Virginia

1. Justin Teachey, South Florida
2. Pat McAfee, West Virginia
3. Brian Steel, Cincinnati
4. Corey Goettshe, Louisville
5. Dave Brytus, Pittsburgh

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