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2007 Spring Preview - Analyzing the Big Ten
Posted Mar 8, 2007

P.J. Hill and Wisconsin have everything in place for a big run, but is the program really ready to be a national title contender? What will Ohio State do at quarterback? Will Illinois finally be good? The big questions, the most important positions and more are in the Big Ten Spring Preview.

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

Illinois   Spring Practice Begins: March 27  Game: April 21
The early spring buzz ... It's been an interesting off-season. Everyone is still talking about the 2007 recruiting class and the potential for the Illini program. Even with some openly speculating about the haul of talent not being on the up-and-up, all Ron Zook and his staff can do is move on and try to start winning some games. They'll have to do it without starting receivers Derrick McPhearson and Jody Ellis, who were kicked off the team after being charged with two counts of burglary. Throw in the merciful end to the bizarre Chief Illiniwek halftime ritual, and Illinois has been the program everyone's been talking about.
The big spring question is ... When will all the young guys play? If last year was any indication, right away. Zook has never been afraid to throw his young guys into the fire both at Illinois and Florida, and he'll put the most talented players on the field at all times. It still might take a while before the team has any semblance of consistency, but it'll be a whole bunch faster and more athletic.
The most important position to watch is ... Wide receiver. All of a sudden, the promising receiving corps has become an issue with the loss of McPhearson and Ellis, but fortunately, the team's four top receivers are back to give rising star quarterback Juice Williams some familiar targets to work with. All eyes will be on super-recruit
Arrelious Benn; don't be shocked if he's the team's number one man right away.
Spring attitude... Just win, Zooky. All the talk of recruiting classes and building for the future is nice, but the program has only won four games in two years and lost 20 of the last 21 games against D-I teams. The talent level is now there to be far more competitive in Big Ten play, and now it's time to start winning some of the close one after dropping four games by a touchdown or less.

Indiana  Spring Practice Begins: March 20  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... Is head coach Terry Hoeppner actually turning the impossible situation around? IU is light years away from even dreaming about the Big Ten championship, but there's more excitement and more potential for the program helped by QB Kellen Lewis, WR James Hardy, and an offense that should be good enough to catch fire at times. Illinois, Iowa and Michigan State found out first hand what the Hoosiers can do, but things won't be appreciably better unless ...
The big spring question is ... Will IU finally start playing some defense? There's experience in bunches and plenty of depth, but by design, there's little size up front and no sure-thing pass rush. The D wasn't even remotely close against the good teams giving up over 48 points a game against Wisconsin, Ohio State, Minnesota and Michigan.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive end. The Hoosiers have to start generating more of a pass rush to help out a secondary that got picked apart after having to defend for way too long. The D only came up with 14 sacks led by Kenny Kendal's three, and now he's gone meaning Jammie Kirlew, Brian Faires and Greg Middleton have to start using their quickness to hurry the passer.
Spring attitude... 1994. That's the last time IU had a winning season, and the last time it hit the six-win mark. Had the run defense not been brutally awful in a horrible loss to D-IAA Southern Illinois, the Hoosiers would've finished 6-6 last season. The team is better, the schedule is as good as it gets (no Ohio State or Michigan), and Hoeppner has his guys in place.

Iowa  Spring Practice Begins: March 7  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... The team wasn't quite as bad as the 6-7 record might indicate. Fine, so things aren't exactly going well if you lose to Indiana and get blown out by Northwestern and Minnesota, but as the 26-24 loss to Texas in the Alamo Bowl proved, the team was good when everyone was healthy. Now there are some key position battles and some question marks as spring ball starts, but there's a lot of talent and a lot of potential to get excited about. It might not take much to be back among the league's elite again.
The big spring question is ... Who's taking over for Drew Tate? Expected to progress and become a Big Ten Player of the Year type of performer, Tate pressed too much, was hurt, and was stunningly ineffective in his senior season. Even though the job is Jake Christensen's to lose, freshmen Rick Stanzi and Arvell Nelson will get their share of reps and, at the very least, have a chance to solidify the number two job and the pecking order. On straight skills, Nelson might be the best of the three, and Stanzi has good mobility along with nice size. Even so, Christensen has the experience.
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive lineman. Three talented, NFL-caliber starters are gone with the loss of guards Mike Elgin and Mike Jones along with tackle Marshal Yanda. Head coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff are fantastic at plugging holes on the line and developing productive players, and they have a few good ones in tackle Dace Richardson and guard Rafael Eubanks to start with. However, the developed depth is non-existent.
Spring attitude... Win the Big Ten title. Huh? Wasn't that supposed to be last year? Yup, but the defense is loaded with experience at every spot by safety, RB Albert Young is back for what seems like his 13th year, and the receiving corps might be the best yet under Ferentz. Oh yeah, and there's no Michigan or Ohio State on the schedule. Alright, fine; Iowa isn't going to beat Wisconsin and Penn State on the road, but it'll be good enough to split and hope for a 7-1 season to be enough to go to Pasadena.

