Spring Preview 2009 - Big Ten

Posted Mar 12, 2009

The Big Ten might have problems, but there are several emerging superstars to watch like Wisconsin's John Clay, MSU's Greg Jones, and Illinois WR Arrelious Benn. Just as spring ball gets underway, here are the big questions, the most important positions and more for each Big Ten team in the CFN Spring Preview.

2009 Big Ten Spring Preview

By Pete Fiutak 

- 2009 Big Ten Spring - Does the Big Ten Stink?
- 2009 Early Lookaheads - Big Ten
- 2008 Big Ten Lookbacks & Recaps
- 2009 Recruiting Recap - Big Ten

Illinois   Begins: March 31   Game: April 25
The early spring buzz ... Off the field, the news mostly surrounded LB Martez Wilson’s stomach after being stabbed. He’s healed up and ready to go, and now he’ll be one of the leaders of a good-looking defense that has the most work to do at linebacker. While there might not be the excitement around the program there was last year following the run to the Rose Bowl, this could be one of the Big Ten’s bounce-back teams in what should be a down season for the conference. Now is when all the good recruiting classes are expected to pay off. On the field, the spotlight will be on offensive coordinator Mike Shultz who takes over for now-New Mexico head coach Mike Locksely. Don’t expect much of a change in style, but more will be asked for from the running game.
The big spring question is ... Where’s the team’s head? The Illini were more than good enough to go bowling last year but there were too many mistakes and too many missed opportunities. Good enough to be a hot Iowa team, Illinois came back the next week and clunked against Western Michigan and ended up getting blown away by Northwestern in the season finale. The team crumbled whenever there was the slightest bit of adversity, and now with a veteran squad returning, it needs to be tighter.
The most important position to watch is ... Running back. The Illini ran the ball far better than expected considering Rashard Mendenhall took off early for the NFL. Juice Williams did his part with his second straight season with more than 700 yards, while Daniel Dufrene was solid with 663 yards, but he didn’t score on the ground. Dufrene will be asked to do even more, while Jason Ford, who ran for 172 yards and three touchdowns against Indiana, but gained just 122 yards against everyone else, will look to be more than just a scorer as he pushes to take over in key situations. If these two shine, Williams’ life will be much easier.
Spring attitude... Be ready to hit the ground running. Missouri is in a major rebuilding phase, so it could be uh-oh time if the Illini can’t win the season-opener in St. Louis. The first three games of the Big Ten season: at Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State. Win two of those three and it’s game on for a possible run to the Big Ten title. Lose them all and it’s time to pray for the Alamo. Win them all and it’s time to give a serious thought about Pasadena and not just on January 1. Of course, that’s thinking way too big, but if the Illini can be ready and jelled to start the season, and if they can come away with an upset at Ohio State, this could be an interesting year.

Indiana  Begins: March 24   Game: April 18
The early spring buzz ... Despite a horrible 3-9 2008 season with only one win over an FBS team (Northwestern), there’s a positive vibe around the Hoosiers. The coaching staff came up with a surprisingly nice recruiting class, Kellen Lewis isn’t an off-the-field issue this year, and there’s a general sense that last season was mostly a disaster because of early injuries and an inability to ever play consistently from one quarter to the next. If everyone stays healthy, and if Lewis is a playmaker again, then it might not take much to get back to the bowl level of 2007.
The big spring question is ... Where’s Lewis going to play? The team’s most dynamic playmaker, Lewis was never quite right last season with various bumps and bruises. He’s a special player when he’s under center, but if Ben Chappell steps up his passing this off-season and becomes a better leader for the offense, Lewis could move to receiver or even running back for stretches just so he can get on the field and produce.  In a perfect world, IU finds a running back who can produce so Lewis can stick at quarterback.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive end. Safety will be a spring problem with Nick Polk and Austin Thomas hurt, running back will be focused on with Bryan Payton trying to show what he can do until Demetrius McCray is ready, but the key to the season will likely be the defensive line. Jammie Kirlew came up with an All-Big Ten caliber season, but Greg Middleton took a surprising step back after a huge 2007. If these two come out of the gate roaring, they’ll set the tone for the IU defense as the league’s best pair of ends.
Spring attitude... Get back to a bowl. It’ll take some work, but starting off the season against Eastern Kentucky, Western Michigan and Akron should help. To get a 13th game, the Hoosiers have to spend this spring working on the basics on defense. The front line will get into the backfield on a regular basis, but the veteran front seven has to focus on how to stop the run. The attitude has to be positive from the start, and there can’t be a major quarterback controversy or a slew of big injuries.

