Spring Preview 2009 - Big East

Posted Mar 11, 2009

It should be an interesting year in the Big East with WVU's Jarrett Brown, Cincinnati's Mardy Gilyard, and USF's Matt Grothe the stars of the show. Just as spring ball gets underway, here are the big questions, the most important positions and more for each Big East team in the CFN Spring Preview.

Spring Preview 2009

Big East Spring Football Previews

By Richard Cirminiello 

- 2009 Big East Team-By-Team Schedule
- 2009 Big East Composite Schedule

- 2009 Big East Early Lookaheads
- 2008 Big East Lookbacks and Recaps
- 2008 CFN Big East Preview

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

Cincinnati  Begins: March 31  Game: April 25

The early spring buzz ... The wholesale changes on the Bearcat defense will not be limited to the personnel. More than a month after the season ended, Brian Kelly surprisingly fired defensive coordinator Joe Tresey, plucking Bobby Diaco out of Virginia to replace him. By all measures, Tresey was a success at Cincinnati, but there were philosophical differences between the coaches that couldn’t be solved. In order words, Kelly wants to make the move to a 3-4 alignment, which will begin to be implemented in April. Diaco is just 36 years old, and one of the fast risers in the coaching ranks.           

The big spring question is ... Can the defense recover from the loss of so many key players? Four Bearcat defenders, Mike Mickens, Brandon Underwood, Connor Barwin, and Terrill Byrd, earned All-Big East honors a year ago. All four are now preparing for possible NFL careers. Just a couple of players with starting experience are back in 2009, which will heap pressure on unproven players, like CB Dominique Battle, DT John Hughes, and S Drew Frey to come up big and pick up some slack.       

The most important position to watch is ... nose tackle. If Cincinnati is, indeed, moving toward the 3-4 defense, it has to develop someone that can play the nose and plug a couple of gaps on running downs. The Bearcats will be looking for a big, physical lineman, who has the quickness to get penetration and the durability to absorb a lot of contact. If they’re not successful, the run D could take a nosedive. Hughes, Derek Wolfe, and Ricardo Mathews are all candidates to get extensive playing time in the fall.   

Spring attitude... With back-to-back 10-win seasons and a Big East championship behind it, Cincinnati is looking to maintain without a bunch of familiar and integral faces. If Kelly can still keep the Bearcats in the hunt in a quasi-rebuilding year, it’ll send a message that this program will be relevant as long as he’s on the sidelines. QB Tony Pike and WR Mardy Gilyard caught a lot of people by surprise in 2008. Now, they’re two of the cornerstones of the program, hoping to take on more of a leadership role and impress NFL scouts.

Connecticut   Begins: March 17  Game: April 19

The early spring buzz ... After once again posting spotty results on offense, the program couldn’t have been too shaken up when coordinator Rob Ambrose left for the head job at Towson. If not for the heroics of RB Donald Brown, the Huskies’ might have had the Big East’s worst attack. Randy Edsall is entrusting his offense to Joe Moorhead, who’d like to install a far more up-tempo, no-huddle system that incorporates a quick, short passing game. Does Moorhead have the parts needed to make the offense click? He’ll know better in the spring.             

The big spring question is ... Who gets the ball? If the Huskies want to do a little more passing this fall, they better locate and develop their triggerman in the spring. The battle to replace Tyler Lorenzen is expected to come down to junior Zach Frazer and sophomore Cody Endres, a couple of strong-armed passers. While both got reps last season, neither impressed, combining for just two touchdowns and nine interceptions for the nation’s 109th-ranked passing game. It’s time for Frazer, a Notre Dame transfer, to begin playing like one of the top quarterbacks in the class of 2006.    

The most important position to watch is ... running back. You’ll hear all offseason about Connecticut’s fancy new offense, but don’t be fooled. This program is still built around the ground game. Although you don’t get better by losing the nation’s leading rusher, the Huskies may not be in such bad shape at the position. If senior Andre Dixon can avoid distractions, he’s got 1,000-yard potential, and sophomore Jordan Todman ran well in his first year. Remember, if he has his act together, this is the same Dixon who outplayed Brown in 2007.  

