Spring Primer: Big Ten Legends

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Athlon looks at the storylines from the newly minted Big Ten Legends division.

Athlon looks at the storylines from the newly minted Big Ten Legends division.

-by Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden)

Spring Primers: ACC Coastal | ACC Atlantic | Big 12, Part 1 | Big 12, Pt 2 | Notre Dame | Big East, Part 1 | Big East, Pt 2 | SEC West | SEC East | Big Ten Legends | Big Ten Leaders | Pac-12 North | Pac-12 South

Iowa Hawkeyes

2010 Record: 8-5, 4-4 Big Ten
Spring practice: March 23 – April 16

Returning Starters: Offense – 4, Defense – 5

Spring storylines facing the Hawkeyes:

1. Restoring order might be the first task at hand for Iowa football. Drug arrests, a large scale hospitalization of 13 players and a disappointing five-loss season have Kirk Ferentz backed into a corner. Somehow, he and his staff always seem to perform when their feet are at the fire. Getting back onto the football field has to be a welcome change for Hawkeye players.

2. Few teams in the Big Ten return fewer starters than the Hawkeyes. And the all-important quarterback position has a large void now that three-year starter Ricky Stanzi has departed. Record-setting prep star James Vandenberg has plenty of game experience – see the end of the 2009 season – and appears to be leaps and bounds ahead of the next man on the depth chart. A.J. Derby, a redshirt freshman who drew comparisons to Tim Tebow in high school, may get a look but is viewed as more of a futures commodity. It is Vandenberg’s job to lose.

3. Replacing two running backs, two offensive linemen, the school’s all-time leading receiver and the starting tight end certainly doesn’t help the new quarterback. Marcus Coker proved late in 2010 that he could be the feature back. Look for Ferentz to work the quicker DeAndre Johnson into the mix this spring. Marvin McNutt brings a veteran presence to the outside – with talented Keenan Davis stepping into a larger role. Despite having to replace all-league guard Julian Vandervelde and Josh Koeppel along the line, the offensive front is well-stocked with burly blockers. Riley Reiff, James Ferentz and Markus Zusevics form a solid foundation. Iowa is always strong upfront, and 2011 will be no different if they can settle on a rotation.

4. Two first teamers, one second teamer and three honorable mention all-Big Ten performers are gone from the defense. The line of scrimmage is always a priority for Ferentz, so filling massive voids left by future NFLers Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug will be tough. Replacing both safeties and two stars at linebacker won’t be easy either. There is a long list of potential stars who will have plenty of opportunities this spring to secure starting roles. The good news for this totally reworked defense, is the covermen. This team should feature one of the best collections of cornerbacks in the nation.

Redshirts to watch: DT Carl Davis, OL Andrew Donnal, DT Donovan Johnson, WR Kevonte Martin-Manley

Fantasy tip: Iowa running backs have long been a fantasy commodity and Coker shouldn’t be any different. He showed flashes in the season finale and could easily top 1,000 yards and 10 scores this fall. Vanderberg could also be a sneaky name to keep an eye on in the late rounds.

Michigan Wolverines

2010 Record: 7-6, 3-5 Big Ten
Spring practice: March 19 – April 16

Returning Starters: Offense – 9, Defense – 8

Spring storylines facing the Wolverines:

1. Michigan finally has a Michigan man calling the shots. And luckily for new head coach Brady Hoke, he returns more starters than anyone in the division. He brought Al Borges with him on the offense and hired Greg Mattison away from the Ravens to improve what was a pathetic defense. Hoke has a clear track record for success, but this will be his first spring under the microscope. A staff has to learn to coach together on the field just like the players need to learn to play together – especially for a team that likely needs a lot of overhauling.

2. Mattison has his work cut out for him. He returns a defense that will be missing very little from a year ago – all-Big Ten linebacker Jonas Mouton for one. But then again, that may not be a good thing for Maize and Blue fans since these players ranked 112th against the pass and 108th in scoring defense. With the exception of maybe Jordan Kovacs and J.T. Floyd, every position in the back seven should be up for grabs. Someone needs to step up and take control of what was arguably the worst secondary in Michigan history. With some talent upfront, the shift back to a 4-3 scheme should help the secondary.

