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2011 Big East Spring Preview
West Virginia QB Geno Smith
West Virginia QB Geno Smith
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Mar 19, 2011


The big questions, the top position battles, the early buzz, and the attitudes for every Big East team going into spring practices.


2011 Big East Spring Preview

Click for each team's spring preview
- Cincinnati | Connecticut | Louisville | Pittsburgh
- Rutgers | South Florida | Syracuse | West Virginia
 
2011 Big East Spring Preview
- 2011 Big East Schedules & Game-By-Game Picks
- 2011 Big East Spring Buzz   
- 2011 Big East Spring Attitudes 
- 2011 Big East Big Spring Questions  
- 2011 Big East Positions To Watch  

2011 Big East Pre-Spring Preview
- Big East Pre-Spring Rankings
- Why Every Team Should Be Excited
- Why Every Team Should Be Grouchy
- What Every Team Needs To Work On  

Cincinnati
Spring Practice Begins: March 29 Game: April 16

The early spring buzz ... In order to add a little more punch to the pass rush, the staff is considering shifting former TE Travis Kelce to defensive end. He has tremendous size and the requisite athleticism to make the move stick. Don’t forget that this is the same 6-6, 260-pounder who was used some in the Wildcat formation two years ago. Back after missing 2010 because of a violation of team rules, he’ll be looking to channel his inner Connor Barwin, the former Bearcat tight end who’s now an end with the Houston Texans.

The big spring question is ... Can all of those familiar faces on defense be parlayed into improved results? Everyone is back on D. Literally. However, after the unit ranked last in the Big East in pass defense and turnovers, that’s not necessarily cause for a celebration. The Bearcats did a solid job versus the run in 2010, which ought to continue, but they have to find a way to prevent—and create—more big plays when the ball is in the air. The team had just eight picks despite being thrown on often.

The most important position to watch is ... Offensive tackle. Yeah, the defense is a sore spot in Cincinnati, but the program will go only as far as the offense will take it. The key will be to keep QB Zach Collaros protected, a concern since Samuel Griffin and CJ Cobb both exhausted their eligibility. When the blockers hold the line, Collaros, RB Isaiah Pead and WR DJ Woods are capable of putting up huge numbers. All eyes will be on Andre Cureton, Sean Hooey, and the rest of the young tackles hoping to win a job in the spring.

Spring attitude... The storm has passed and better days are ahead for Cincinnati. At least that’s the mantra, as Butch Jones enters a pivotal second season as the head coach. Going 4-8 after winning back-to-back Big East titles was a disaster for the program, but that’s now in the rear view mirror. For the Bearcats, this spring represents an opportunity to recapture some of the confidence and swagger that existed when Brian Kelly was still on the sidelines. The slate is clean and the stakes are high for a school that can ill-afford consecutive losing years.

Connecticut
Spring Practice Begins: March 15 Game: April 16

The early spring buzz ... Although the coaching staff is new to Storrs, it certainly isn’t lacking in experience. Paul Pasqualoni has surrounded himself with veterans, including three men with head coaching experience, offensive coordinator George DeLeone, defensive coordinator Don Brown, and O-line coach Mike Foley. Pasqualoni didn’t complete his staff until Clayton White was hired as running backs coach and special teams coordinator, so this first spring will be as important for the coaches as it is for the returning Husky players.

The big spring question is ... Who plays quarterback? A perennial concern for this program, it needs a reliable passer who can move the chains and keep defenses from ganging up on the backs. Last year’s squad was 112th nationally in passing efficiency, so graduating Zach Frazer won’t be missed. The competition will revolve around 2010 backup Michael Box, Johnny McEntee, and freshmen Scott McCummings and Michael Nebrich. Box is the only one who’s thrown a pass at this level, but McEntee is a YouTube sensation for a trick shot video that went viral following the season.

The most important position to watch is ... The running backs. As unsettling as the situation may be at quarterback, it won’t be so bad if Connecticut can continue to run the ball effectively. The problem is that star Jordan Todman left early for the NFL and backups Robbie Frey and Meme Wylie have decided not to play football for the Huskies any longer. The spotlight will shine squarely on D.J. Shoemate, the former USC transfer looking to capitalize on this opportunity for playing time. Regardless of how he performs, Connecticut will be thin in the backfield and somewhat reliant on first-year players.