Spring attitude... Just keep working hard in the offseason no matter who’s paying attention. Connecticut has become the epitome of a blue-collar team, working a little harder than the competition because Edsall demands it and a relative lack of stars requires it. There are considerable holes on both sides of the ball, so March and April will be used to establish a soft two-deep and find a leader to pilot the offense. If Moorhead can whip this offense into shape, there’s no reason the Huskies won’t be playing in a third straight bowl game.   

Louisville   Begins: March 7  Game: April 17

The early spring buzz ... The Cardinals need to get back on the field just to deflect some attention away from a miserable offseason. There were player transfer, a disappointing recruiting class, and some important defections on the staff. Louisville parted ways with offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm and lost defensive coordinator Ron English and his successor, Bill Miller, within a matter of weeks. Looking to take ownership of the offense and his fate, Steve Kragthorpe will call plays and be his own coordinator. When the team convenes in March, there’ll be an unmistakable air of desperation permeating throughout the coaching staff.    

The big spring question is ... Who takes over at quarterback? While Hunter Cantwell was a major disappointment, at least he was a fifth-year player with next-level arm strength. Matt Simms was being groomed to be in the hunt, but he grew fed up with the program, transferring in January. Out of junior Tyler Wolfe, redshirt freshman Zack Stoudt, and JUCO transfer Andrew Froman, Kragthorpe needs to decide who’s best suited to run the offense. Wolfe’s four passing attempts a year ago make him the veteran of the group.   

The most important position to watch is ... the defensive line. A team strength in 2008, it’s back to the drawing board for the Cardinal front. End Maurice Mitchell and tackles Earl Heyman and Adrian Grady have graduated, leaving new coordinator Brent Guy with big gaps on his defensive line. Rodney Gnat and L.D. Scott will get first dibs on the two outside jobs. On the inside, L.T. Walker and Tyler Jessen enter spring with the most experience. If these veterans cannot generate consistent pressure, a rebuilt secondary will pay the consequences.  

Spring attitude... Stop the bleeding. Louisville needs to generate something to feel good about after a past year that was flush with so much negativity. This is the perfect setting, with no outsiders watching and no one keeping score, to begin turning around the culture of losing that’s developed under Kragthorpe. It’s important for the Cardinals to give the local media something to discuss, like the performance of a young breakthrough player, so it can take a breather on the decline of the program and the problems with the coaching staff.

Pitt  Begins: March 19  Game: April 11

The early spring buzz ... Although local whipping-boy Matt Cavanaugh has left for an NFL job, don’t expect the offense to be overhauled now that Frank Cignetti is the new coordinator. As long as Dave Wannstedt is the head coach, the Panthers will favor a more conservative pro-style offense that sets up the pass with a heavy dose of running. Cignetti shares that philosophy, which was a contributing factor in bringing him over from Cal. Plus, until one of the quarterbacks proves he’s capable of handling a more diverse attack, it makes no sense to open things up through the air.    

The big spring question is ... Who plays quarterback, Bill Stull, Pat Bostick, or Tino Sunseri? Yeah, all eyes will be on LeSean McCoy’s replacement, but Pittsburgh will be fine on the ground with Shariff Harris and Chris Burns, especially if the passing game improves. Stull was ordinary as the starter a year ago, opening up the competition after failing to take advantage of a talented corps of receivers. Beginning this spring, someone needs to lock down the position in order to take some heat off the backs and get the most out of TE Nate Byham and 6-5 budding superstar Jonathan Baldwin.   

The most important position to watch is ... the offensive line. Even after losing all-star G C.J. Davis to graduation, this could be the best front wall in the Wannstedt era. With four starters back, the unit has the potential to make life so much easier for Harris, Burns, and the quarterbacks. Jason Pinkston and Joe Thomas are a pair of tackles with next-level potential. Robb Houser started seven games at center a year ago. And G John Malecki was named Most Improved Player in his first year after switching sides of the ball. If some of the top recruits from the past few signing days are ready to contribute, Pitt should have a terrific two-deep in the trenches.

