2007 Spring Previews - Analyzing the Big East

Posted Mar 6, 2007

Is South Florida, helped by QB Matt Grothe, about to be the Big East's new star? Just how close are Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers to being in the BCS Championship? As spring ball starts for some teams, here are the main questions and position issues for each Big East team.

By Pete Fiutak 
- 2006 Big East Spring Analysis
2007 Preseason Lookaheads - Big East

Cincinnati  Spring Practice Begins: March 27  Game: April 21
The early spring buzz ... Is football the new king at Cincinnati? It might have more to do with the basketball program's slide than the ascension of football, but as evidenced by the new ticket policy that doesn't force fans to buy football tickets to get prime hoops games, and with the turnaround last year, things are changing. Now the fans have to show up. Duke is the only BCS program that brings in less fans, but if Brian Kelly can be as successful as he was at Central Michigan, that'll change.
The big spring question is ... How will things change under the new coaching staff? Expect the defense to be a little worse and the offense to be a lot better. Mark Dantonio was a defensive head coach, while Kelly is all about his explosive version of the spread offense. Things on both sides of the ball will stay the same, for the most part, but Kelly will bring more pop and give more responsibility to the quarterback to make plays through the air.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Dustin Grutza has plenty of experience after two mediocre years, but is he really the type of passer/runner to handle Kelly's attack? He grew into more of a running option as last year went on and is a good enough thrower to be the number one guy throughout spring drills. However, Craig Carey and Tony Pike will each get shots at the job, and Wake Forest transfer Ben Mauk will soon be on campus offering more of a runner to the mix.
Spring attitude... Build on what Dantonio started. The Big East has suddenly become nasty, but UC was able to navigate its way through to win eight games and go 4-3 in conference play. Step one is to beat all the teams it's supposed to (like Connecticut and Syracuse) while still coming up with wins over the top teams. The schedule is just light enough to hope for another bowl year, which would be more than acceptable in a transition year. Then Kelly and the program can shoot for bigger things.

Connecticut   Spring Practice Begins: March 13  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... Things have been going slowly downhill over the last few years under head coach Randy Edsall, and while he's not necessarily on a hot seat, a turnaround season is a must to keep things from getting warm next year. Several freshmen were needed to fill key holes and the quarterback situation was never quite settled. Worse yet for a program that's always played above its talent on D was a porous run defense that got steamrolled over by everyone. With a bulk of the experience returning, another 1-6 season in Big East play won't be acceptable.
The big spring question is ... How will the run defense be better? The Huskies got pounded on for 180 yards per game and didn't have the offensive pop to get back in games after getting down. Unfortunately, the interior of the defense takes a hit losing big tackles Ray Blagman and Rhema Fuller, but all three starting linebackers return and there's size waiting to step in up front in 315-pound Lawrence Green and 275-pound Rob Lunn. This is a good group at getting into the backfield, now it has to hold up against the better lines.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Part of the problem was a porous offensive line that never gave the quarterbacks time to work, and part of the problem was that the quarterbacks were just bad. D.J. Hernandez hasn't come close to living up to expectations meaning Tyler Lorenzen and Iowa State transfer Dennis Brown will get plenty of reps. The UConn quarterback doesn't have to throw for 300 yards a game; he just has to keep things moving and be efficient.
Spring attitude... Get to October unbeaten. To do that, the team has to be fully jelled by September first meaning every practice is vital. Outside of a road trip to Pitt, September is as easy as it gets playing at Duke, Maine, Temple, and Akron. If the Huskies can pull off the upset over the Panthers, they'll be 5-0 with four home games left to play. At worst, the team has to be 4-1 to have any hope of going bowling.

Louisville   Spring Practice Begins: March 30  Game: April 20
The early spring buzz ... The Cardinals suffered their first loss of the season when Keith Patterson, new head coach Steve Kragthorpe's right hand man and defensive coordinator, left to go back to Tulsa to coach under Todd Graham. It was simply a case of family issues, but it still might make for a bit of an adjustment period until the new defensive coordinator can be found before the end of March.
The big spring question is ... Can the program keep up the same production and momentum it had under Bobby Petrino? If Kragthorpe is as good as he was in Tulsa, it's possible. Getting Brian Brohm back for his senior season is a major plus, while receivers Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia will help keep the offense among the best in the nation. While there will still be balance, look for Kragthorpe to give Brohm even more responsibility and let him throw even more.
The most important position to watch is ... Cornerback. The secondary was great at short to midrange stuff and lousy deep getting burned way too often. It might not help that starting corners Gavin Smart and William Gay are gone along with strong safety Brandon Sharp. Juniors-to-be Rod Council and Bobby Buchanan will get the first looks at the starting corner jobs until superstar JUCO transfer Woddny Turenne is ready. If they're tight, the overall defense should be among the Big East's best.
Spring attitude... National title? Really? It's more than just a distant dream with many of the key pieces back from last year's 12-1 squad and with the toughest non-conference game at Kentucky. The second half of the year will be a bear with four road games in the final six before finishing up with Rutgers. To navigate the tough conference waters, Brohm has to stay healthy and be even better than he's been so far in his magnificent career.