Spring attitude... Has Connecticut’s success vanished with Randy Edsall, who’s now the Maryland head coach? The new staff is determined to prove otherwise. It’s going to have its hands full in the early going, as it attempts to get acclimated with the new surroundings and personnel. Neither the offense nor the defense will stray dramatically from the old regime, which will allow Pasqualoni & Co. to focus more attention on teaching and establishing a soft depth chart. They’ll want to pay special attention to a backfield that’ll be a question mark right through summer camp.

Louisville
Spring Practice Begins: March 23 Game: April 15

The early spring buzz ... Head coach Charlie Strong will be a little shorthanded when he opens his second spring later in the month. On defense, CB Darius Ashley, DT Greg Scruggs and ends William Savoy and B.J. Butler are out with injuries. Offensively, C Mario Benavides, the lone returning starter on the line, RB Jeremy Wright, and WR Damian Copeland will also miss camp to rehab bumps and bruises. The good news is that all are expected by the summer, and their absences should help build more depth on both sides of the ball.

The big spring question is ... Does Strong go with youth or experience behind center? After Adam Froman and Justin Burke graduated, the program was left with sure-things at the most important position on the field. Will Stein enters his junior year, but he’s a former walk-on, with limited upside and only one career touchdown on his resume. Of course, the staff could pop the cork on the Teddy Bridgewater era if the rookie proves he’s ready for the step up in competition. He’s already enrolled in classes, eager to show why he was one of the most sought after dual-threats in America on signing day.

The most important position to watch is ... the offensive line. Not only have the veteran quarterbacks run out of eligibility, but so has all-star RB Bilal Powell. The successors will need as much help as possible from a front wall that must replace four starters around Benavides. On the left side, in particular, all-leaguers Mark Wetterer and Byron Stingily leave big shoes to fill. Only Alex Kupper, Ryan Kessling, and John Clark are back from the second team, meaning newcomers from the latest recruiting class must be ready to contribute immediately.

Spring attitude... After going 7-6, capped by an improbable bowl victory, and scoring big on Signing Day, the Cardinals are looking to build on that success. While there are challenges and the overall talent level remains questionable, Strong has momentum and a much better feel for the program in his second year on campus. Best of all, the players have bought into his philosophies and with each new class, his presence at the university gradually erases the dark days when Steve Kragthorpe was still calling the shots.

Pittsburgh
Spring Practice Begins: March 15 Game: April 16


The early spring buzz ... Not only will LB Dan Mason be unavailable to the team this spring, but there are question marks about his ability to suit up at all in 2011. While he’s coming along well from last September’s leg injury, it was so severe that no one will assume he’ll be ready by this fall. It’s a shame, too, because he showed the potential to be an outstanding run defender in the middle of the D. Senior Max Gruder will continue to hold down the spot, with backup Joe Trebitz expected to get more reps than usual during the spring.

The big spring question is ... How much can Todd Graham and his staff accomplish in 15 practices? Not only was he hired very late in the process, but he’ll also be looking to implement a vastly different offense than the one that used to be employed by Dave Wannstedt. Every session will count in the Panthers’ quest to get off to a fast start and exceed expectations in 2011. From the players to the coaches, it promises to be a very steep learning curve over the next month that tests the patience of all parties involved.

The most important position to watch is ... quarterback. While Graham likes to run the ball more than most assume, he still needs a capable quarterback to lead his high-powered attack. And preferably one with enough mobility to make things happen with his feet. His passers have always been good athletes. Tino Sunseri is the returning starter, but some fear he’s a better fit for a pro-style offense. Pitt may have few other viable options. Pat Bostick wasn’t the answer and wisely gave up football. Anthony Gonzalez might be, but has yet to take a snap. Stay tuned.

Spring attitude... More than anything else, this is going to be a month-long meet-and-greet. Obviously, the new staff brings a fresh outlook and heightened expectations, but this first spring will be more about setting the table for the summer than anything else. The defense has enough quality players, like DE Brandon Lindsey and S Jarred Holley to be the cornerstone in the early stages of the year. The offense, on the other hand, will get a lot more attention, as it exits the 20th century and begins installing a whole new methodology for putting up points.

