2006 Big Ten 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 Ten team.

By Pete Fiutak 

The big spring question is ... Can Illinois be more competitive in the Big Ten? Ron Zook took over a slow team that had major problems matching up athletically with the rest of the conference, but at least the effort was there. His 2006 recruiting class was full of good prospects that'll eventually rectify the problem, but the Illini won't get that major infusion of talent right away. This spring is vital for many of last year's players to prove that they shouldn't be replaced by an incoming freshman.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Can Tim Brasic or Chris Pazan show enough improvement to hope for an improved and more consistent offense? Pazan doesn't appear to be the answer and Brasic's mobility and experience will certainly make him the one to beat going into the season, but they could both be competing for a backup spot behind incoming star freshman
Isiah Williams, who turned down Penn State, Ohio State and Tennessee to be Zook's main man.
Spring attitude... Keep improving. Duh, every team wants to use the spring to improve, but Illinois gets almost all the starters back on both sides of the ball and has to use the experience to become more consistent and far sharper. All the spring practice in the world won't make the Illini D faster, but the offense can improve.

The big spring question is ... How much can IU improve from year one in the Terry Hoeppner era to year two? The Hoosier offense has a lot to get excited about with QB Blake Powers and almost all the top receivers, led by James Hardy, returning. However, IU didn't just lost its final six games of last year, it wasn't even close getting blasted by an average margin of 26 point per loss. The offense has to regain its early-2005 form while the defense has to get far better after allowing over 40 points in each of the final five games.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive end. The run defense wasn't anything to write home about, but the line wasn't all that bad. Tackles Joe Kremer, Greg Brown and Charlie Emerson should be rocks to build around, but replaying Victor Adeyanju and Ben Ishola could be tough. The spotlight will be on Kenny Kendal and Tyler Altman to come up big.
Spring attitude... Help is on the way. Hoeppner made a big deal out of bringing in speed with his 2006 recruiting class, and he's planning on giving several true freshmen chances to at least provide more depth when they hit campus late this summer. IU has to find more playmakers on defense and make the offense more efficient. The pieces are there to come up with a scary passing game to at least keep the Hoosiers alive in most games, but it has to all come together this spring.

Iowa    Spring practice starts March 22, Spring Game April 15
The big spring question is ... Can Iowa start out hot? In the seven years under Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes have lost at least one game in September in all but one of them, and that was in 2001 when they only played three games before October. More often than not, it seems to take that first month for Iowa to hit its stride and start to play its best. This year the September slate is Montana, at Syracuse, Iowa State and at Illinois. Even though the Cyclones always give the Hawkeyes problems, a 4-0 start could mean a huge, huge season. The Ohio State game in Iowa City and the road trip to Michigan will likely be the only games Iowa will be the underdog.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive line. It was the big issue going into last season, but the concerns quickly went away as the front four showed signs of developing into something special with players like end Ken Iwebema. Linebacker is the team's biggest concern losing Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge, so the line has to take the next step up in production and dominate from practice one. Even so, Iowa isn't starting from scratch at linebacker with Mike Linkenborg and Mike Humpal each seeing plenty of playing time last year.
Spring attitude... Big Ten title or bust. If Iowa can reestablish its dominance at home and beat Ohio State, Wisconsin, and nemesis Iowa State, it's a one game season on October 21st at Michigan. As long as the holes are patched in the linebacking corps and at receiver, there's absolutely no reason this team can't win the Big Ten title and be in the hunt for even more.

Michigan    Spring practice starts March 18, Spring Game April 1
The big spring question is ... Which Michigan team will show up? With five losses, another loss to Ohio State, and another bowl loss, 2005 wasn't Michigan's finest hour, but it was a better year than many made it out to be. Remember, some (cough, me, cough) were suggesting midway through the year that the Wolverines weren't going bowling after starting 3-3 and with Penn State, at Iowa, at Northwestern and Ohio State still to play. The team obviously rallied to turn things around, but that's the only positive to take away. Once again, there's enough talent to win the Big Ten title, and now the team has to play like it.
The most important position to watch is ... Assistant coach. When things start to go wrong at a huge program like Tennessee, Miami or Michigan, there are going to be changes among the assistants first to buy more time for the head coach. Michigan lost much-maligned defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann to the NFL and was replaced by secondary coach Ron English. Special teams coordinator Mike DeBord, who used to be the head coach at Central Michigan, is the new offensive coordinator replacing now New Orleans Saint Terry Malone.
Spring attitude... Beat Notre Dame. Step one to stopping the Maize and Blue grumbling would be to win all the non-bowl, non-conference games for the first time since 1999. Vanderbilt, Central Michigan, and in November, Ball State shouldn't be a problem, but the Wolverines have to win at South Bend or they'll once again be out of the national title hunt before the leaves change. Lose to the Irish, and even a Big Ten title would bring a "yeah, but ..." from those who believe a program as big as Michigan should be battling for the BCS title game.