Pitt  Spring Practice Begins: March 17  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... 11-12 isn't exactly what the program envisioned when Dave Wannstedt took over after the Panthers went to the Fiesta Bowl under Walt Harris, but there needed to be an overall upgrade of speed and talent while the rest of the Big East got better. After closing out 2006 with a five game losing streak when the Panthers needed just one win to go bowling, it's time for results and, at the very least, a winning season or the pressure is going to be turned up several notches. Wannstedt is supposed to be a top-notch defensive coach, but his D died down the stretch giving up 46, 45 and 48 in the final three games.
The big spring question is ...
Has the talent gap narrowed between Pitt and the rest of the league? The Panthers went 2-5 in Big East play and got obliterated by West Virginia and Louisville to close out the season, but help is on the way. The recruiting classes have been tremendous, so yes, the overall talent has improved by leaps and bounds. While being patient isn't always part of the plan, it might take one more year before all the young players come together and form a Big East title contender. This is a young team that should only get better.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Everything else is slowly coming into place, but someone has to step into Tyler Palko's big shoes. Bill Stull spent the last two seasons as the top backup and knows the offense, and Kevan Smith has had plenty of practice reps, but they might be keeping the seat warm until fall when star recruit Pat Bostick comes to campus. Will Wannstedt entrust his team with a true freshman? With layups against Eastern Michigan and Grambling State to start the season, it's possible.
Spring attitude... Live through the growing pains. This is such a young team that it's going to take a little while for any consistency to form. The quarterback situation has to be settled, the best skill players have come aboard in the last two years, and the team's two superstar defensive players, LB H.B. Blades and CB Darrelle Revis, have to be replaced. Look at 2007 as a mini-step forward before taking a giant leap in 2008.

Rutgers   Spring Practice Begins: March 24  Game: April 21
The early spring buzz ... Last year doesn't appear to be any sort of a fluke, and the future is only looking brighter. First, head coach Greg Schiano is still at the school, not a lock when the season finished last year and with several major openings. Second, the recruiting classes are getting better and better. Schiano and his staff have always been able to keep one or two top prospects at home, but now the fence built around New Jersey is getting harder and harder for other schools to get past. There's a lot for long suffering Scarlet Knight fans to be fired up about.
The big spring question is ... Will the passing game improve? When you have Ray Rice and Brian Leonard, why throw it? Now Leonard is off to the NFL and defenses have had plenty of time to focus on how to stop Rice. Mike Teel was a big-time recruit who simply needs to be efficient after a mediocre year. The 6-4, 220-pound junior has the arm, and has his wide receivers back, and now he has to complete more than 60% of his passes and throw more touchdown passes than interceptions.
The most important position to watch is ... Linebacker. The defensive line will end up being just fine and the secondary has plenty of talent with three starters returning, but the linebacking corps needs a little work after losing the team's number two (Devraun Thompson) and three (Quintero Frierson) tacklers and their 161 tackles. If the nation's 17th best run defense struggles, this is why. Now's when the good recruiting classes are supposed to kick in.
Spring attitude... It's O.K. to talk national championship. The team should be better than last year, and the schedule, once again, isn't all that bad. The only non-conference game worthy of showing up for is a home date with Maryland, while West Virginia and South Florida have to come to Piscataway. The road games? Syracuse, Connecticut and Army before what might be the make-or-break game in the regular season finale against Louisville for, yes, the BCS championship game.