Rutgers
Spring Practice Begins: March 29 Game: April 30


The early spring buzz ... At this time last year, Tom Savage was not only the returning starter at quarterback, he was the franchise. Today, he’s a free agent, looking for a new school to resurrect his career. It’s been quite an about-face for the can’t-miss recruit of 2009, which has left the Scarlet Knights painfully thin at quarterback. Chas Dodd actually unseated Savage a year ago, but is he absolutely the long-term solution? Greg Schiano has employed true freshmen the last two years, which is good news for talented newcomer Gary Nova.

The big spring question is ... Is this the year that the offensive line finally looks like more than just a swinging gate? Four starters return, but that guarantees nothing in Piscataway. This unit has been a sieve in recent years, especially in pass protection. The onus falls on long-time line coach Kyle Flood, who has underachieved along with his players. Someone needs to give the quarterbacks enough time to locate TE D.C. Jefferson and receivers Mark Harrison and Mohamed Sanu. It’ll have to be a collaborative effort since none of those returning linemen were all-stars or are expected to be this fall.

The most important position to watch is ... defensive line. Schiano’s front four is usually stout, but the 2011 edition will be breaking in four new starters around DT Scott Vallone. Help is needed throughout the two-deep, but especially on the outside, where Jonathan Freeny and Alex Silvestro will be missed. While Justin Francis is experienced and tough versus the run, he won’t frighten opposing tackles with his get-off or burst around the edge. Fingers will be crossed regarding the development of the young kids, like Junior Solice and Jamil Merrell.

Spring attitude... After hitting rock bottom under Schiano with last season’s 4-8 debacle, Rutgers is in rebuilding mode whether it accepts it or not. While getting back to .500 isn’t an unreasonable goal, there simply isn’t enough talent to be thinking about the first division of the Big East. Only one player, S Joe Lefeged was named all-conference, and he’s used up his eligibility. The staff has been retooled, highlighted by the hiring of offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, in the hopes of bringing a fresh outlook to the program.

South Florida
Spring Practice Begins: March 3 Game: April 9


The early spring buzz ... Although the Bulls don’t bring back a ton of starters, they are excited to get a first good look at a couple of major transfers. Running backs Darrell Scott and Dontae Aycock, formerly of Colorado and Auburn, respectively, were one-time blue-chippers before reversing field and changing address. Scott was considered the nation’s top prep back three years ago, and Aycock had no shortage of offers in 2009. Both are big and physical runners, eager to fill the gaping void that currently exists in the South Florida backfield.

The big spring question is ... Which is the real B.J. Daniels, the one that sputtered in the regular season or the one that soared in the Meineke Car Care Bowl? The Bulls are banking on the latter because there isn’t a lot of depth behind the junior. He was an inconsistent mess during the year, throwing more picks than touchdowns and becoming far less effective as a runner. However, in the December upset of Clemson, he recaptured his rookie form, accounting for three scores and earning MVP honors. South Florida needs that guy to be more visible in 2011.

The most important position to watch is ... defensive line. Rarely a concern in Tampa, South Florida has taken significant hits up front for a second straight year. Three seniors are gone, headed by all-star tackle Terrell McClain. After Cory Grissom, who’s back to man the nose, the Bulls will be forced to lean a little more than they’d like on underclassmen. One in particular, DE Ryne Giddins, was a mega-recruit from the 2009 class, who might be ready to explode now that he has a couple of years on campus and fewer roadblocks to the top of the depth chart.

Spring attitude... Skip Holtz’s first season at South Florida couldn’t have gone much better, winning eight games and beating Miami and Clemson down the stretch. Now the plan is to seize that momentum and get the program a little closer to the top of the Big East. While no one wants to get carried away so soon, if Holtz can go 8-5 with a team that was supposed to be rebuilding, what can he achieve in his second full year on campus? The growing fan base is eager to witness the answer to that question.

Syracuse
Spring Practice Begins: March 8 Game: April 16

The early spring buzz ... Doug Marrone shuffled his staff in February, but it had more to do with changing roles than changing personnel. Marrone is thrilled that he’s been able to maintain continuity after last season’s successful campaign. The most notable move was elevating Nathaniel Hackett from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. The son of long-time coach Paul Hackett, he’s a rising star within the coaching ranks. After handling most of the play-calling duties in 2010, there shouldn’t be much of a transition for the coach or his players.