Spring attitude... Although McCoy’s exit has lowered expectations around the country, the Panthers are looking ahead and not back. And why not? Even without their offensive star, this is a talented team that continues to stockpile blue-chippers in February. The defense alone is good enough to get the program to a second straight postseason game. If the offense makes strides under Cignetti, a Big East championship is well within reach, especially with West Virginia and Cincinnati expected to take a step back.

Rutgers   Begins: March 10  Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ... While every school is looking to plug some holes this time of year, Rutgers is in the difficult position of finding new leaders, especially on offense. Last season, the Knights were forced to move on without star RB Ray Rice, and now need to replace QB Mike Teel. Sure, Teel was maddeningly inconsistent, but he was also a four-year starter with the best arm of any quarterback to ever play in Piscataway. A lot like West Virginia, which has lost Steve Slaton and Pat White in the last two years, Rutgers needs to find a new face of the offense beginning in March and April.  

The big spring question is ... Will a feature runner break from the pack? Greg Schiano wound up using four different backs last year to try and match Rice’s production. Kordell Young, Jourdan Brooks, and Joe Martinek all showed flashes of potential and a different skill set. With the passing game almost guaranteed to suffer a power outage, one of these runners, along with Mason Robinson, will have a shot for a monster season if he can build separation and command 20-25 carries a game.

The most important position to watch is ...
defensive tackle. The flashiest losses may be at wide receiver,  but to be successful in 2009, the Scarlet Knights have to develop more run-stoppers. Although he got almost no pub outside of New Jersey, Peter Tverdov had an outstanding senior season and will be sorely missed. It’s incumbent upon the younger linemen, like Alex Silvestro, Charlie Noonan, and Justin Francis, to show they can clog the middle, or else the Rutgers run defense will be vulnerable.  

Spring attitude... Is Rutgers the team that started last season 1-5 or the one that finished on a seven-game winning streak? The long climb toward answering that question begins in the spring. After four straight postseason games, the Scarlet Knights believe they’ve reached a point in their development where full-scale rebuilding only takes place on the stadium and practice facilities. If, however, they hope to move up a rung with a Big East title, a bunch of relative unknowns out of the backfield must emerge.

South Florida   Begins: March 9  Game: April 11

The early spring buzz ... Like much of the Big East this offseason, the Bulls have lost assistant coaches like they were baby teeth. First, head coach Jim Leavitt demoted offensive coordinator Greg Gregory, who later left the program for the same position at South Alabama. Receivers coach Mike Canales is expected to be promoted to take his place. The bigger blow came when revered defensive coordinator Wally Burnham pulled up stakes and bolted for Iowa State in February. With staff changes coming so late in the offseason, it’s going to be an unsettling spring session for the entire program.

The big spring question is ... Is this the beginning of QB Matt Grothe’s best season at South Florida? It better be, or else the Bulls can forget about winning their first Big East championship. Grothe can be both fantastic and frustrating…on the same series. While he’s easily been the school’s offensive MVP over the last three seasons, he has also thrown 42 interceptions over that time. South Florida needs to see fewer mistakes and more of the player that accounted for 319 yards, three touchdowns, and no turnovers in the bowl rout of Memphis.

The most important position to watch is ... the offensive line. This group will be watched and worked by the staff more than any other unit in March and April. Gone are long-time stalwarts Matt Huners, Ryan Schmidt, Jake Griffin, and Marc Dile, leaving Zach Hermann as the lone returning starter. Plenty will be expected from Jacob Sims, Jeremiah Warren, Joe Herzhauser, and Danous Estenor, who played as underclassmen and will all have shots at filling the holes in the starting lineup.

