2008 Spring Preview - The Big Ten
Ohio State OT Alex Boone
Ohio State OT Alex Boone
Posted Mar 5, 2008

Yup, Ohio State is loaded again, but along with Alex Boone's Buckeyes, the rest of the much-maligned Big Ten will be better. As spring ball gets rolling, here are the big questions, the most important positions and more for each Big Ten team in the CFN Spring Preview.

2008 Big Ten Spring Preview

By Pete Fiutak 
- 2007 Big Ten Spring Analysis
2008 Early Lookaheads - Big Ten
2008 Big East Insider Spring Questions & Answers

Illinois   Spring Practice Begins: March 24  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... The program doesn't appear to be taking any step back after a breakthrough Rose Bowl season. The recruiting class might not have been the jaw-dropper the 2007 one was, but it was still fantastic with more than enough new talent coming in to continue the momentum for the next several years. It's almost like the Rose Bowl blowout against USC never happened as Ron Zook and the staff are going full steam ahead acting like last year was just the beginning to bigger and better things. No, Illinois doesn't appear to be a one-year wonder.
The big spring question is ... Will Juice throw more? The team lived and died with the running game, but to beat the better teams, like Ohio State, the passing attack had to work. No, this isn't going to be Texas Tech throwing the ball, but this spring has to be about getting Juice Williams even more efficient and even more consistent with his passing. Of course Williams isn't Vince Young, but remember, Young couldn't throw early in his career and then he stepped up his efficiency. If Williams can't improve, backup Eddie McGee could get more and more work.
The most important position to watch is ... Running back. Rashard Mendenhall was an elite back who'll be sorely missed even with a slew of good young talent to work with. The recruiting class brought in Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford, but lost out on Jason Harper to Clemson. Daniel Dufrene was the third leading rusher last year and will get the first look, but he'll be pushed hard by Walter Mendenhall and Troy Pollard. Expect a running back by committee approach for a while until someone can emerge.
Spring attitude... Now the pressure is on. The team was one of the biggest surprises of the 2007 season, and now the pressure is on Zook to take the program to yet another level. Everyone knows he can recruit, he was able to do that at Florida, but is he a good enough game coach to take all that talent and succeed when the expectations are jacked up? Everyone's going to gunning for the Illini this year, and anything less than a ten win season might be seen as major disappointment.

Indiana  Spring Practice Begins: March 25  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... Can the football program do anything to take the attention away from Kelvin Sampson and the fiasco with the basketball team? Yes, there's a football team coming off a bowl game that deserves a bit of the spotlight, and now things should be far more settled than last year when the Terry Hoeppner tragedy was about happen. Bill Lynch has been running the program, for the most part, for a full season, and now that he's the head man, and any interim tag has been taken off, he can do things like he wants to. The program will never forget Hoeppner, but the program can now focus more on just football.
The big spring question is ... Will there be any more from the running backs? The Hoosiers have a home run hitting rusher in QB Kellen Lewis, and they have a very fast back in Marcus Thigpen, but the ground game needs to get more from the backfield. Thigpen is a track star who busted off a few big runs here and there, and now it's time for others to do more. Is Bryan Payton ready for more carries? Are there any young stars waiting to emerge? Demetrius McCray would be the one to get excited about coming off an ankle injury, but off-the-filed issues could keep him out of the mix early on. Any improvement here could make the team night-and-day better.
The most important position to watch is ... Cornerback. Don't let the bad stats fool you; the corner tandem of Tracy Porter and Leslie Majors might have been the best in the Big Ten and they'll be sorely missed. The safeties are set with Nick Polk and Austin Thomas, but the corner situation has to be settled right away. Christopher Phillips and Adrian Burks will get the first look after being the main backups.
Spring attitude... Last year wasn't a fluke. Getting a 12th game became the rallying cry throughout 2007, and now the focus has to be on doing more throughout the season and not just being happy to get to a bowl game. There's more than enough returning talent to prevent a slide, and the schedule is nice and easy enough to demand nothing less than six wins. Now the team has to make a big leap and challenge to finish in the top five considering Ohio State and Michigan are off the slate.

