2008 Spring Preview - The Big East
Louisville QB Hunter Cantwell
Louisville QB Hunter Cantwell
Posted Mar 4, 2008

Yes, Louisville's Hunter Cantwell could be the 2009 top NFL QB prospect. Can he lead the Cards back to a Big East title? As spring ball gets rolling, here are the big questions, the most important positions and more for each Big East team in the CFN Spring Preview.

Spring Preview 2008

Big East Spring Football Previews

By Richard Cirminiello 
- 2007 Big East Spring Analysis
2008 Early Lookaheads - Big East
2008 Big East Insider Spring Questions & Answers

Cincinnati  Spring Practice Begins: April 1  Game: April 26
The early spring buzz ... Yes, the Bearcats and Brian Kelly have gathered up a nice head of steam in a short period of time, but their momentum took a little hit when QB Ben Mauk was denied a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA.  One of the emotional leaders of last year’s team, he’ll be missed for more than just his 31 touchdown passes and 3,500 yards of total offense.  A second spring under Kelly and a second cycle of attracting his type of athletes will allow the coach to darken his stamp on the program, moving another step further away from the Mark Dantonio era.
The big spring question is ... Who replaces Mauk? For the Bearcat spread offense to purr, it must have a reliable passer, preferably one that can escape pressure and make plays outside the pocket.  While the battle to succeed Mauk will have as many as five competitors, it’ll focus on senior Dustin Grutza and Notre Dame transfer Demetrius Jones.  Although Grutza has the clear edge in experience, Jones has the athletic ability and size to blossom into a star in the Cat Attack.   
The most important position to watch is ... Safety.  Underrated all-leaguer Haruki Nakamura is out of eligibility, as are starter Anthony Williams and key reserve Cedric Tolbert.  Their ability to step up and fill lanes a year ago was an overlooked reason why Cincinnati was No. 19 nationally against the run.  At 6-3 and 205 pounds, junior Aaron Webster has the right size to excel at strong safety, but needs to go out this spring and add an element of stability to a shaky position.
Spring attitude... After winning 10 games last year for the first time since 1951, Cincinnati has its sights fixed on getting to another level, namely winning a Big East crown.  The feisty defense is set with the returns of DT Terrill Byrd, CB Mike Mickens, and DE Anthony Hoke, and the offense has an improving group of skill players, provided WR Marcus Barnett returns from a broken leg before the opener and RB Jacob Ramsey can handle the load out of the backfield.  The obvious key will be at quarterback, where Kelly will spend much of this spring mining for his 2008 starter.

Connecticut   Spring Practice Begins: March 18  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... After shocking the nation with a share of the Big East championship a year ago, Connecticut is determined to prove that 2007 was no one-year fluke.  Resisting the temptation to stand still with the nation’s 14th-ranked scoring defense, Randy Edsall plans to do some shifting of his personnel in order to get maximum speed on the field.  Most notably, he’s moving Freshman All-American Scott Lutrus inside to middle linebacker, S Dahna Deleston to Lutrus’ old position, and LB Jarrell Miller to defensive tackle.  Husky fans can’t wait to see Miller, a massive recruit for this program who had to sit out last year because of NCAA transfer rules.
The big spring question is ... Can the passing game do anything to take some heat off junior backs Andre Dixon and Donald Brown? Dixon and Brown both ran for more than 800 yards in 2007, forming an exciting tandem, but they might be unstoppable with even a threat of a vertical attack.  Although QB Tyler Lorenzen was efficient in his first year in Storrs, he averaged under seven yards an attempt and was rarely able to challenge opposing defenses downfield. 
The most important position to watch is ... Wide receiver.  Lorenzen’s inability to uncork some big plays last year certainly wasn’t all his fault.  The Husky receivers lack explosiveness and intimidate no one.  Making matters worse, last season’s top pass-catcher, Terrence Jeffers, has decided to transfer from the school.  While D.J. Hernandez and Brad Kanuch are mediocre possession receivers, Connecticut desperately needs someone that can stretch a secondary, creating opportunities for untested underclassmen.  
Spring attitude... Keep building on the unexpected success of 2007.  With eight starters back from last year’s stingy defense and the entire backfield returning intact, Connecticut expects its formula of a rugged D and a power running game to equal another bowl game in 2008.  If Lorenzen can be the catalyst for improved offensive balance, the Huskies are good enough to take a backseat to no one outside of West Virginia.