Iowa  Begins: March 25   Game: April 18
The early spring buzz ... Following a shocking turnaround season with nine wins and a New Year’s Day bowl, the Hawkeyes have to show some staying power. After a special year that got better and better as it went along, the team will be looking for new playmakers and new starters on the defensive front, while hoping for a few relative unknowns to step up and shine. With mediocre recruiting classes when it comes to talent, including this year’s haul, the program is able to get production out of players who normally wouldn’t fit anywhere else.
The big spring question is ... Who’ll take over for Greene? The 100-yard-a-game back will be sorely missed meaning more will be needed from QB Ricky Stanzi and the backups who were little used last year. Jewel Hampton is a good talent who wasn’t able to see too much time with Greene carrying the offense, but he still ran for 478 yards and five touchdowns. With a strong offensive line returning, Hampton could be a breakout star. Even so, the spotlight will be on Stanzi this spring to see how much he has progressed after having to battle for the job last year at this time.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive tackle. Hampton isn’t going to be Greene, but the running game will be fine. The big issue is in the middle of the defensive line where Mitch King and Matt Kroul might be irreplaceable. King never got the national spotlight, but he might have been the Big Ten’s best all-around defensive lineman last year. Karl Klug was a decent backup and should be fine with more time, but he’s only 255 pounds. Klug will be a factor, but it’ll be an open casting call for the two spots.
Spring attitude... September 26. With so much experience returning on defense and so much potential for the offense, Iowa should be one of the league’s top four teams going into the season. Whether or not the Hawkeyes can get to the Rose Bowl might be figured out on September in the Big Ten opener … in Happy Valley. The Big Ten road slate is as nasty as could possibly be with dates at Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State, but the team needs to get ready for the revenge game against Penn State first. Iowa likely can’t win the title without coming away with the win, so everything about spring ball, and the opening three games against Northern Iowa, Iowa State and Arizona, has to be about preparing for the Nittany Lions.

Michigan   Begins: March 24   Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... There might not be a more interesting team to keep an eye on this off-season. Rich Rodriguez was supposed to be granted a little bit of a grace period, but that all went out the window with the 3-9 season. There was an interesting recruiting class full of athletes and speed, a new defensive coordinator coming in (Greg Robinson, formerly the Syracuse head coach), and a major sense of urgency all across the board. The team is going back to the basics this spring with the defense starting from scratch, but all the focus will be on the offense. Rodriguez won’t be canned if he has another disastrous season, but he has to show that there are signs that things are pointed in the right direction. However, it’ll be another long, long year unless RichRod can answer one big question …
The big spring question is ... Is there a quarterback who can play? Everyone is saying all the right things about Nick Sheridan being the man to beat, but that’s lip-service. New recruit Tate Forcier has the weight of the entire program on his shoulders, and his legs, while Denard Robinson is a speedy, dangerous prospect who could’ve gone to Florida as a receiver or a defensive back. One of them had better look Pat White-like this off-season with Forcier needing to take the job by the horns this spring. Robinson won’t be joining the team until fall practice.
The most important position to watch is ... Running back. Obviously the quarterback situation is the most important issue, but the offense desperately needs a Steve Slaton to emerge. That could be Brandon Minor, who showed flashes of greatness at times but couldn’t stay healthy. There are several other options to keep an eye on, and it might be running back-by-committee at times, but there has to be more than 147 rushing yards per game no matter how the production comes.
Spring attitude... Don’t press. That’ll be tough considering the attention and focus on last year’s disaster, but with so many young players being thrown into the mix right away, and with more on the way this summer, it’s going to take a year before there’s any sort of consistency. The first four games of the year are at home, and while the Toledo loss last year showed that the program can’t take any MAC team lightly, only Notre Dame should be a problem before going to Michigan State and Iowa. A slow start would be disastrous for both the psyche and the record with Penn State, at Illinois, at Wisconsin and Ohio State still to deal with.

