Spring Primer: Big East Pt. 1

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Athlon takes a look at the storylines facing UConn, Louisville, Pitt and West Virginia.

Athlon takes a look at the storylines facing UConn, Louisville, Pitt and West Virginia.

-by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

Connecticut

2010 Record: 8-5, 5-2 Big East
Spring practice: March 15-April 30
 
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 10
 
Spring storylines facing the Huskies:
 
1. The Huskies are the defending Big East champs, yet could be picked near the bottom of the conference in 2011. Several changes are in store for Connecticut, starting at head coach. Randy Edsall departed to Maryland, and former Syracuse head coach Paul Pasqualoni was picked as his replacement. Pasqualoni had a solid record while at Syracuse – 107-59-1 – but has not coached in college since his dismissal at the end of the 2004 season. Considering Connecticut’s recent success, Pasqualoni will be under immediate pressure to keep the Huskies in Big East title contention.
 
2. Outside of adapting to the coaching change, Connecticut’s biggest question mark will be finding a running back. Jordan Todman rushed for 1,695 yards and 14 scores last season, but decided to bolt to the NFL Draft a year early. Robbie Frey was expected to figure into the mix, but transferred to Kutztown to begin a graduate study. D.J. Shoemate is the team’s leading returning rusher, but posted only 28 carries last year. The senior will be awarded the first opportunity to win the job, but six other backs will be in contention for carries in the fall. The Huskies may not be able to replace Todman’s rushing total with one player, but a couple of backs need to emerge as contributors.  
 
3. Not only must the Huskies replace one of the top running backs in the nation, they have a quarterback battle to settle this spring. Zach Frazer only threw for 1,425 yards and five touchdowns last year, but his departure leaves a cast of inexperienced candidates vying for the starting job. Sophomore Michael Box is the most experienced quarterback, starting one game last season and finishing the year with 17 pass attempts. Redshirt freshmen Blaise Driscoll and Scott McCummings, along with true freshman Michael Nebrich and Johnny McEntee of YouTube fame will compete with Box for the starting job. The Huskies have to jumpstart their passing game this season, but breaking in a new quarterback with a so-so group of receivers could make for a rebuilding year on offense.
 
Redshirts to watch: RB Lyle McCombs, WR Geremy Davis, DE Jonathan Louis, C Bryan Paull, WR Tebucky Jones
 
Fantasy tip: The Huskies have one of the best offensive lines in the Big East, but no running back or quarterback appears worthy of a selection in 120 leagues – for now. 
 
Early Enrollees: DT Kenton Adeymi, OT Dalton Gifford, QB Michael Nebrich, TE Sean McQuillan
 
Louisville
 
2010 Record: 7-6, 3-4 Big East
Spring practice: March 23-April 15
 
Returning Starters: Offense – 3, Defense – 6
 
Spring storylines facing the Cardinals:
 
1. The Cardinals were one of the Big East’s biggest surprises last year, finishing 7-6 in Charlie Strong’s first season. Strong carried the momentum from the field to the recruiting trail, pulling in the best class in the Big East. Although the Cardinals are coming off their best season since 2006, equaling seven wins in 2011 could be difficult. Only nine starters return for Louisville, with only one returning starter along the offensive line and a quarterback question mark. Strong has the Cardinals on the right path, but 2011 may be a step back, before contending for the Big East title in 2012.
 
2. Quarterbacks Adam Froman and Justin Burke weren’t flashy, but both got the job done last year. Both have finished their eligibility, leaving junior Will Stein and true freshman Teddy Bridgewater to battle for the starting job. Stein has two starts in his career, while Bridgewater ranked as the No. 96 prospect in the 2011 Athlon Consensus 100. Stein’s experience should give him the early edge in this battle, but Bridgewater figures to takeover the starting job at some point in 2011. 
 
3. Finding a new quarterback isn’t the only issue for the Louisville offense. Running back Bilal Powell departs, after rushing for 1,405 yards and 11 scores last year. Although Powell will be missed, Jeremy Wright, Victor Anderson and South Carolina transfer Jarvis Giles are a capable group of rushers. The bigger questions rest with the receiving corps and offensive line. The Cardinals need to replace tight end Cameron Graham, while developing some playmakers at receiver. Center Mario Benavides is the lone returning starter, and two All-Big East selections must be replaced.
 
4. Charlie Strong had one of the nation’s best defenses at Florida and his stamp was clearly evident on the Cardinals last year. Louisville finished ninth nationally against the pass, 14th in total defense and 18th in scoring defense. Six starters are back from last season’s unit, but both cornerbacks are gone and the defensive line needs to develop new pass rushers with the departure of Malcolm Tatum and Rodney Gnat. Expect Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford to keep this defense at a high level, but it may not equal last season’s rankings. 
 
Redshirts to watch: WR Michaelee Harris, CB Jordon Paschal, WR Stephan Robinson
 
Fantasy tip: Keep Bridgewater in mind for a selection in keeper drafts this fall. The freshman should see playing time this year and earning the starting job away from Will Stein at some point this year appears likely.
 