Iowa  Spring Practice Begins: March 26  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... The coaching staff is undergoing a bit of a shakeup just before spring ball kicks in. Former Michigan wide receivers coach Erik Campbell will take over for Carl Jackson, and that's a big plus considering how good the Wolverine targets developed over the last few years. Lester Erb will coaching the running backs and special teams, Darrell Wilson will coach the entire linebacking corps after handling the outside linebackers, and Eric Johnson will take on more work with the linebackers. The main defensive coaches are staying put.
The big spring question is ... Did the receivers grow? With all the problems with injuries and suspensions, the Iowa receiving corps was a nightmare with a slew of redshirt freshmen thrown into the fire. Expect many players to be back into the mix making the competition interesting, but Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, James Cleveland and Trey Stross, the three top wide receivers from last year, aren't just going to step aside.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. The big personnel losses are on defense, especially at linebacker, but the focus throughout spring ball will be on the quarterback situation where Jake Christensen, last year's starter, Arvell Nelson, Ricky Stanzi and Marvin McNutt will all get a shot to win the No. 1 spot. Because of his experience, Christensen has a slight edge, and to be fair, he didn't exactly have much to work with, but the opening is there for someone to take the job by the horns.
Spring attitude... If it doesn't happen now, it's never going to. No, Iowa isn't the most talented team in the Big Ten, but there's more than enough experience to be far better and far more consistent. Most importantly, there's no Michigan or Ohio State on the schedule. The Hawkeyes don't play a bowl team until a road trip to Michigan State, the sixth game of the season, and Wisconsin and Penn State have to come to Iowa City. Head coach Kirk Ferentz needs to get the program back on track right now.

Michigan   Spring Practice Begins: March 15  Game: April 12
The early spring buzz ... The candlelight vigils and prayer services held to get Terrelle Pryor to come to Ann Arbor might not work, and the program has to move on and assume the superstar quarterback prospect is going elsewhere ... like Ohio State. Even so, new head man Rich Rodriguez did a fantastic job recruiting as he held on to almost all of Lloyd Carr's key recruits and even stole a top player or two (sorry, Purdue). If nothing else, this should be the most interesting spring session Michigan has seen in years, and considering the changes in the offense, every minute of every practice will be vital.
The big spring question is ...
How fast can the offensive personnel adjust to what RichRod wants to do? The offense might be more ready-made to run the spread than many are making it out to be. The adjustment over the last few years to a leaner, more athletic offensive line has made the front five in solid shape even with Jake Long and Adam Kraus gone, the receivers are fine, even with the loss of Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington, and the running backs are quick and ideal for the attack. There's more talent currently on the Wolverine offense than Rodriguez ever had to work with in Morgantown, but ...
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Again, assume Pryor isn't going to wear the Maize and Blue, and even if he decides to sign, the offense needs to prepare a few other options to be ready to roll before Utah comes to town on August 30th. Is RB Carlos Brown really going to go under center? Steve Threet was a top recruit who has the talent to get the offense moving, even if he's not the ideal player to run the attack. Without question, no position will get a bigger national spotlight.
Spring attitude... This isn't a building year. Of course there's no way all the pieces will be in place compared to where they'll likely be in 2009, but there won't be any tolerance for anything less than the 8-4 regular season the team came up with last year. All the talk will be about the Ohio State game, but the team has to be dead-focused on a loaded Utah in the opener or it'll be Appalachian State all over again. Let's get this over with now; Michigan isn't going to beat this national title-level Buckeye team in Columbus, so the concern should be about the first half of the season with a trip to Notre Dame to go along with dates against Wisconsin and Illinois.

