Athlon previews the storylines for spring practice in the Big Ten.
It’s tough to glean much from spring practice, but for the 14 teams in the Big Ten, these preseason workouts couldn’t get here fast enough. 2013 was a disappointing year for the conference, as only three teams – Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin – finished in the final Associated Press top 25 poll.
The Spartans finished No. 3 in the final poll, while the Buckeyes closed the season with back-to-back losses after a 12-0 start. Wisconsin finished Gary Andersen’s first year in Madison with a solid 9-4 record.
But the rest of the conference was largely a disappointment. Michigan entered 2013 with hopes of winning the Legends Division title. However, the Wolverines slumped to 7-6 and won just three Big Ten contests. Northwestern was pegged as a potential wildcard to watch in the division title picture, but the Wildcats finished 5-7.
The news wasn’t much better in the Leaders Division, as Indiana missed out on a bowl with a 5-7 mark, and Purdue struggled mightily in Darrell Hazell’s first season with a 1-11 record.
The Big Ten is set to grow by two teams with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers this year, and the divisions have been shuffled once again. The balance of power seems to rest in the East with Ohio State and Michigan State. But the West features some intriguing teams, including Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
|Seniors Lost||Early NFL Departures||Returning Offensive Starters||Returning Defensive Starters|
East Division Spring Outlook
Getting defensive in Bloomington:
One look at the stat sheet clearly shows where Indiana’s focus needs to be this spring. Despite averaging 489.1 yards and 38.4 points per game, Indiana finished 5-7 last year. Clearly, offense isn’t an issue for coach Kevin Wilson. But the defense? Well, that’s another story. The Hoosiers allowed a whopping 7.4 yards per play last season and gave up 41.9 points per contest (conference-only games). Wilson made changes to his staff, hiring well-traveled assistant Brian Knorr to call the defensive signals in 2014. Knorr ran a 3-4 attack last season at Wake Forest and could implement that scheme in Bloomington. The cupboard isn’t bare on defense, as cornerback Tim Bennett, linebacker T.J. Simmons and defensive tackle Darius Latham headline a core of young players poised to make strides with another preseason under their belt. After a dreadful 1-11 mark in 2011, Indiana is 9-15 over the last two years. Wilson is making progress but getting to a bowl largely depends on how far the defense progresses before the season opener.
Putting the pieces together on the offensive line:
The Terrapins were only a team with a 7-6 record last year, but entering spring practice, this squad doesn’t have a ton of glaring concerns. Sure, each side of the ball has room to improve. However, Maryland is in relatively good shape entering its first season in the Big Ten. With Stefon Diggs and Deon Long out this spring due to injuries, Levern Jacobs, Nigel King and Amba Etta-Tawo will get an extended opportunity to work with quarterback C.J. Brown. But perhaps the biggest concern for coach Randy Edsall is an offensive line that allowed 2.4 sacks per game in ACC action. The Terrapins reeled in three potential impact recruits in Derwin Gray, Larry Mazyck and Damian Prince, and even if all three players don’t start, they should help improve the overall depth up front. Three starters return in the trenches for 2014, and the staff moved Evan Mulrooney to guard to bolster the depth there. Considering Prince won’t arrive until the fall, it’s unlikely the line will find stability until then. However, this spring is the first chance for Edsall to start sorting out his options in the trenches as Maryland officially becomes a Big Ten team.
Developing an offensive line:
Yes, Michigan needs more consistency from quarterback Devin Gardner, and the rushing attack has to give Gardner more help, but the biggest question mark for coach Brady Hoke this spring is clearly the offensive line. This unit struggled with consistency last season, and the Wolverines recorded just 2.5 yards per carry in Big Ten action. Making matters worse is the line loses tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield - easily the top two players on the unit in 2013. There is talent returning in the trenches, as Michigan reeled in back-to-back top-10 recruiting classes from 2012-13. The entire starting five is up for grabs. It’s time for players like Graham Glasgow, Kyle Kalis and Kyle Bosch to emerge as the leaders for the offensive line.
New faces on defense:
Despite losing six starters, the Spartans should remain one of the best defenses in the nation in 2014. But there’s no question a transition period is ahead with the departure of cornerback Darqueze Dennard, linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough, tackles Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover and safety Isaiah Lewis. Coordinator Pat Narduzzi isn’t hurting for talent, as end Shilique Calhoun is one of the top defensive players in the Big Ten, and cornerback Trae Waynes is poised to emerge as an All-Big Ten performer. This spring is all about Narduzzi getting the new faces acclimated into starting roles on the depth chart. Damon Knox and Joel Heath and Brandon Clemons will be tasked with anchoring the interior of the line, while some shuffling is needed at linebacker with the departure of Bullough and Allen. At cornerback, Arjen Colquhoun and Jermaine Edmondson were listed as the backup to Dennard last season. Will one of those players emerge as the starter? Or will Narduzzi take a look at Darian Hicks opposite of Waynes? This defense certainly has its share of question marks, but Narduzzi should find the right answers before the season opener.