Michigan   Spring Practice Begins: March 17  Game: April 14
The early spring buzz ... While no Michigan fan was happy with the way the season ended, from the loss to Ohio State, to the snubbing for a rematch, to the thumping from USC, it was a nice season to prove that the program really is among the elite of the elite under Lloyd Carr. That was good; this season needs to be better. Too much talent returns on offense to be anything less than one of the five best teams in America from the start, however ...
The big spring question is ...
Can anyone play defense? You don't get better by losing Alan Branch, Leon Hall, Prescott Burgess, Rondell Biggs, LaMarr Woodley, David Harris and Willis Barringer. The line will eventually be fine with loads of talent (after all, this is Michigan) to work around pure nose-tackle Terrance Taylor. Linebacker is a much different story needing Shawn Crable to be the leader of a young group still in need of live bodies to create a little bit of competition. JUCO transfer Austin Panter has to shine right away and be the man in the middle, while the weakside job will be in play up until fall. In the secondary, corner is a much bigger concern than safety.
The most important position to watch is ... Placekicker. Outside of the defensive issues, the kicking game will get the spotlight losing rock-solid field goal kicker Garrett Rivas, who hit 17 of 20 field goals, and punter Ross Ryan. Zoltan Mesko will take over the punting job full-time and be fine, but kicker is up in the air. Jason Gingell was the backup last year and needs to show the leg and consistency Rivas had.
Spring attitude... National title or bust. With an offense as good as this one, only one of four road games to worry about (Wisconsin), if you don't believe in Michigan State, and Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oregon and Penn State coming to the Big House, it's all there for Carr to get his team into the national championship as long as the defense comes together by late September. After coming so close last year, anything less than a trip to New Orleans will be a letdown.

Michigan State  Spring Practice Begins: March 20  Game: April 21
The early spring buzz ... A new coach could step in for Patton, Lombardi and Trump all wrapped up in one and he'd still say the team has to get tougher and needs to work harder. It's not like Michigan State avoided the weight room, didn't practice and spent film sessions watching Drew Barrymore movies, but that was the perception under the John L. Smith regime. Mark Dantonio came to East Lansing preaching fire and brimstone, intensity and toughness. Make no mistake about it; Big Ten coaches liked Smith, they're worried about Dantonio.
The big spring question is ... How will things be different under Dantonio? For one thing, play time is over when it comes to the media. Dantonio is fine with the press, but Smith was a quote machine. There won't be anything flashy from the new head man when it comes to press conferences loaded with plenty of coaching clich├ęs. He has to buck a tradition of MSU being the flakiest program on the block, and he's going to do that by being tough, no-nonsense, and relatively vanilla.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Michigan State took a top-ten caliber NFL draft pick in Drew Stanton and made him a late first day guy by getting him beaten up and not developing the talent around him. Now he's gone meaning junior-to-be Brian Hoyer will get the first look at the gig. He doesn't have Stanton's skills, but he's more than capable of doing what Dantonio and his staff will want him to. Kirk Cousins and Connor Dixon will also get looks, but neither has a lick of experience.
Spring attitude... Consistency. How do you reverse a trend of inventing ways to lose games that appear won? Do all the little things right and rely on what you've practiced. Dantonio has to change the entire mindset of the program, and that will only happen once the team starts winning in tight situations on the big stage. This spring, he has to find out which players have the mental toughness, as well as the physical skills, to put together the team he wants.

Minnesota   Spring Practice Begins: March 1  Game: April 7
The early spring buzz ... The Tim Brewster era suffered its first setback with JUCO transfer Durrell Clark-James suspended from spring ball for violating team rules. With the secondary a key issue this off-season, the Gopher defense needed the possible starting defensive back to be in the mix right away. As far as Brewster, there's cautious optimism about the curious hire. He wasn't the splashy name many Gopher fans wanted to provide a kick-start to the program and he needs to get off to a hot start. There won't be much of a grace period, if any.
The big spring question is ...
What'll be different under Brewster? It's not like Glen Mason was a shy introvert, but Brewster will take the enthusiasm to another level. A sensational recruiter who's always upbeat and positive, Brewster is going to add a bit of excitement to the program and isn't going to accept any excuses when it comes to bringing in the top talent. That might be fine for down the road, but right away the spread offense has to start producing. Even with the slightly new look under offensive coordinator
Mike Dunbar, the running game will still be featured.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive back. All four starters return to the Big Ten's, and nation's 117th ranked, pass defense. Was it the scheme or are the defensive backs really that lousy? Mason and his staff didn't give them any help against Texas Tech in the Insight Bowl fiasco by not making any adjustments, and now there might be a big improvement. This group was good at picking off passes with 17, and it has to still be ball-hawks while also being more productive.
Spring attitude... The machine wasn't exactly broken. 2006 was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but the Gophers, outside of the Iowa win, still beat most of the teams they were supposed to, lost to the teams they were supposed to, and took way too much grief for the Texas Tech loss. Remember, had Red Raider kicker Alex Trlica missed his bomb of a field goal to force overtime, or had any one of about 15 things gone right in the second half, Mason would still be the head coach. In other words, the team doesn't need a complete overhaul.