Michigan State  Spring Practice Begins: March 17  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... They're talking Rose Bowl. No, not this year, and yes, every Big Ten team uses Pasadena as the goal, but second year head man Mark Dantonio is actually saying the words Rose and Bowl and where the program looks to get to in the next few years. At least that's what he's selling to recruits. Again, everyone puts that carrot out there, but Dantonio actually makes it sound believable. With the major strides the team made in 2007, it wouldn't be a mega-shock of the Spartans make a big jump.
The big spring question is ... Is the team ready to win all the close games? Past Spartan teams would've folded late in the year if they had to face the adversity last season's team faced, but it was able to get over the Michigan heartbreaker to beat Purdue and Penn State and get to a bowl game. Now the team has to use that experience and that mental toughness to win more tight games. MSU lost five games (Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa, Michigan and Boston College) that it could've won with just one key late play, and it came within seven of Ohio State. All six of the losses came by seven points or fewer with two coming in overtime.
The most important position to watch is ... Wide receiver. It was hardly a shock to lose Devin Thomas early to the NFL, but it still hurts. Also gone is an excellent target in tight end Kellen Davis, so while receiver was a major focus in the recruiting class, getting a future star in Fred Smith, it's obviously going to take at least a year for the good haul to contribute. Mark Dell and Deon Curry, who combined for 44 catches for 430 yards and three touchdowns, have to establish themselves early on, and a few young players have to take advantage of the opportunity.
Spring attitude... Start strong. The opener is a nasty one going to Cal on August 30th, but things ease up considerably facing Eastern Michigan and Florida Atlantic before hosting Notre Dame, going to Indiana, hosting Iowa and going to Northwestern. The second half of the year is brutal, so anything less than a 6-1 start could make for a rough final record. There are major holes to be filled on both sides of the ball, and with the game against the Bears, there isn't going to be much time to jell, so every practice will be vital to figure out who the new replacements are going to be on the defensive line, at safety, and in the receiving corps.

Minnesota   Spring Practice Begins: March 26  Game: April 25
The early spring buzz ... After a disastrous first season, head coach Tim Brewster came up with a tremendous recruiting class proving that he can get the young talent to Minneapolis. Now he needs the coaches to make everyone better. It's been a rough off-season for the coaching staff at defensive coordinator Everett Withers took off for the same position at North Carolina, which is slightly odd considering the D was abysmal last year. Director of Football Operations, Randy Taylor, is also gone, but the rest of the coaching staff should stay intact even though several assistants are getting offers for other gigs.
The big spring question is ...
Is the defense going to be any better? It's not going to be worse; it can't be. The Gophers were dead last in America in yards allowed giving up 519 per game while also giving up close to 37 points per outing. The big problem was youth with five underclassmen starting and almost all the key reserves being thrown to the wolves early on. There's a ton of returning experience and plenty of speed and athleticism, and now it all has to come together to find one thing this spring it can do well.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. The one bright spot last year was a sensational campaign from QB Adam Weber, who carried the team and kept things from being even worse than they already are. Even though he threw 24 touchdown passes and ran for 617 yards and five scores, he'll have to battle hard to keep the gig with top recruit MarQueis Gray expected to get every chance this summer to win the starting job, and Brewster's son, Clint, a top recruit last year, will also get a shot. All-around talent David Pittman might get a few snaps, but he'll be needed elsewhere.
Spring attitude... 2007 Illinois. The 2008 Gopher recruiting class isn't as good as the 2007 Illinois haul, and there isn't the foundation in place that the Illini had to build on, but Ron Zook and company showed just how quickly a program can go from rags to roses with the right players and the right breaks. The Gophers have miles to go before they can even think about watching the Rose Bowl, much less going, but this is such a young team with so many underclassmen that this could be a nice stepping-stone to a big 2009. At least that's the hope..

Northwestern   Spring Practice Begins: March 31  Game: April 26
The early spring buzz ...
The coaching staff is being changed up a bit. Mick McCall was hired away from Bowling Green, where he was the offensive coordinator and a solid quarterback coach, to take over the offensive coordinator duties. He did a great job with players like Josh Harris, Omar Jacobs and Tyler Sheehan, and now he's expected to work wonders with C.J. Bacher and make him more effective in the spread attack. Also on board is Mike Hankwitz, who comes in as the new defensive coordinator after spending the last few years at Wisconsin.
The big spring question is ... What kind of defense will the Wildcats run? There's been talk about moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4, and this spring will determine which direction the D goes. The strength of the defense appears to be at linebacker with several good young players ready to step into bigger roles, but if the line dominates this off-season, or if a few unsung players step up, the D might stick with a four man front. If nothing else, the coaching staff might experiment with both formations.
The most important position to watch is ... The left side of the offensive line. The O line was a big-time disappointment last year, but it'll still miss C Trevor Rees and LG Adam Crum and LT Dylan Thiry. The reserves are iffy at best, at least they were last year, so if there's not immediate help from the recruiting class, the line could be a big problem early on.
Spring attitude... No more giving games away. The Wildcats were on the wrong end of one of the biggest collapses in college football history two years ago in a 41-38 loss to Michigan State, and they also lost to D-IAA New Hampshire. Had they won those two games, they would've been 6-6. Last year they inexplicably lost to Duke at home, which ended up costing them a bowl game. The team simply isn't strong enough to not win every game it's supposed to, so if there's any hope of getting a 13th game, they have to beat Syracuse, Southern Illinois and Ohio at home, and a win at Duke is a must. That would be a 4-0 start before Big Ten play kicks in, and anything less might mean another bowl season spent at home.