Early Enrollees: QB Teddy Bridgewater, WR Charles Gaines, LB Brandon Golson, S Jermaine Reve
 
Pittsburgh
 
2010 Record: 8-5, 5-2 Big East
Spring practice: March 15-April 17
 
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 8
 
Spring storylines facing the Panthers:
 
1. Much of the spring focus in Pittsburgh will center on the transition from Dave Wannstedt to Todd Graham as head coach. Graham, previously at Tulsa, has a 43-23 record in five seasons as a head coach and is bringing a slew of changes to the Steel City. The Panthers will have an up-tempo offensive attack and the defense will switch to a 3-4 scheme – a much different look from the previous coaching staff. The Panthers have recruited well, but how quickly they can adapt to the new schemes will determine how high they will finish in the Big East.
 
2. In order for Graham and co-offensive coordinators Calvin Magee and Mike Norvell to successfully implement the up-tempo attack, the Panthers need to settle on a quarterback. Tino Sunseri is the returning starter, after throwing for 2,572 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. However, Sunseri isn’t guaranteed to be the starter, especially after an up and down 2010 campaign. Redshirt freshmen Mark Myers, Kolby Gray and Anthony Gonzalez will have an opportunity to compete for the job this spring. Graham’s offenses at Tulsa were prolific, but unless a quarterback settles into the job, it may take a year to get the results the coaching staff would like.
 
3. Eight starters are back on defense, but similar to the offense, there’s a scheme change underway. The Panthers used a 4-3 attack last year, but are transitioning to a 3-4 look for 2011. Brandon Lindsey was a second-team All-Big East selection last year and should thrive in the new scheme, filling a hybrid end/linebacker role. Although the front seven should be solid, the secondary needs to be addressed. Pittsburgh loses safety Dom DeCicco and help is needed at cornerback with the departure of Ricky Gary. If the defense stays in the top 20 of scoring defense, the Panthers should contend for a finish in the upper tier of the Big East.
 
Redshirts to watch: QB Mark Myers, QB Anthony Gonzalez, QB Kolby Gray, WR Drew Carswell, WR Kevin Weatherspoon, LB Todd Thomas
 
Fantasy tip: The quarterback position may be a weakness, but there’s no denying Ray Graham should be one of the top rushers in the Big East this season. Expect Graham to push for a spot among the top 25 running backs in preseason fantasy rankings.
 
Early Enrollees: OL Zenel Demhasaj (JC), DL Khaynin Mosley-Smith 
 
West Virginia
 
2010 Record: 9-4, 5-2 Big East
Spring practice: March 28-April 29
 
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 4
 
Spring storylines facing the Mountaineers:
 
1. Although Bill Stewart has a 28-12 record in three years, this will be his final season as head coach of West Virginia. New athletic director Oliver Luck decided it was time for a change, picking Dana Holgorsen as the head coach-in-waiting. Holgorsen is one of the top offensive minds in the country, making successful stops at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State. Stewart is one of the classiest coaches in the nation, but how well this marriage works will determine if the Mountaineers are a player in the Big East title or ticketed for a midpack finish. 
 
2. Holgorsen should have the pieces in place to immediately jumpstart the Mountaineer offense. West Virginia finished 78th nationally in scoring offense last year, but struggled during key moments of the season. Quarterback Geno Smith is a star in the making, after throwing for 2,763 yards and 24 touchdowns last season. The Mountaineers also return one of the Big East’s best receivers in Tavon Austin, who caught 58 passes for 787 yards last year. Although the passing game should be solid, there’s a major void at running back. Noel Devine has finished his eligibility, leaving Ryan Clarke, Shawne Alston, Trey Johnson and true freshman Andrew Buie to compete for the starting job. Although the Mountaineers will be a pass-first team in 2011, Holgorsen had a 1,000-yard rusher at Oklahoma State and needs to find someone who can handle 15-20 carries a game. 
 
3. Jeff Casteel is one of the nation’s most underrated defensive coordinators and will have his hands full this spring. The Mountaineers must replace seven starters, including end Scooter Berry, tackle Chris Neild, linebacker J.T. Thomas, cornerback Brandon Hogan and safety Robert Sands. Although the Mountaineers have a lot to replace, there is talent returning with end Bruce Irvin, linebacker Najee Goode and cornerback Keith Tandy. The Mountaineers may not finish among the top 10 in scoring defense this year, but don’t expect too much of a drop.
 
Redshirts to watch: OL Quinton Spain, LB Troy Gloster, LB Jewone Snow, DB Qudral Forte, DB Ishmael Banks
 
Fantasy tip: If Geno Smith can stay healthy, don’t be surprised if he finishes among the top 15 of fantasy quarterbacks in 2011. Holgorsen’s offense is a proven one for fantasy owners, so invest heavily into Smith and receiver Tavon Austin.
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<p> Athlon takes a look at some of the key questions from around the Big East this spring.</p>