Michigan State  Begins: March 24   Game: April 25
The early spring buzz ... After a great season that saw the Spartans have a chance at the Big Ten title in the final week, they have to take another step forward by showing some consistency. It’s one thing to come up with a nice record, and it’s another to produce when new starters are needed at quarterback, running back, and on the defensive front. After pulling in a tremendous recruiting class, this is becoming one of the Big Ten’s hot programs with the potential to have the staying power to be a yearly player in the title race. However, this year could be a bridge until the really big things start to happen.
The big spring question is ... Can the Spartans beat a good team? The best win last year was a 16-13 home battle with Iowa, and that was just before the Hawkeyes started to figure out what it was doing. Yeah, there were wins over Wisconsin and Notre Dame, but those only helped to prove that MSU was just good enough to be above the mediocre. In the four games against the top-shelf teams, the Spartans lost to Cal, Ohio State, Penn State and Georgia. Three of those games were on the road, but the fourth, against the Buckeyes, was a 45-7 steamrolling.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. The winner of the derby will have a rising, talented receiving corps to work with.  Kirk Cousins was the backup last season, and he was solid completing 32-of-43 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. However, he’ll have to battle to move up to the full-time No. 1 slot with Keith Nichol, who originally committed to MSU, left for Oklahoma, and then came back when some guy named Bradford started to play well, adding more mobility to the mix.
Spring attitude... The program has gone through worse. The one thing head coach Mark Dantonio has been able to do above all else is kill the flake factor. This isn’t your older brother’s Michigan State team that ran and hid under the piano at the slightest bit of adversity. Needing to replace RB Javon Ringer, QB Brian Hoyer, SS Otis Wiley and DT Justin Kirshaw is hardly that big a deal with the talent level improving. If the backfield can be a positive, it’s all there for a run at the Big Ten title with no Ohio State on the schedule and the four league road games against Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue.

Minnesota   Begins: March 24   Game: April 25
The early spring buzz ... All the excitement is about the new, shiny stadium that takes the Gophers outdoors again and will potentially give the program a shot in the arm. Tim Brewster had to come up with a few new assistants with defensive coordinator Ted Roof leaving for Auburn. Kevin Cosgrove comes in from Nebraska to combine with Ronnie Lee to handle the aggressive defense, while Jedd Fisch will take over the offense after serving as the wide receiver coach for the Denver Broncos last year.
The big spring question is ... How did the team that was so good over the first half of the season become so bad in the second half? The defense that was forcing turnovers at an alarming rate struggled to come up with the same big plays, while the tight offense that didn’t give away a thing started to make mistakes. It also didn’t help that Eric Decker, the team’s star receiver, was hampered by an ankle injury after the Northwestern game. There were ten turnovers over the final five games and 11 in the first seven, but the big issue was the lack of run defense. Over the first seven games, Minnesota gave up more than 150 yards once, and that was the lone loss coming to Ohio State. Over the five game losing streak to close things out, the Gophers gave up 200 yards or more three times and got lit up through the air in the other two games against Kansas and Wisconsin.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Running back is a vital position to keep an eye on this spring as the Gophers search for a No. 1 option to balance out the attack, and the defense needs to get its mojo back with a veteran group returning, but the quarterback will get all the headlines. No, it’s not Adam Weber, who’ll be the starter once he returns from a shoulder problem. This off-season it’ll be the unleashing of MarQueis Gray, the superstar recruit who wasn’t allowed on the team last year after an issue with some test scores. Weber is good, but Gray is the type of player who could turn out to be the face of the program sooner than later.
Spring attitude... Get off to a hot start. After the way last season ended, the Gophers need to come up with a few early wins to show that things have changed. A loss at Syracuse would be a disastrous opening, and there needs to be a win over Air Force to open up the new TCF Bank Stadium before California comes to town. The Penn State and Ohio State games would be likely losses anyway, so getting them back-to-back on the road isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The schedule isn’t all that bad, so the potential is there for another bowl season as long as the team is as strong as it was early on in 2008.