Spring attitude... It’s the final year in the careers of Grothe and DE George Selvie, two of the cornerstones of South Florida’s rise to national notoriety. The Bulls are not going away, but if they don’t capitalize now, it’ll go down as a lost opportunity. While they have enough talent, bolstered by another dynamite recruiting class, to win the Big East and play in the Orange Bowl, the program has developed a flaky personality that’s been a stumbling block the last two years.

Syracuse   Begins: March 23  Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ... It’s the dawn of a new era, as former NFL assistant Doug Marrone was hired to replace Greg Robinson. The Orange needed a fresh face on the sidelines, but it’ll be a while before the program knows if it made the right decision here. The main objective of the 15 practices will be for the staff to get its first luck at the personnel, and for the new systems on both sides of the ball to be installed. Scott Shafer will be implementing a 4-3 defense that creates pressure without necessarily blitzing haphazardly. Rob Spence’s offense will feature elements of the no-huddle with some interesting wrinkles.     

The big spring question is ... Is Mike Williams here to stay? Remember him, the All-Big East wide receiver, who’d caught a touchdown pass in nine consecutive games before being academically ineligible for 2008? He spent the fall semester at Springfield (Mass.) Technical Community College, and is taking classes again at Syracuse this spring. The Orange needs him to be eligible this September to help along a passing attack that was 113th nationally a year ago. The one player on the roster who’ll frighten opposing defenses, Williams will be the best friend of struggling QB Andrew Robinson.

The most important position to watch is ... the defensive backfield. Something must be done with the secondary after it allowed 27 touchdowns passes and picked off just eight. There are a handful of familiar faces back in the mix, like top corner Mike Holmes, but that alone is not going to get the job done. The Orange needs CB Dorian Graham and S Kevyn Scott to build on their freshmen debuts, and former starting CB Nick Chestnut to return after missing the 2008 season. The bodies are there, but Syracuse needs some healthy competition to bring out the best in this group.

Spring attitude... Coming off a three-win season and lacking the talent of the rest of the Big East, Syracuse understandably has modest goals in 2009. Unlike most other schools, wins and bowl eligibility won’t be the only measures of success, as the Orange takes its first steps toward recovery under Marrone. If the new staff can create some excitement among the players, fans, and community, it’ll be off to a flying start with the program.

West Virginia   Begins: March 24  Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ... Far more than last year, when QB Pat White was still the dominant figure in Morgantown, this is Bill Stewart’s team. He has a full season under his belt and two of his recruiting classes settling into a campus routine. He and his staff are expected to put an even bigger imprint on the Mountaineers in 2009, which should impact White’s successor, senior Jarrett Brown. One of the nation’s better backups the last couple of years, he’ll have his chance to excel in an offense that’s expected to air it out a little more this fall.

The big spring question is ... Who’ll step up and assume a leadership role on offense? For the first time in five years, White won’t be on campus for West Virginia, and it’ll feel weird for a long time. The offensive line is being rebuilt. Noel Devine isn’t ready to take on the assignment. And Jock Sanders is currently serving an indefinite suspension for a DUI. If Brown isn’t ready to be the sparkplug on the field, in the huddle, and in the locker room, it could be an unusually long season for the Mountaineer offense.

The most important position to watch is ... the offensive line. For years, this is where West Virginia’s championships have been won. The Mountaineers have had a knack for taking marginal high school prospects, like Dan Mozes, Ryan Stanchek, and Greg Isdaner, and turning them into all-star performers. Well, they’ll have to keep that trend going in order to compensate for the loss of four of last year’s regulars. T Selvish Capers and C Eric Jobe are experienced returners, but sophomore G Josh Jenkins is the lineman who really has the staff giddy.

Spring attitude... The Mountaineers feel the Big East is rightfully theirs to win, and plan to take it back this season. In two years, West Virginia has lost White, head coach Rich Rodriguez, and RB Steve Slaton, producing a groundswell of critics, who are predicting an end to the prosperity. Stewart’s aw-shucks demeanor lost its charm right around the time the ‘eers were eliminated from the Big East race. A league title without White’s assistance is exactly what the coach needs to rekindle the spark with the locals.