Michigan State   
The big spring question is ... Can MSU go a year without the wheels falling off? The program hasn't been all that great in October and November (which just so happens to be a big part of most college football seasons) going 14-28 over the last five years in the big two months, and that doesn't include the bowl-hope-killing loss to Hawaii in December of 2003. The team has to get mentally tougher to overcome adversity, but history could easily repeat itself. What's the first game in October? At Michigan. Three road games and home dates with Ohio State, Purdue and Minnesota follow.
The most important position to watch is ... Cornerback. The Spartans were awful against the pass all year and couldn't slow down accurate, efficient passers. The cornerback play has to be far better, but they could use more pass rushing help after the front seven generated a mere 16 sacks.
Spring attitude... Relax, and have fun. It's hard not to be a little loose with John L. Smith as the head coach, and maybe the key to overcoming the recent slump is to learn how to take the losses in stride. Drew Stanton is one of the nation's best quarterbacks and there are good athletes on both sides of the ball to battle anyone on the schedule. What's the worst that can happen? Another meltdown?

Minnesota    Spring practice starts March 28, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... Can the team finally find enough defense to be consistent game in and game out? The running game will always be great under Glen Mason, and the passing game should be fantastic with QB Bryan Cupito and several top receivers returning. However, forget about anything more than another Music City Bowl-caliber season unless the D, which allowed 413 yards and 29 points per game, can finally turn a corner. The Gophers gave up 19.2 points per game in the seven wins, and 42.6 points per game in the five losses.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive lineman. There was size up front, but little to no pass rush. It's not rocket surgery to figure out that the secondary is going to struggle when you don't get to the quarterback, so the Gophers have to figure out how to generate more than 15 sacks. Just as important in a conference that likes to run like the Big Ten does, the new young starters up front have to use their quickness to make up for the loss of the beef that clogged things up last year.
Spring attitude... Turn up the heat on defense. Mason's contract situation is in place, so he and his staff can relax. Everyone knows Minnesota will win at least seven games, run for a bazillion yards, and win at least one shocking game it's not supposed to. Eventually, everything will break the right way and the Gophers will be in the mix for the Big Ten title, but that can only be helped by better play from the D.

Northwestern    Spring practice starts March 28, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... Will the team ever stop anyone's running game? The Wildcats were saved by the nation's fourth best offense able to get to the Sun Bowl despite having the nation's worst defense. It's not a plus losing tackling-machine LB Tim McGarigle, DT Barry Cofield, and both starting safeties. The offense is going to be worse without QB Brett Basanez, so the defense has to be a whole bunch better.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Basanez finished third in the nation in total offense averaging 337 yards per game with an incredible 3,622-yard, 21 touchdown, eight interception season with 497 rushing yards and seven scores. C.J. Bacher is a big passer who had a strong 2005 spring, but he only saw a little bit of mop-up duty last year completing six of 15 passes for 59 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He's mobile and has the potential to be another good, unheralded Wildcat quarterback, but it should take time. Mike Kafka and Andrew Brewer will also get chances at the starting job.
Spring attitude... Do everything humanly possible to tighten up the defense, because the onslaught is coming. Northwestern should be able to get past a opening night Thursday game at Miami University and shouldn't have a problem with New Hampshire and Eastern Michigan, but those are followed by a parade of tough offenses that'll have their way with the Purple with three straight road games at Nevada, Penn State and Wisconsin before getting Purdue, Michigan State, at Michigan, at Iowa and Ohio State before facing Illinois.

Ohio State    Spring practice starts March 30, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... How in the world can Ohio State replace all the stars in the defensive back seven? It wouldn't be a shock if three Buckeye defenders (A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter, and Ashton Youboty) go in the first round of the upcoming draft, with more to be taken on the first day. There's no question the offense will be explosive, and the Buckeyes will always have athletes to burn to fill in the holes, but to immediately replace the lost production is asking a lot.
The most important position to watch is ... Placekicker. Obviously the focus will be on the linebackers and secondary, but placekicker is always a spotlight position at Ohio State. Last year, the big question was whether or not the program would survive without Mike Nugent, and then Josh Huston came on to blast 22 of 28 field goals and 44 of 45 extra points. Expect this to grow into one of the bigger battles of spring ball with an open casting call to take over the gig.
Spring attitude... We're a factory. Everything will be fine. Troy Smith and Ted Ginn Jr. are being touted as Heisman candidates, Antonio Pittman is a tremendous running back, and there are more highly recruited players on both sides of the ball to keep the interest of the NFL scouts piqued. While that's great, this isn't last year's team, and that group lost two games. Fine, so the two defeats were to Texas and Penn State, but the Buckeyes have to go to Texas on September 9th along with dangerous road trips to Iowa and Michigan State. The schedule isn't all that bad, so a win over the Longhorns might be the springboard for another BCS season.