3. Much like the defense, the offense will return to formation normalcy in 2011. The pro-style attack of Borges and Hoke just needs to find pieces that fit. They want to return the power running game to Ann Arbor, but that means they will need to find some big backs to carry the load this spring. Stephen Hopkins looks the part, but could end up playing fullback due to position scarcity. Finding a downhill running game this spring will take a lot of pressure off of returning Big Ten player of the Year Denard Robinson.

Redshirts to watch: TE Ricardo Miller, OL Christian Pace, DT Kenny Wilkins, LB Jordan Paskorz, DT Richard Ash

Fantasy tip: Draft Denard Robinson with caution. He was the first player in the history of the sport to hit the 2,000/1,500 mark, so a repeat performance in more of a pro-style offense will be virtually impossible. Stay away from the receivers on this team — the new offense will not be kind to them — but definitely keep an eye on the running backs as they should flourish in the new system.

Early Enrollees: DB Greg Brown

Michigan State Spartans

2010 Record: 11-2, 7-1 Big Ten
Spring practice: March 29 – April 30

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 6

Spring storylines facing the Spartans:

1. The issue for new Michigan State offensive coordinator Dna Roushar is very clear – the offensive line. Certainly losing Mark Dell will hurt, as will replacing 30-plus starts from center John Stipek, all-league honorable mention tackle D.J. Young and right tackle J’Michael Deane. The guards should be solid, but finding big bodies to protect all that talent in the backfield will be the most important issue for the Spartan offense.

2. The issues on defense are just as easily identifiable. No team can just plug in a body for a player like linebacker Greg Jones. Or Eric Gordon, for that matter. Filling those two first-team all-Big Ten holes at linebacker is the clear focus of this defensive unit. Look for Sparty legacy Max Bullough to build on a strong freshman campaign. Chris Norman, Steve Gardiner, Denicos Allen and TyQuan Hammock will all compete for time as well. Look for a strong front line to help in breaking in these new backers – especially elite 2010 recruit William Gholston.

3. Replacing Chris L. Rucker and Marcus Hyde in the secondary will be tough too. However, there are a lot of bodies back there to choose from. Trenton Robinson should man one safety spot while Johnny Adams mans one corner position. Isaiah Lewis, Jairus Jones, Mitchell White and Darqueze Dennard have all seen the field but need to take the next step in the development process.

Redshirts to watch: CB Tony Lippett, LB Marcus Rush, CB Mylan Hicks

Fantasy tip: The talent in the backfield and on the outside is remarkable. The three-headed monster at running back can cause some heartburn, though. If the offensive line cannot settle early and the backs are splitting carries, all that talent may not translate on the fantasy gridiron like it could on the actual field.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

2010 Record: 3-9, 2-6 Big Ten
Spring practice: March 24 – April 23

Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 5

Spring storylines facing the Gophers:

1. After playing in what seems like two decades in a Gopher uniform, Adam Weber is gone. The highly touted MarQueis Gray has a chance to finally step under center and make a big impact. He has already shown his athletic ability as a receiver (42 rec., 587 yards, 5 TDs) and will bring a new dimension to the Gopher attack. New head coach Jerry Kill is playing it coy with the media, however, and says that playing time at every position is earned, not given away.

2. The Gophers lose a pair of starters from the mix-and-match secondary. Safety Kyle Theret and combo DB Ryan Collado will need to be replaced on the back end. Michael Carter, who might have the most raw ability and saw time at all positions, should earn one starting spot. James Manuel Christyn Lewis and Kenny Watkins will figure heavily into the mix. Finally, Kim Royston, who missed all of last season to injury, returns to the field to add depth. Troy Stoudermire and Kyle Henderson will also be asked to build on average 2010 seasons.

3. The offensive line also needs reworking. Three starters are gone from a unit that ranked 86th nationally in rushing offense. This was a major area of strength for the Gophers under Glen Mason and has always been an huge part of Kill’s tenure at Northern Illinois. With a pair of experienced runners in the backfield, finding replacements for the departed blockers will be key this spring. Look for bluechippers Jimmy Gjere and Ed Olson to step in and get long looks this spring.

Redshirts to watch: DT Josh Tauaefa, DB Tyrone Boiue, RB Lamonte Edwards, OL Jimmy Gjere, RB Devon Wright

Fantasy tip: Gray is a solid late-round flier — at quarterback or reciever. Right now, until the offensive line is solidified, Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge are fringe draft picks. Yet, under Kill, NIU backs have been fantasy gold.