South Florida   Spring Practice Begins: March 20  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... After turning the corner with the young program with a 9-4 season and a dominant bowl win over East Carolina, South Florida appears on the verge of taking the next step and becoming a full blown challenger for the Big East title and a BCS spot. Eight starters return on offense and seven on defense along with both kickers, so if you liked last year, you might love this season (more on that below). Now the program has become the hunted as much as the hunter.
The big spring question is ...
Will the offense be consistent enough to beat all the teams it should? Defense is never going to be an issue for a Jim Leavitt team, and the offense should be fine. However, it can't do what it did last year and struggle against the mediocre defenses. Matt Grothe has a year of quarterbacking experience under his belt, and there are veterans at all the other key skill players (not including the addition of star running back recruit Mike Ford) to go along with all five starters back on the line. Basically, the attack can't help but be more consistent if Greg Gregory, who takes over the offensive coordinator role from Rod Smith, has a good year.
The most important position to watch is ... Outside linebacker. Stephen Nicholas and Pat St. Louis were longtime stalwarts of the defense and great all-around bookends. With Josh Julmiste gone off the defensive line, the new starters on the outside might have to do more than load up against the run. Marvin Peoples will get the first look on the strongside in place of Nicholas bringing more size, while Sam Miller is a smaller, quicker option on the weakside in place of St. Louis.
Spring attitude... Don't gear everything to one game. South Florida makes a living off the giant killer role, and it'll get its chance at Auburn in the second week of the year. With West Virginia coming up at the end of September, USF will either be America's darling or a Big East also-ran after the first month. It's a long season and the Big East should be wild, so winning every game, and staying focused, is vital.

Syracuse   Spring Practice Begins: March 21 Game: April 21
The early spring buzz ...
It's do-or-die time. Everyone accepted it might take a while to turn around the program, but head coach Greg Robinson has struggled going just 5-18 in his first two years. The offense has been pathetic, the defense has been lousy, and the program has gotten its doors blown off by the rest of the conference ever since it was passed over by the ACC for Boston College. SU doesn't have to win the Big East title, but it can't be last (or close to the bottom) in every major statistical category again.
The big spring question is ... Will the offensive line be any better? The Orange front five got little to no consistent push for the running game and was abysmal in pass protection allowing a whopping 45 sacks. Three starters return and all the depth is back, but there has to be one thing the group does well for the offense to finally have an identity.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Linebacker could turn out to be the team's biggest issue with the loss of Kelvin Smith in the middle and outside starters Luke Cain and Jerry Mackey, but there are plenty of options to work with. Finding better quarterback play is everything to an offense that did next to nothing under Perry Patterson over the last three years. It's Andrew Robinson's show now with the size and all around skills to progress into the type of player the offense has been desperate for. Now he needs time to work.
Spring attitude... Survive the first half of the year. This is still a program in need of a ton of work and time, but it's not going to get it in September playing three road games (Iowa, Louisville and Miami University) tougher-than-they-look home games against Washington and Illinois. October roars in like a lion with West Virginia and Rutgers coming to the Dome, but if the Orange can somehow be 3-4 after the first seven games, a 6-6 season is possible with things easing up later.

West Virginia   Spring Practice Begins: March 5  Game: April 7
The early spring buzz ...
No longer the Cinderella, West Virginia is now a bona fide superpower, and it appears to be embracing the role as spring ball starts. Rich Rodriguez isn't coaching in the NFL, he's not at Alabama, he's still in Morgantown and no one's blinking twice anymore when the Mountaineers are considered among the national title contenders. The offense should be explosive, as always, but ...
The big spring question is ... Will the defense be any better? The production fell off the map allowing 39 points in the three-overtime win over Rutgers and 35 to Georgia Tech, not to mention the 44 allowed to Louisville to spark a lousy second-half of the season. The 3-3-5 scheme will still be in place, but Rodriguez and his staff are spending spring ball tinkering with it to add new wrinkles. The two biggest issues, pass rush and secondary play, go hand-in-hand.
The most important position to watch is ... Center and guard. As the quarterback on the line, Dan Mozes was as integral a part of the high-powered offense as Pat White and Steve Slaton. Finding guards who can move and play like Jeremy Sheffey aren't easy to find. The Mountaineer system cranks out productive linemen, but it's not going to be easy for Mike Dent to be Mozes, if he wins the center job, and for John Bradshaw to be Sheffey right off the bat.
Spring attitude... Get back to the BCS. Six road games will push the team hard, especially with dates at South Florida, Maryland and Rutgers, but as long as White and Slaton are healthy, and if the defense is better, this will be among the nation's best teams with the potential to be the best yet under Rodriguez. A national title might be too tough with this schedule, but there's no reason to shoot lower than the Big East title.



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