Northwestern   Spring Practice Begins: March 26  Game: April 21
The early spring buzz ...
Nothing can compare to the strange and tragic turn of events of last off-season with the death of Randy Walker and hiring of the not-quite-seasoned Pat Fitzgerald. Even if Walker was coaching, 2006 wouldn't have been a winning season, and 4-8 is right around where the rebuilding team probably would've ended up. Now the team is loaded with veterans, especially at key spots like quarterback and corner, and should be far more consistent on both sides of the ball.
The big spring question is ... Can Fitzgerald actually coach? From all indications, the answer is a resounding yes. However, he'll still need to take his lumps from time to time. A veteran coach likely would've stopped the epic slide in the Michigan State loss, and would've made quicker, more effective adjustments game in and game out. Even so, Fitzgerald and his staff started to figure things out over the second half of the season and should be far better going into this year. Fitzgerald had to deal with all the Walker issues. Now he can focus fully on making Northwestern a Big Ten sleeper.
The most important position to watch is ... Running back. One of the coaching staff's biggest mistakes last year was not getting the ball in the hands of its star, Tyrell Sutton, enough. Part of it was by design to get other players involved, part of it was to send a bit of a message to Sutton that he needed to do even more to be the main man, and part of it was the offense that featured the quarterback running the ball in spurts. By the end of the year, Sutton was the featured star again and it paid off in wins over Iowa and Illinois. This spring, he has to show that this is his offense.
Spring attitude... Go to a bowl game. The veteran team has to start out 3-0 at home against Northeastern, Nevada and Duke, and has to be Indiana and Illinois to close out, but it might be good enough to do it. From the start, Fitzgerald said all the right things about not accepting anything less than the Rose Bowl for his team. While that's not going to happen, getting to the post-season is likely if everything comes together.

Ohio State   Spring Practice Begins: March 28  Game: April 21
The early spring buzz ...
The buzz about Ohio State is that there's no buzz. In fact, after the 41-14 embarrassment against Florida, the program has laid low on the national scale as it tries to rebuild. Even so, this is still Ohio State and it's loaded with next-level caliber talent. The defense that was such a concern last season is full of good veterans, and now the offense is the problem needing to replace most of the top skill players. It's possible the Buckeyes could be underrated going into the year.
The big spring question is ... So what exactly was that? Were the Buckeyes fat and lazy after such a long layoff? Did they not take Florida seriously enough? Were they simply not as good as everyone had it rated? Was it the coaching? Probably all of the above, and while it wasn't the way OSU fans might have wanted the season to end, it could've been the best thing to happen to the team for 2007. Motivation is hardly an issue.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. It's not like Heisman quarterbacks have hung around Columbus over OSU's fantastic history, and now
it's one of the biggest national question marks going into the season. Todd Boeckman is the number one heading into spring ball because of his 6-5, 235-pound frame and practice experience, but the job is wide open. Big-armed sophomore Rob Schoenhoft is even bigger at around 6-6 and 240, and now he needs experience. Antonio Henton is the wild-card in the mix as the only mobile option of the three with a nice arm. None of them will be Smith, but the production will be there if the receiving corps can replace Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez.
Spring attitude... There's no reason to shoot for anything less than the BCS. The Buckeyes will be favored in each of the first eight games before going to Penn State. Wisconsin and a road trip to Michigan, along with a date with Illinois, makes for a rough November, but all the kinks should be worked out of the offense by then.