Starting over on the offensive line:
Going into the 2013 season, the Buckeyes had one of the best offensive lines in the nation. What a difference a year makes. Ohio State is essentially starting over in the trenches with only one starter returning as the team is set to open spring practice on March 4. The list of departed players is heavy on all-conference performers, with center Corey Linsley, guard Andrew Norwell and tackle Jack Mewhort all taking home first-team honors last year. Guard Marcus Hall didn’t earn a first or second-team mention, but he garnered an honorable mention spot for the all-conference team. Ohio State recruits as well as any team in the nation, so talent won’t be an issue. However, it may take some time for the line to jell and develop consistency. Taylor Decker is the unit’s only returning starter and is expected to shift from right to left tackle this spring. Replacing Decker on the right side could be senior Darryl Baldwin, and guard Pat Elflein should be a starter at one of the guard spots. But who replaces Linsley at center? Will that be Jacoby Boren? Ohio State should have a spot among the top-10 teams in the nation in 2014. However, the Buckeyes won’t finish ahead of Michigan State in their division unless the line quickly emerges as a strength.
Finding a go-to receiver for quarterback Christian Hackenberg:
Spring practice in Happy Valley is all about getting acclimated to the new surroundings and players for new coach James Franklin. The former Vanderbilt coach is inheriting a talented roster from Bill O’Brien, including rising star Christian Hackenberg at quarterback. As a true freshman last season, Hackenberg threw for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns and completed 58.9 percent of his throws. Of Penn State’s 241 completions in 2013, 97 of those went to Allen Robinson. As expected, Robinson chose to leave early for the NFL in early January, leaving Eugene Lewis (18 receptions) as the team’s top returner at receiver. The Nittany Lions are loaded with talent at tight end, starting with Kyle Carter (18 receptions last year), Adam Breneman and Jesse James. But who will step up at receiver? Is Lewis ready to be the go-to guy? How much of an impact will incoming freshman De’Andre Thompkins make this spring? Answering the question marks at receiver, along with addressing the secondary are two key areas to watch for Penn State over the next few months.
Finding answers on defense:
The Scarlet Knights have question marks on both sides of the ball, but the defense is the bigger area of concern in a division with Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Indiana. Rutgers allowed 412.8 yards per game last season (5.7 yards per play) and gave up 34 points per game in eight American Athletic Conference contests. Youth played a role in the defensive struggles, as the Scarlet Knights lost a handful of key contributors from 2012. New coordinator Joe Rossi will have his hands full in 2014, but there are a few building blocks in place. The linebacking corps is solid with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder returning, while tackle Darius Hamilton could be an all-conference performer on the interior. The secondary took its share of lumps last season, but nearly everyone returns, including Anthony Cioffi who played in 12 games as a true freshman. Rossi coordinated the defense in the Pinstripe Bowl against Notre Dame, and the Scarlet Knights managed to hold the Fighting Irish to 5.5 yards per play. Don’t expect this unit to become a shutdown group by the season opener. But with Rossi calling the plays on a full-time basis and another offseason for the young talent to work with the staff, Rutgers should be able to find some improvement on defense this spring.
West Division Spring Outlook
Developing the defensive line:
We could pick a couple of storylines to watch for Illinois, but considering Bill Cubit’s track record of success, the Fighting Illini should be able to figure out a few answers in the receiving corps for new quarterback Wes Lunt. A bigger issue for third-year coach Tim Beckman is the defense, specifically the line. Opponents pounded Illinois’ defense for 277.6 rushing yards per game in Big Ten action, while this unit also allowed 24 scores on the ground in that span. Tim Kynard is the only significant loss on the line, but there’s also very little in the way of potential all-conference talent. To jumpstart the competition this spring, Beckman is bringing in two early enrollees to compete for time. Junior college recruit Joe Fotu had 2.5 sacks at Laney Community College last year, while incoming freshman Paul James III ranked as the No. 200 recruit in the nation by ESPN in 2013. More help is also on the way from junior college recruit Jihad Ward in the fall. Each unit on the defense has to improve for Illinois to make a bowl in 2014. Can Beckman and coordinator Tim Banks find a few answers this spring?