Early Enrollees: OL Josh Campion, WR Ge’Shun Harris, K Chris Hawthorne, ATH Marcus Jones, TE John Rabe

Nebraska Cornhuskers

2010 Record: 10-4, 6-2 (Big 12)
Spring practice: March 12 – April 16

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 6

Spring storylines facing the Huskers:

1. Welcome to the Big Ten. The style of play and personality of the fan base in Lincoln is undoubtedly a better fit in the Big Ten than the Big 12. That doesn’t mean much when it comes to blocking and tackling. In fact, it means that the brutal schedule NU has to face will be littered with opponents who are used to facing power-running teams with athletic quarterbacks. So replacing all-conference guards Ricky Henry and Keith Williams becomes that much more important. Bo Pelini also needs to find a replacement for D.J. Jones at right tackle. Mike Caputo and Jeramiah Sirles return to lead the charge – and Nebraska is never hurting for big bodies – but this staff needs to sort out the offensive line quickly this spring.

2. The secondary will need to be totally reworked. All-world coverman Prince Amukamara is gone. As are all-league performers Eric Hagg and DeJon Gomes. Hagg was a stalwart at the back end of the defense, so Pelini needs to find versatile pieces to fill the void. Depth is hurt by the loss of Ricky Thenarse and Anthony West. Names like P.J. Smith, Austin Cassidy, Ciante Evans, Alfonzo Dennard, Alonzo Whaley and Courtney Osborne should all compete for snaps this spring with starting jobs on the line.

3. New offensive coordinator Tim Beck will need to find some new skill guys. Niles Paul, Roy Helu and Mike McNeil have all moved on. Rex Burkhead’s physical, blue-collar style should make the transition from Helu a seamless one. Brandon Kinnie looks the part, as does speedy tight end Kyler Reed, but they need to step into bigger roles on this offense.

4. Taylor Martinez’s name has not been mentioned yet, has it? The Big 12 Freshman of the Year dealt with toughness issues last season – both mentally and physically. In the more physically demanding Big Ten, either weakness will not be tolerated by Pelini. With elite recruit Jamal Turner already enrolled, and Cody Green nipping at his heels, Martinez needs to be focused this spring. He has all the tools and should be the starter, although "should" is the optimal word here.

Redshirts to watch: QB Brion Carnes, DT Chase Rome, DB Corey Cooper, WR Kenny Bell, DL Jay Guy

Fantasy tip: Burkhead has been incredibly productive in a backup role for two years. His hard-nosed, between-the-tackles style will get him a lot of carries this season. He could quickly turn into a lock for 20 points per week — which probably would exceed his draft slot.

Early Enrollees: OL Tyler Moore, QB Jamal Turner, DT Kevin Williams

Northwestern Wildcats

2010 Record: 7-6, 3-5 Big Ten
Spring practice: March 7 – April 16

Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 7

Spring storylines facing the Wildcats:

1. The biggest loss on this team was in the linebacking corps, where Quentin Davie and Nate Williams have moved on. Replacing two leaders in the heart of a defense isn’t easy, but if anyone knows anything about Northwestern linebackers, it's head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Bryce McNaul is the only proven commodity, while Ben Johnson, David Nwabuisi and Damien Proby have the most experience to compete for starting jobs this spring.

2. Can Northwestern develop a more traditional running game? This offense returns one of the nation’s most efficient passers, a plethora of dependable receivers and all but nine total starts on the offensive line. Arby Fields and Stephen Simmons never really blossomed and Fitzgerald undoubtedly wants a more downhill rushing attack. Mike Trumpy, and his Danny Woodhead-ness, has a chance to flourish in a system that is really built around the quarterback.

3. Find a replacement for all-conference defensive tackle Corbin Bryant. This team has a lot of experience on the edge of the defensive line but needs to develop some interior players. This will go a long way in helping to replace those stellar linebackers.

Redshirts to watch: OL Brandon Vitabile, DL Sean McEvilly, DB Jimmy Hall, LB Chi Chi Arigzo, DL Chance Carter

Fantasy tip: Quarterback Dan Persa was a steal in 2010 drafts, but he will come at a much higher cost this season. In fact, this entire offense should be at a premium in 2011 — at QB, WR and TE. Also keep an eye on little Mike Trumpy. He could be an excellent spot starter throughout the season.

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<p> Athlon takes a look at some of the key questions from around the Big Ten Legends this spring.</p>