Louisville   Spring Practice Begins: March 19  Game: April 18
The early spring buzz ... No school needs a fresh start more than Louisville, which was a gross disappointment in 2007 under first-year coach Steve Kragthorpe.  If the Cardinals are going to rebound, they’ll do so with unfamiliar faces on the sidelines and the depth chart.  Kragthorpe took a leaf blower to his old defensive staff, while also saying farewell to his five best skill position players.  Chief among the departures is future NFL QB Brian Brohm, who opens the door for 6-5 senior Hunter Cantwell to begin his own quest for a career on Sundays. With a lousy 2009 class of pro QB prospects, Cantwell can suddenly become a major name.
The big spring question is ... How much progress can new defensive coordinator Ron English make with a defense that broke down repeatedly throughout last year’s dismal 6-6 season? It better be significant, or else the Cardinals will be without a bowl invitation for the second straight December.  Unfortunately, the same unit that couldn’t tackle or stop opposing quarterbacks unexpectedly lost its best player, LB Lamar Myles, to the NFL Draft, making English’s job that much tougher in his first year. 
The most important position to watch is ... Wide receiver.  Cantwell has upside in Kragthorpe’s offense, but only if he gets help from a receiving corps that was gutted by graduations and an early departure to the NFL.  Gone are Harry Douglas, Mario Urrutia, Gary Barnidge, and Patrick Carter, putting the onus on Scott Long, Trent Guy, and a handful of newcomers to emerge into consistent weapons in the passing game.  Backs Bilal Powell, Brock Bolen, and George Stripling form an eclectic trio that will shine if the passing game is doing its part through the air.
Spring attitude... For the first time in years, Louisville will enter a season without a target on its chest or lofty expectations to uphold.  Instead, the program will spend the spring looking for new starters, working a bunch of JUCO transfers into the two-deep, and trying eliminate all memories of last season.  With the Big East deeper than ever and the Cards in somewhat of a rebuilding mode, seven wins and a postseason game would qualify as a step in the right direction in 2008.

Pitt  Spring Practice Begins: March 25  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... For the first time since Dave Wannstedt returned to his alma mater, Pittsburgh has become trendy on a national level.  Despite missing the postseason for three straight years, all signs point to a breakthrough year for the Panthers.  The talent level is peaking thanks to another top recruiting class, sophomore RB LeSean McCoy is a budding superstar, and last December’s upset of No. 2 West Virginia provided a confidence boost that hasn’t worn off.  It’s Year Four for Wannstedt, who better be prepared to deliver eight or nine wins because everyone’s watching and the expectations have never been higher.
The big spring question is ... Who plays quarterback, Bill Stull or Pat Bostick?  Stull was the starter last year before injuring his thumb and being lost for the season.  Bostick took over as a true freshman struggling as expected, yet flashing some of the potential that made him one of the top-rated recruits of 2007.  Also in the mix is junior college transfer Greg Cross, a more athletic player that could have specific situational packages designed just for him.  Whoever gets the ball will be throwing to a deep set of receivers that welcomes back headliner Derek Kinder from a season-long injury.
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive line.  The Panthers will be looking to rebuild an offensive line that’ll be missing starting C Chris Vangas and bookend tackles Jeff Otah and Mike McGlynn, both of whom are NFL timber.  Since the Pitt offense will again lean heavily on the running of McCoy, LaRod Stephens-Howling, and Shariff Harris, it’s imperative that the line gels around guards C.J. Davis and Joe Thomas, and gets back T Jason Pinkston from a shoulder injury that ended his 2007 campaign after three games.
Spring attitude... The time for success is now.  If the Panthers can stay relatively healthy, something that eluded them last year, they’ve got the parts on each side of the ball to make a bona fide run for Big East supremacy in 2008.  Wannstedt’s recruiting over the last few years will help bolster both lines, which were thinned by graduations at offensive tackle and defensive end

Rutgers   Spring Practice Begins: March 11  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... The Scarlet Knights proved to be plenty dangerous when they housed a legit Heisman contender, but how will the program manage with life after RB Ray Rice? Sure, he had plenty of help, but along with head coach Greg Schiano, Rice was the single biggest reason that Rutgers won 26 games and went to three bowl games in the last three years.  To get back to the postseason, the Knights will need to develop more playmakers on offense, while shoring up a defense that allowed at least 30 points in half of the final 10 games of 2007. 
The big spring question is ... Is QB Mike Teel ready to become the team MVP in his final season in Piscataway?  He’ll have to be if the Scarlet Knights are going to be better than a mid-level Big East team in 2008.  Teel’s injured thumb is on the mend, his running game is a question mark, and his receivers, Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood, are fantastic, all of which point to a big send-off for the veteran quarterback.
The most important position to watch is ... Running back.  Rice is gone, so someone else will be shouldering the load for the first time since 2004.  Kordell Young would be the logical choice for Schiano, but he’s coming off a serious knee injury that’ll limit him this spring.  That means untested sophomore Mason Robinson and powerful Jourdan Brooks will get plenty of chances to impress the coaching staff.
Spring attitude... After taking a step backwards in 2007, the Scarlet Knights could recede again in 2008 thanks to the losses of Rice and DT Eric Foster, their best offensive and defensive players, respectively.  The out of conference schedule is soft enough to produce bowl eligibility, but if Rutgers is to elevate beyond mediocrity, they’ll need Teel to be All-Big East-caliber and Schiano to rejuvenate a defense that slipped a year ago.

