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2006 Big East Spring Lookaheads
Posted Mar 6, 2006

Before spring ball 2006, here are the big questions, the most important positions and the attitudes for each Big East team.

By Pete Fiutak 

Cincinnati    Spring practice starts March 28, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... Will the lumps taken last year thanks to all the youth pay off this year? Outside of the offensive line, this was a very young and very inexperienced team in 2005, and it showed with an inconsistent 4-7 season. Head coach Mark Dantonio has to use all the returning experience and mold it into a team that can be more competitive in the Big East race.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. The offensive line needs the most help in the way of new starters, but the quarterback situation is most vital after Dustin Grutza struggled last year with 11 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. He was more accurate as the season went on, but he wasn't able to lead the attack on many scoring drives with only 23 points scored in the final three games. His improvement this off-season is the key to the season.
Spring attitude... Time to take a big step forward. As bad as last year was, the team wasn't embarrassing and did show occasional signs on defense of becoming better. The Bearcats aren't good enough to challenge West Virginia or Louisville, so it's not a bad thing to get those two games on the road. Outside of the road trips to Ohio State and Virginia Tech, there isn't another game the Bearcats won't have a chance in. Just a few more wins than last year means a bowl game.

Connecticut    Spring practice starts March 18, Spring Game April 15
The big spring question is ... Is UConn really ready to become a player in the Big East title hunt? This was a very young team last year that struggled through off-the-field defensive issues early along with inconsistent quarterback play. The return of RB Terry Caulley, along with almost all the main starters on both sides of the ball, should mean a bounce-back year after going 5-6 in 2005.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Matt Bonislawski is the team's safest quarterback option, but he couldn't stay healthy last year and struggled mightily with his accuracy barely completing 50% of his throws with six touchdown passes and seven interceptions. D.J. Hernandez has the best all-around skills, and he had a great season finale against Louisville throwing for 255 yards and three touchdowns in the loss, but will his rushing ability be enough to overcome his still developing passing arm? Billy Cundiff and Dennis Brown will also get chances at playing time.
Spring attitude... Start fast. This is an experienced team with a favorable early schedule playing Rhode Island, Wake Forest, at Indiana and Navy. If UConn wants to go bowling and wants to be good enough to challenge for the Big East title, it needs the confidence of a big start going 3-1, at worst, before facing South Florida. If the offense can get more out of the passing game this spring, there's no reason to think the Huskies can't be a big surprise.

Louisville    Spring practice starts March 28, Spring Game April 21
The big spring question is ... What does the team need to do to play as well on the road as it does at home? In Papa John's last year, the Cardinals went 6-0 beating teams like Oregon State, North Carolina, Pitt and Rutgers (along with Florida Atlantic and Syracuse) by an average score of 55-15.5. On the road, they struggled against Kentucky, got walloped by South Florida, lost to West Virginia and beat Cincinnati and UConn. The focus and at-home mindset has to be there all off-season so it carries over to the start of the year. 
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive tackle. Everything is in place to have another juggernaut offense, but QB Brian Brohm, when he returns from injury, has to be kept clean. The machine won't fall apart without star tackles Travis Leffew and Jeremy Darveau, but there will be a lot of pressure on George Bussey, Marcel Benson, and 6-7, 317-pound Renardo Foster to play well.
Spring attitude... 12-0 or bust. The team has been very, very good for a while, it's playing in a BCS conference, and it has some big showcase games to get the necessary street cred from the pollsters. There's no reason whatsoever this team can't get through cleanly with the toughest games (Miami, West Virginia, South Florida) at home. A team as good as Louisville has to beat Kansas State and Pitt on the road.

Pitt    Spring practice starts March 19, Spring Game April 15
The big spring question is ... How much improvement will there be from year one to year two under Dave Wannstedt? 2005 wasn't a total flop, but 5-6 isn't exactly what Panther fans had in mind. Will the offense produce more after only averaging 336 yards and 24 points per game last year? Is the defense going to be any faster? This is a big spring for a lot of players before all the top new recruits come in this summer.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive tackle. The run defense might have been lousy last year, but it's still not a plus to lose two veteran 300-pounders on the inside. Thomas Smith and Phil Tillman not only provided the beef at tackle, they provided some needed experience for the defense. The Panther linebackers need all the help they can get meaning Rashaad Duncan, Corey Davis, Nick Williams and Ron Idoko have to play well this spring.
Spring attitude... Don't just assume that a Big East title is out of reach. With West Virginia and Louisville each coming to Heinz Field to close out the regular season, and the conference road games against Cincinnati and Syracuse, there's no reason the Panthers can't progress enough as the season goes on to be in a position to win the championship. However, every practice is important to tighten things up and become more explosive on offense and tighter on defense. 