Penn State   Spring Practice Begins: March 23  Game: April 21
The early spring buzz ... Penn State was having a no-big-deal season winning the eight regular season games it was supposed to and losing the four it was expected to. And then came the Outback Bowl against Tennessee, and all of a sudden, Anthony Morelli looked like a real, live quarterbacking talent, the defense was tremendous, and the Big Ten got a win over the SEC. That game might have set the tone for a big year.
The big spring question is ... Is this the year Derrick Williams lives up to his prep hype? Arguably the nation's top recruit a few years ago, he's been a semi-explosive bust as a receiver (if that's possible), but he's been a great return man. Deon Butler has been the better receiver over the last few years, and Jordan Norwood was the team's number two receiver last year. If Williams lives up to his potential, and Morelli continues to progress, the passing game could go from mediocre to explosive. On the topic of not living up to expectations ...
The most important position to watch is ... Running back. With Tony Hunt gone and no star recruits coming in, it might be Austin Scott or bust. Scott was supposed to be the next great Nittany Lion back, but it hasn't worked out that way with an unproductive first few seasons followed up by a knee injury. The optimistic hope is for a Larry Johnson situation and a blow-up senior season. If he's not the man to handle the workload, Rodney Kinlaw, who's experienced, but limited, will see more time than the coaching staff might like.

Spring attitude... Win the Big Ten title. The star recruiting class of two years ago should now be seasoned and ready to blow up, but Michigan and Wisconsin will get the league's preseason attention. All that was missing from Penn State being the team it was in 2005 was a better offense against the top teams, and it should have it this year. The schedule isn't bad with Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Ohio State coming to Happy Valley and the only tough road game at Michigan.

Purdue   Spring Practice Begins: March 28  Game: April 21
The early spring buzz ... Purdue has been a big disappointment over the last few seasons and didn't take advantage of missing Ohio State and Michigan from the schedule. Now the schedule is harder, the expectations for Joe Tiller are starting to grow, and the program needs to progress forward. Fortunately, the team is loaded with veterans and should have one of the nation's best passing games. However ...
The big spring question is ... Will they actually play a little defense this season? After not stopping anyone, especially the run, the Boilermakers have to be more physical, play tougher, and do just enough to allow the offense to shine. Star end Anthony Spencer is off to the NFL, and linebackers George Hall and Al Royal are also gone, but everyone else returns. While there's experience, there's little size. The front four can't keep getting pushed around. It wouldn't be a bad thing if the secondary tightened up a bit, too.
The most important position to watch is ... The left side of the offensive line. The skill players might not be household names, but they have the potential to crank out one of the ten most productive offenses in America if they have time to work. Part of the success last year was the pass protection allowing a mere 20 sacks in 14 games, and with tackle Mike Otto and guard Uche Nwaneri gone off the left side, that might be an issue for a little while.

Spring attitude... Be the Big Ten's dark-horse (for what seems like the tenth year in a row). If all the parts are clicking and Curtis Painter uses his receiving weapons as well as expected, no one's stopping the offense. The defense can't be any worse than it's been over the last two seasons, and with eight starters back, it probably won't be. Yeah, Michigan and Ohio State is back on the schedule, but Wisconsin isn't and the Buckeyes, along with Notre Dame and Iowa, have to come to West Lafayette.

Wisconsin   Spring Practice Begins: March 13  Game: April 21
The early spring buzz ... Welcome to 2007's "it" team. After going 12-1 and being, arguably, the best team not in the BCS, and with nine starters returning on offense and seven on defense, this might finally be the year Wisconsin takes that next step and is a national title contender. The quarterback situation should be fine even with John Stocco gone, the defense has the potential to be among the nation's best, and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst chose to stick around rather than deal with Tony Romo as the quarterbacks coach in Dallas. Even though head coach Bret Bielema is only in his second season, if this isn't a BCS year when everything shapes up so well, will the program ever get over the hump?
The big spring question is ... Is the program really that good or was the 2006 schedule just insanely weak? Both. The non-conference schedule was among the softest in the country, there was no Ohio State, and there was only one win (Penn State) over a team that won its bowl game. Yeah, the Arkansas win in the Capital One Bowl was nice, but the running game netted -5 yards and Hog coaches and fans are still wondering exactly how they didn't win it. A good Washington State team will be a nice test right off the bat this season, while road dates at Penn State and Ohio State, along with a home game against Michigan, will show if the team is for real.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. You might not now the receiver names, but when Marcus Randle El is back from a knee injury (o.k., maybe you know one name), UW might, might, have the Big Ten's deepest and most talented receiving corps. There's no star number one like Michigan has in Mario Manningham or Purdue has in Dorien Bryant, but TE Travis Beckum and wideouts Paul Hubbard and Luke Swan, along with Randle El, all have NFL potential. Now someone needs to get them the ball. Tyler Donovan is the number one for now after playing well in late season wins over Iowa and Buffalo, but Kansas State transfer Allan Evridge will get his chances to shine this off-season.

Spring attitude... Act as if. The program has to act as if it's won 31 games over the last three years and closed out the last two with wins over red-hot SEC teams. It has to act as if it's a factory that cranks out star talent that goes unnoticed by everyone but the NFL scouts. If has to act as if it's a national title contender, because it is.

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