Finding replacements at linebacker:
Iowa usually finds quality linebackers, so this isn’t likely to be a glaring concern when the season begins. However, the Hawkeyes are losing three impact defenders at this position, so the spotlight will be on the new starters this spring. Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey and James Morris each tallied over 100 stops last season and will be missed. Senior Quinton Alston is the unit’s most-experienced option, recording 24 stops over the last three years. Reggie Spearman is a name to remember after playing in 10 games as a true freshman, while Travis Perry should have the inside track to grab the third starting spot.
Mitch Leidner takes over as the No. 1 quarterback:
Shortly after the regular season ended, Philip Nelson decided to transfer from Minnesota to Rutgers, leaving Leidner as the top quarterback entering spring practice. The Minnesota native performed well in limited action last season, throwing for 619 yards and three touchdowns on 43 completions. Leidner also rushed for 407 yards, including 151 yards against San Jose State. With Nelson moving on, Leidner has a full offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback. Working with the first-team offense should help the sophomore transition into the starting lineup, but the Golden Gophers also need to work on developing more options in the receiving corps. Drew Wolitarsky is the top returning wide receiver with 15 catches, while tight end Maxx Williams grabbed 25 passes last year. Leidner needs to prove he can consistently beat defenses with his arm, but his development will also hinge on improvement from the receiving corps.
Starting over on the offensive line:
It’s easy to pencil in the development of Tommy Armstrong here, but Nebraska’s biggest concern on offense should be the line. Four key players from last year are gone, including center Cole Pensick, tackles Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale and guard Andrew Rodriguez. Left guard Jake Cotton is the only returning starter. Mark Pelini and Mike Moudy combined for five starts last season and should figure into the mix in 2014. But what happens at the tackle spots? Zach Sterup has the necessary size (6-foot-8, 315 pounds) to anchor the right side of the line, and he will have an opportunity to claim a starting spot this spring. Junior college transfer Chongo Kondolo redshirted last year and was a touted recruit in last year’s class. Will he factor into the rotation in the trenches? Or will junior Matt Finnin claim the left tackle job vacated by Qvale? Coordinator Tim Beck and line coaches Barney Cotton and John Garrison will be busy this spring as they look to find the right combination up front.
Trevor Siemian’s time at quarterback:
Northwestern’s five victories last season were the fewest under coach Pat Fitzgerald since a 4-8 mark in 2006. Injuries played a significant role in the disappointing win total, especially with the loss of standout running back Venric Mark early in the year. But 2014 is a new season, and the Wildcats return 16 starters that should help this team rebound back into bowl contention. Kain Colter departs at quarterback, and after sharing the job the last two years, Trevor Siemian is set to take the No. 1 job this spring. Siemian isn’t the runner that Colter was, but he threw for 3,461 yards over the last two years. But is he ready to be the full-time quarterback? Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Matt Alviti, who is a dual-threat option that could work his way into the mix. This spring is Siemian’s chance to put his stamp on the starting job, as well as develop a rapport with a talented receiving corps.
Finding playmakers on offense:
In eight Big Ten contests last year, Purdue averaged just 4.4 yards per play and 13 points per game. Those numbers are a far cry from the Joe Tiller era in West Lafayette, and second-year coach Darrell Hazell opens spring practice looking for answers. Quarterback play is under the microscope after three players received snaps last year. Danny Etling took the majority of snaps and finished his freshman campaign by throwing 1,690 yards and 10 touchdowns. Etling has room to improve, and he will be pushed by Austin Appleby and early enrollee David Blough. The question marks extend to the running backs, where leading rusher Akeem Hunt managed just 464 yards last year. And the Boilermakers need to more consistency from the receiving corps, as well as improved play from the offensive line (39 sacks allowed last season). This spring is Hazell and coordinator John Shoop’s first opportunity to find some answers before 2014.
Improving the passing attack:
The Badgers lose several key pieces from the defense, but the passing offense is expected to receive the most attention from coach Gary Andersen this spring. In eight Big Ten games last year, Wisconsin averaged only 201.9 yards per game and tossed nine picks to just 13 touchdowns. Joel Stave started all 13 games last season, but he will face competition from Tanner McEvoy, who is slated to return under center after spending time at safety in 2013. In addition to McEvoy, Bart Houston and incoming freshman D.J. Gillins are expected to get an extended look under center in the preseason. The Badgers’ passing concerns don’t stop at quarterback. Receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen have expired their eligibility, leaving the cupboard a little thin in proven options in the receiving corps. This spring presents a huge opportunity for players like Jordan Fredrick, Alex Erickson, Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright to make an impression at receiver.