South Florida   Spring Practice Begins: March 18  Game: April 12
The early spring buzz ... The Bulls are looking to recapture the momentum they had after rising to No. 2 midway through last year’s rollercoaster season.  Sure, South Florida won nine games for the second straight year and hasn’t missed the postseason since 2004, but the lasting memory of 2007 was losing three in-a-row after becoming a national phenomenon and getting abused by shorthanded Oregon in the Sun Bowl.  Although the Bulls are still a major factor in the Big East race, some of their luster was lost in El Paso, and sneaking up on opponents is no longer an option. 
The big spring question is ... How much of a hangover effect will there be from the Sun Bowl beatdown at the hands of Oregon?  Maybe the baby Bulls grew up too fast or were reading too many press clippings, but their 3-4 finish and 56-21 loss to the Ducks brought the program down a notch or two.  Aside from looking to find depth at offensive tackle and beef up the back seven, head coach Jim Leavitt is hoping to locate the swagger that his kids enjoyed during the first half of the 2007 season.   
The most important position to watch is ... Cornerback.  In a few months, South Florida goes from one of the best corner tandems in the country to a major question mark at the position.  The graduations of future pros Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams leave the Bulls vulnerable in the secondary, where defensive coordinator Wally Burnham likes to utilize lots of man coverage.  Jerome Murphy and Tyller Roberts are the early favorites to be the heir apparent, but neither is so accomplished that he’ll go the next six months without a serious challenge for a starting spot.
Spring attitude... Take the next step in the program’s evolution by winning the Big East and playing in a BCS bowl game.  South Florida sprung a few leaks a year ago, but with Matt Grothe back to commandeer the offense and All-American DE George Selvie again setting the tone on defense, the Bulls still have the potential to win a league that’s not nearly as daunting as it appeared to be before the start of 2007.

Syracuse   Spring Practice Begins: March 19  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... Beleaguered head coach Greg Robinson has had nine lives since arriving at Syracuse, but he’ll squander them all if the program doesn’t make substantial strides this fall.  The Orange has won just seven games over the last three years, and has looked bad doing it, putting everyone’s job in jeopardy heading into 2008.  The program is clinging to the hope that some of last year’s freshman standouts, such as CB Mike Holmes, LB Parker Cantey, and KR Max Suter, will help spark something positive from a very dismal situation.
The big spring question is ... Will the Orange have any healthy backs?  This time last year, Syracuse appeared to be set at the position, but not any longer.  Projected starter Delone Carter sustained a potential career-ending hip injury and his successor Curtis Brinkley broke his leg midway through the season.  Neither is expected to contribute much in the spring, meaning recent signee Averin Collier will have a chance to get carries very early in his college career. 
The most important position to watch is ... The offensive line.  As a group, the Orange line was absolutely dreadful last year, paving the way for an offense that was 118th nationally in sacks allowed and rushing yards.  If second-year starting QB Andrew Robinson has any chance of taking his game to another level, the front wall has to afford him more time to locate star receiver Mike Williams and whoever else is running patterns.  The offensive line figures to be dominated by underclassmen, namely C Jim McKenzie and T Jonathan Meldrum, who both got plenty of useful reps last season.
Spring attitude... With a winning season and a bowl game likely out of reach without a major turnaround, most Orange players will spend the spring trying to secure jobs and do their part to make the program more competitive in 2008.  If Syracuse is to improve on last year’s two wins, it’ll likely be because of new coordinator Mitch Browning’s offense, a unit with potential if Carter and Brinkley can last the entire season.        

West Virginia   Spring Practice Begins: March 14  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... Although Bill Stewart led the Mountaineers during the Fiesta Bowl, this is the first true chance to see how the program is going to be different in the post-Rich Rodriguez era.  While the new staff will still lean heavily on QB Pat White and the running game, it has also promised to be far less rigid in an effort to remain the beast of the Big East.  Stewart was brilliant preparing West Virginia for Oklahoma in January, but now he needs to prove he can lead for the long haul, and without a promotion hanging in the balance.   
The big spring question is ... Can 5-8, 170-pound Noel Devine be the feature back in West Virginia’s prolific running attack?  As a complement to Steve Slaton, he was a jackrabbit, but Slaton left early for the NFL, leaving a gaping hole in the Mountaineer running game.  By rushing for 627 yards on just 73 carries, Devine showed he was a dynamic talent; however, it remains to be seen whether he’s got the girth to handle 15-20 touches a game, while picking up the occasional tough yards without FB Owen Schmitt leading the way.
The most important position to watch is ... The defensive line.  Jeff Casteel’s defense made a quantum leap in 2007 largely because of the pressure created up front.  However, the Mountaineers’ two best linemen, tackle Keilen Dykes and end Johnny Dingle, have signed with agents, leaving the unit questionable up front.  If West Virginia reverts back to its 2006 form, rarely getting upfield penetration, the defensive backfield will become particularly vulnerable through the air.   
Spring attitude... Repeat.  The Mountaineers have something to prove to those who believe they’ll stumble without Rodriguez calling the shots.  The out of conference schedule includes a visit from Auburn and a trip to Colorado, both of which will seriously challenge a school that’ll be rebuilding on defense.  As long as White stays healthy, however, and the veteran line continues to dominate, West Virginia will remain the team to beat in the Big East.