Rutgers    Spring practice starts March 25, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... After a strong 2005, can the program keep getting better? 7-5 is just cause for celebration around Piscataway, but the best win was over Navy. There's still a lot of work to be done before Greg Schiano's team can think about competing for the Big East title, but this has to be another solid season considering all the great offensive players returning.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive end. Ryan Neill and his ten sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss and 24 quarterback hurries will be sorely missed, as will ten sacks and 13 tackles for loss from Val Barnaby. Ramel Meekins is an aggressive, pass rushing tackle, but the Scarlet Knights need to keep generating pressure on the quarterback from the outside.
Spring attitude... Last year was just the beginning. It took five years, but Rutgers has to hope it finally turned the corner under Schiano. An opening day win at North Carolina could set the tone for a huge start with Illinois, Buffalo and Liberty before kicking off the Big East slate. Improvement on defense should mean another bowl bid as long as the team starts well, and that means this spring is important to get even more experience in the back seven.

South Florida    Spring practice starts March 21, Spring Game April 15
The big spring question is ... Is Pat Julmiste ready to be a major positive? The starting quarterback over the last two years has a 48% career completion percentage with 16 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions. With a few exceptions, the team was at its best when it was all about the running game with Julmiste throwing for fewer than 100 yards, but to win the Big East title, the Bulls need better quarterback play.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive lineman. Running back will also be worth watching after losing heart-and-soul Andre Hall, but three of the four starters are gone from the defensive line meaning last year's depth has to form this year's rock upfront after finishing 17th in the nation in total defense and 14th in scoring D.
Spring attitude... Winning the Big East title is possible. With seven returning starters on defense led by one of the nation's best linebacking corps, and with six starters back on offense, the nucleus is there for another solid team. If the Bulls can hold serve at home and come away from Kansas with a win, a 6-0 start is very possible with Cincinnati and Syracuse still to play. Of course, road games at Louisville and West Virginia to close out the regular season could ruin title dreams, but a hot start could, at least, put USF in a great position. To start well, the holes have to be filled this spring.

Syracuse    Spring practice starts March 20, Spring Game April 15
The big spring question is ... Was last year simply a case of needing to take a big step back to take a bigger leap forward, or is there really no hope for the offense? After finishing with one of the nation's worst offenses averaging 13.8 points and 257 yards per game, this spring had better unearth some skill players who can actually perform, or 2006 might not be a whole bunch better.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. The Orange quarterbacks didn't have anyone to throw to, but they didn't do much to help the situation. Perry Patterson is big, strong and mobile, but his accuracy leaves a lot to be desired. Joe Fields did next to nothing when he got his change to show what he could do. New offensive coordinator Brian White and quarterback coach Phil Earley will spend all spring breaking down Patterson's mechanics and starting from scratch.
Spring attitude... Don't panic ... yet. To fail to score more than 17 points after mid-September showed how horrible things were, and now there has to be a sense of urgency to change things around right away. However, SU has to do the basics first like figure out how to convert on third downs. The Orange was dead last in America in third down conversion percentage at 20.5% (No. 118 was NC State at 25.5%), so getting the quarterbacks to learn how to complete short to midrange passes would be a nice start.

West Virginia    Spring practice starts March 20, Spring Game April 15
The big spring question is ... Can Pat White progress as a more consistent passer? Obviously the running will be there after ripping off 952 yards and seven touchdowns last year, but White has to make more plays through the air. He was unbelievable in the Sugar Bowl completing 11 of 14 passes against Georgia. West Virginia will be unstoppable if White can continue to be that sharp,
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive tackle. The interior of the line should be fantastic led by the return of center Dan Mozes, but tackles Travis Garrett and 6-8, 300-pound Garin Justice are gone. The backups for the Sugar Bowl, Damien Crissey and Jake Figner aren't as big, and they'll be pushed all off-season to earn the starting spots.
Spring attitude... Act like everyone thinks you'll finish fifth in the Big East. It'll be way too easy for the Mountaineers to believe all the hype and all the praise everyone will be heaping on them over the next few months, but they have to be hungry. If they focus on winning the national title and happen to lose early to a team like Maryland, the team might be rattled and blow an early conference road game to UConn. Winning the Big East title and getting back to the BCS has to be the goal, and then hope everything else falls into place.