Ohio State   Spring Practice Begins: March 24  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ...
The team is loaded up for a possible third straight run to the national championship game, but all the talk is about a player who likely won't even see the field if he signs with Jim Tressel, top QB recruit Terrelle Pryor. It's more than just OSU possibly landing the nation's top prep star; it's also about Michigan not getting him. Even more important to this season is the decision by LB James Laurinaitis, OT Alex Boone, and CB Malcolm Jenkins to return for their senior seasons. They're arguably the best players in America at their respective positions, and they make an already great team something special.
The big spring question is ... What's missing before being a national champion? Attitude seemed to be a problem more than anything else in the loss to Florida in Glendale, but the Buckeyes simply lost to a better team in the 2008 BCS Championship. Even so, it wasn't the pasting or the embarrassment many in the media made it out to be. The Buckeyes have more NFL starters on the starting 22 than anyone else in America, there's no questioning the talent, and there's no doubt this is one of the best teams in college football. To go from No. 2 to No. 1, the lines need to be flat-out nastier, and the team needs to know it can be a national champion and not just think it can be. That might sound vague, but mindset really could be the difference. That mindset will be there if the Buckeyes come out of L.A. with a win over the Trojans on September 13th.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive end. Everything else is in place except for a sure-thing, top-flight pass rusher. Vernon Gholston had 14 of the team's 43 sacks, linebackers James Laurinaitis and Larry Grant each had five, and almost everyone else came up with one. Cameron Heyward, who cranked out 2.5 sacks, needs to grow into Gholston's role, while several other players have to emerge this spring and show they deserve time on the outside.

Spring attitude... National title or bust. Georgia will probably be everyone's preseason No. 1 team, and maybe USC, Oklahoma, Florida, or a random other team will get a few nods for the top spot, but no team comes back as loaded or as talented as Ohio State. A win at USC might be a must to make the trip to Miami, and if this team really wants to be a national champion, that's a game it has to win.

Penn State   Spring Practice Begins: March 24  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... All the talk is about everything other than football. The off-the-field stuff has taken center stage with WR Chris Bell and starting DT Phil Taylor suspended because of academic issues. DT Chris Baker and LB Navorro Bowman were booted off the team for the time being after being charged with felony assault after a fight last fall, with CB Knowledge Timmons being charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct for a problem after the fight. Top safety Anthony Scirrotto agreed to a plea bargain after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of defiant trespass in an issue last April. If that wasn't enough, everyone is talking about what the succession plan is going to be after Joe Paterno decides he's done, while the Nittany Lion nation continues to hold its breath as it hopes beyond all reasonable hope that super-recruit Terrelle Pryor will sign and be the 2008 starting quarterback.
The big spring question is ... Is there a ceiling on the 2008 team? The 2007 team blasted Wisconsin and collapsed against a motivated Michigan State, but for the most part it beat the teams it was supposed to, and lost to the better teams (Michigan, Illinois and Ohio State). The offense needs more pop, the defense needs to play up to its talent level game-in-and-game-out, and for a full sixty minutes, and there can't be any gaffes. It's all about gearing up for a huge midseason stretch with four road games in five weeks (Purdue, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa) after a home date against Illinois. The home oasis? Michigan.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Anthony Morelli was the poster boy for Underwhelming Quarterbacks of America, but he wasn't bad and led the way to a few good seasons. Can Daryll Clark make the offense more exciting? Yes. Can he throw? No. Pat Devlin could quickly take over the No. 1 spot if he's consistent this spring, but Clark, because of his mobility, is an X factor. The team might live through his mistakes to go with his personality and potential.