Penn State      Spring practice starts March 25, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... Was last year a fluke? The team will still be good, but BCS good? The Nittany Lions were on the right side of four of the five close games they played, and now the defense will be worse with the loss of DE Tamba Hali, CB Alan Zemaitis, and five other starters while the star of the show, Butkus Award winning LB Paul Posluszny, still recovering from a knee injury. The offense should have a killer running game with Tony Hunt and Austin Scott, but can the attack overcome the loss of QB Michael Robinson?
The most important position to watch is ... Cornerback. While all eyes will be on QB Anthony Morelli to see if he can handle the offense, the big key to the season might be how quickly the replacements can be found on defense. There are several areas of concern, but taking away Zemaitis and Anwar Phillips puts the pressure on Tony Davis and Devin Fentress from day one.
Spring attitude... Don't slip. Penn State went 9-4 in 2002 with a senior dominated team, and then pffffft. 3-9 in 2003 and 4-7 in 2004. There's far too much talent to see a freefall to another non-bowl season, but it wouldn't be a total shock if the Nittany Lions lost five games with road trips to Notre Dame, Ohio State, Minnesota, Purdue (the team is better) and Wisconsin and with a tough home game against Michigan.

Purdue    Spring practice starts April 5, Spring Game April 29
The big spring question is ... How much pressure is there on Joe Tiller? For the second straight season, Purdue gets a boatload of starters back on offense and doesn't have to play Ohio State or Michigan. The middle of last year was disaster after the loss to Minnesota, but things can quickly turnaround if the coaching staff is good enough to make it happen. This is year ten of the Tiller era and the Drew Brees Rose Bowl season is a distant memory; there can't be another midseason meltdown like last year.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. The defense has the biggest holes to fill, but last year's group allowed 431 yards, 28 points per game, and was next-level bad against the pass. The key to the season will be Curtis Painter, who showed good mobility after replacing Brandon Kirsch midway through last year, but he struggled mightily with his passing hitting only 52% of his throws with three touchdowns and five interceptions. He can keep running, but he needs to use Dorien Bryant, Kyle Ingraham, and his strong receiving corps.
Spring attitude... Things might not have been that bad. Blowout wins over lightweights Illinois and Indiana to end the season, along with the win over Michigan State, put a band-aid on the wound. Looking back, was it so bad to lose in double overtime at Minnesota, lose to home at Notre Dame, Iowa and Northwestern, and lose on the road to Wisconsin and Penn State? Those were six bowl teams with two who played in the BCS. With this year's schedule, seven wins is a must and a nine-win season is possible.

Wisconsin    Spring practice starts March 25, Spring Game April 22
The big spring question is ... What's the biggest change to kick off the Bret Bielema era? Primarily the coaching staff; it's full of full of Bielemas. The 36-year-old Bielema was growing into a hot property after the job he did with the 2004 Badger defense. Not wanting to lose him, Alvarez named him the heir to the throne for 2006. Under the new head man, several other hot coaching prospects were brought in as assistants. 34-year-old Dave Doeren will combine with former Colorado defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz to handle the defense. 36-year-old Randall McCray was brought in from Toledo to handle the defensive line and linebackers. 40-year-old former Atlanta Falcon star John Settle was brought over from a successful stint with Fresno State to coach the running backs.
The most important position to watch is ... Wide receiver. Running back is an issue after losing Brian Calhoun and Booker Stanley, but no one plugs and chugs 1,000-yard backs like Wisconsin. Receiver will be the bigger problem right away after losing Brandon Williams, Jonathan Orr, and reliable tight end Owen Daniels. Jarvis Minton and Marcus Randle El, who has had his share of off-the-field issues, will have to emerge.
Spring attitude... This is mostly the same team that beat Auburn. Fine, so there's no Calhoun and the receivers are gone, but the defense that did such a great job against the Tigers in the Capital One Bowl returns most of the starters, and should be even better now that there are healthy live bodies to play on the defensive line. Once again, most publications will pick the Badgers to finish in the second half of the Big Ten standings, and once again, this team should surprise.