The big spring question is ... Is QB Ryan Nassib ready to become the face of the offense? Entering his junior year, his role is sure to expand, especially after top back Delone Carter graduated. If the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl is any indication, he could be on the brink of a breakthrough season. Despite playing in less than ideal conditions for a passer, he didn’t commit a turnover and turned 13 completions into 239 yards and three touchdowns. If the Orange is to get to the next level, it’ll need its quarterback to be a big part of that ascent.

The most important position to watch is ... linebacker. Syracuse is moving forward without two of its finest linebackers in recent memory, Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith. Not only did they make a ton of stops for the Orange D, but they had a knack for coming up with the big play as well. Marquis Spruill becomes the new anchor on the second line of defense, but his supporting cast is a big question mark. Brice Hawkes, Dan Vaughan, and Malcolm Cater lettered last fall, and are the favorites to move up a rung on the ladder.

Spring attitude... For the first time in almost a decade, Syracuse is enjoying a positive vibe in the offseason. Not only did it finally return to the postseason, but it knocked off Kansas State in a thrilling game in Yankee Stadium. These are unusually heady times in Upstate New York. Marrone plans to capitalize in the spring, adding more blocks to the foundation and further instilling his work ethic and philosophy. The Orange isn’t so loaded with talent or natural resources that it can afford to take a step in reverse. It needs to keep moving forward in order to remain competitive in the Big East.

West Virginia
Spring Practice Begins: March 28 Game: April 29

The early spring buzz ... Starting quarterback Geno Smith will be limited in the spring after having a screw inserted in his foot to stabilize a broken bone. He’ll be back to full strength before the summer, but his absence is going to slow down the implementation of Dana Holgorsen’s new offense in Morgantown. Further complicating matters, backup Barry Brunetti has left the program, leaving true freshmen Brian Athey and Paul Millard as the only passers on hand. Smith will get a crash course cerebrally, but he won’t be able to put that knowledge into action until August.

The big spring question is ... How is the transition from Bill Stewart to Holgorsen going? Obviously, everyone will say the right thing, but this will still be a tricky hand-off for the Mountaineers. Stewart is the lame duck head coach, with Holgorsen on staff to succeed him in 2011. The good news is that Stewart has the right demeanor for this kind of a situation, and always seems to have the university’s best interest in mind. Still, this isn’t your garden variety coach-in-waiting situation since a timeframe has been established and Stew is not leaving on his own volition.

The most important position to watch is ... The secondary. Really, any unit qualifies on a defense that’s been gutted by graduations. The defensive backfield, though, has been especially hard hit, losing three starters and two all-stars to the NFL, Brandon Hogan and Robert Sands. Veteran S Eain Smith will be asked to do more than just provide depth, and corners Brodrick Jenkins and Patrick Miller will compete to start opposite Keith Tandy. The winner of that battle will get a crash course this fall in being picked on by opposing quarterbacks.

Spring attitude... With the changes in the coaching staff and the shift in offensive philosophy, you could argue that this is West Virginia’s most important spring in over a decade. The month of April will be the staging area for what takes place in September and beyond. The Mountaineers want to see the baton get passed without any fumbles, and begin filling holes on both sides of the ball. Jeff Casteel’s defense is a sore spot, but the offense also needs to mine new playmakers now that RB Noel Devine and WR Jock Sanders are gone.

  Click for each team's spring preview
- Cincinnati | Connecticut | Louisville | Pittsburgh
- Rutgers | South Florida | Syracuse | West Virginia
 
2011 Big East Spring Preview
- 2011 Big East Schedules & Game-By-Game Picks
- 2011 Big East Spring Buzz   
- 2011 Big East Spring Attitudes 
- 2011 Big East Big Spring Questions  
- 2011 Big East Positions To Watch  

2011 Big East Pre-Spring Preview
- Big East Pre-Spring Rankings
- Why Every Team Should Be Excited
- Why Every Team Should Be Grouchy
- What Every Team Needs To Work On