Spring attitude... Is it possible to be a sleeper? Ohio State will be everyone's preseason Big Ten title pick, Michigan will get the spotlight with all the changes, and Wisconsin might be the thinking man's pick for the title, but Penn State could turn out to be strong enough to go to Pasadena. The defense will be stellar, the receiving corps might be the best in America, and the O line should be a strength. If the quarterback situation is settled early on, then shhhhhhhh, this will be the league's under-the-radar team to keep an eye on.

Purdue   Spring Practice Begins: March 26  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... How will the transition of power go? Joe Tiller is the head coach, but Eastern Kentucky's Danny Hope was brought aboard to be an assistant head man and take over in 2009. It's not like Hope is a stranger after serving under Tiller for years at Wyoming and Purdue, and now the key will be to not let the succession plan be a distraction. This is still Tiller's team, but there has to be some looking ahead to next year and getting Hope ready.
The big spring question is ... Can the team actually beat anyone with a pulse? Out of the eight wins last year, two came against Central Michigan, with the second coming in the Motor City Bowl classic, and the other six were teams that missed out on bowls. Take away the CMU wins and Purdue was 0-5 against bowl teams. That might not work this season against a tougher schedule. To get those big wins, the defense has to be better. It improved last year after a few disastrous seasons, but it still wasn't anything special.
The most important position to watch is ... Receiver. Greg Orton, who finished third on the team in receptions is back, but all-timer Dorien Bryant is gone, along with top tight end Dustin Keller and troubled Selwyn Lymon, who was booted off the team. The program always plugs in new receivers and gets excellent production, but Bryant isn't instantly replaceable, and several new faces need to become producers early on this spring.

Spring attitude... Own Ross-Ade. Purdue has been fine at home, but it hasn't been as strong as it needs to be against the better teams. That has to change. In the past, the team could lose the games it was supposed on the road, beat the lightweights at home, and go to a bowl, but that can't happen this year with Oregon, Penn State, Michigan and Indiana on the home slate. If the Boilermakers can somehow win three of those, to go along with expected wins over Northern Colorado, Central Michigan and Minnesota, a top four conference finish is possible.

Wisconsin   Spring Practice Begins: March 8  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... Now is the team ready to get over the hump and get to the BCS? Last year it was the hot team coming into the season, and it didn't wake up until after getting knocked out of the Big Ten title races with back-to-back losses to Illinois and Penn State. This isn't an little-engine-that-could program; this is a big-time team that has to start playing up to the expectations and hype every week. The preseason ranking will be strong, likely somewhere between 12 and 20 in most polls, but the team has to finally show it deserves the respect. 
The big spring question is ... Will the defense be up-to-snuff? Bret Bielema is first and foremost a defensive coach and is retooling his staff to get better, and younger. With Mike Hankwitz off to Northwestern, Dave Doeren has been bumped up from recruiting coordinator to defensive coordinator while Charlie Partridge was hired away from Pitt to coach the defensive line. To be fair, the Badgers suffered a slew of injuries over the last two seasons, but that's not being used as an excuse for a D that struggled to get into the backfield on a regular basis and wasn't tight enough against spread attacks.
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive tackle. Sure, the spotlight will be on QB Allen Evridge, and attention will be paid to the kicking game after losing P Ken DeBauche and excellent PK Taylor Mehlhaff, but the difference between a good and a great season in Madison rests on offensive tackles Gabe Carimi, Kraig Urbik, Eric Vanden Heuvel and Jake Bscherer, among others. The tackles have to be much, much better in pass protection after the quarterbacks suffered some major beatings, and often at inopportune times.

Spring attitude... It's Bret's program. Bielema has done a terrific job of keeping things rolling after the great Barry Alvarez era, and now this program and this team has his stamp on it. He's no longer Barry's guy, he's a top-shelf college football head coach with 21 wins under his belt and two straight New Year's Day appearances. He represents a new type of young coach who utilizes all the technology and all the data and all the possible resources, and now he and his staff have to coach like it's out of Alvarez's shadow.