Northwestern   Begins: March 30   Game: April 25
The early spring buzz ... The program is starting to become consistently strong. Pat Fitzgerald has gotten past the newness and the growing pains after being thrown into the job under the harshest of circumstances. Now, the Wildcats have depth, talent, and the expectations that a lot more can be done after getting to the Alamo Bowl last season. Injury-wise, all-star DE Corey Wootton, who hurt his knee in the Missouri game, is expected to be back by the start of the season, while LB Malcolm Arrington wasn’t able to get a sixth year of eligibility after suffering a  knee injury.  
The big spring question is ... Can Mike Kafka throw the ball? C.J. Bacher was the steady leader for the offense over the last few years, but Kafka provided a spark for the offense for two games when Bacher was hurt. Kafka is a good passer, he completed 12-of-16 passes in the win over Minnesota, but his strength is running with 217 yards against the Gophers and 83 against Ohio State. He’ll have to be a steady passer from the start this spring with a young and untested receiving corps to work with. Even so …
The most important position to watch is ... Running back. A No. 1 receiver has to emerge, but the real concern will be at running back with Tyrell Sutton and Omar Conteh gone. Stephen Simmons was counted on late in the season when injuries hit Sutton and Conteh, and he was decent running for 178 yards and two touchdowns against Ohio State, Michigan, and Illinois. Mostly a kickoff returner so far, this is his chance to show he can to do more and he can be the back the offense can count on.
Spring attitude... Live up to the internal expectations. Fitzgerald is unblinking when he says he believes Northwestern can go to the Rose Bowl and be a regular in the Big Ten title chase. Maybe it’s because Fitzgerald was able to see that happen as a player, and maybe it’s because he really does believe he has the pieces in place to make Northwestern become dangerous. The schedule is there to demand another bowl bid with the toughest game over the first half of the season a home date against Minnesota and with no Ohio State or Michigan to deal with.

Ohio State   Begins: March 30   Game: April 25
The early spring buzz ... There might be major turnover to deal with on both sides of the ball, and there might not be a recognizable returning starter on defense, but help is on the way. Even with the struggles in big games over the last few seasons, elite recruits are still flocking to Columbus in droves. If Ohio State wasn’t the big dog of the Big Ten before, it has all but assured itself of being the one to beat for the next few years with yet another tremendous recruiting class. The big haul of new four and five-star talents means this spring could be more spirited than normal. Last year was about fine tuning with all the veterans returning from the team that lost to LSU in the 2008 BCS Championship game. This year is about filling holes, and there will be several players coming in this summer with a realistic goal of being in the mix when Navy comes to town on September 5th.
The big spring question is ... How will Terrelle Pryor advance and improve? Kept under wraps when it came to the passing game last year, Pryor will have to show early on that he can do more to push the ball down the field, and he’ll have to show he can do it without Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline to work with. Pryor has been doing his part to work on his mechanics and his consistency, and he should be doing a lot more when he hits the practice field.
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive tackle. The pass protection was miserable last season as defenses teed off when Todd Boeckman was in the game and was able to get to Pryor on a regular basis. Even though Alex Boone had a rough year, he’s still an NFL talent who’ll be missed. Bryant Browning was a starter on the right side, but J.B. Shugarts, Josh Kerr and Mike Adams are big blockers with upside. Whoever gets the starting job will have to give Pryor more time.
Spring attitude... USC on September 12. USC on September 12. USC on September 12. The Trojans have to do even more rebuilding than the Buckeyes do and they’re not likely to be fully jelled when they come to Columbus early in the season. If Ohio State is ever going to shake the recently earned tag of not being able to win the big one, it has to hold serve on its own turf against the Pac 10’s superpower. Outside of a road trip to Penn State in early November, Ohio State will be the favorite in every other game, so if it can pull off the win over the Trojans, a 9-0 start is almost a lock before dealing with the Nittany Lions.

Penn State   Begins: March 30   Game: April 25
The early spring buzz ... Sean Lee is back … soon. Penn State might suffer some major losses on defense, losing Aaron Maybin, Maurice Evans, Josh Gaines, Tyrell Sales, and the entire secondary, but it gets back, arguably, the best linebacker in college football. Sean Lee was expected to be a sure-thing All-American and the leader of last year’s defense before he tragically tore his ACL in spring ball of last year. He won’t be playing this spring, still taking it easy and working out on his own, but he’ll be back and ready to roll this fall when he moves to the inside. It’s not a stretch to say his return could be the difference between Penn State being an also-ran and a possible Big Ten champion.
The big spring question is ... Just how stocked are the shelves? The recruiting has been good, but there’s a lot of big problems and concerns. The defense suffered some major losses last year and still turned out to be special. That’s nothing like the replacements needed this year, while the offense will have even bigger problems with three stars gone off the line and the long-time starting receiving trio of Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood and Deon Butler are gone. Penn State usually needs a year or two to build up the program for a huge run, and last year was that big season. However, the Big Ten is average and is there for the taking.
The most important position to watch is ... Backup quarterback. The defense, even with all the new starters, will be more than fine. The receiving corps needs a lot of time and will be a work in progress, and three new starters are needed to replace center A.Q. Shipley, OT Gerald Cardogan, and OG Rich Ohrnberger. However, the biggest spotlight could be on Kevin Newsome, the star recruit who’ll be thrown to the wolves right away to get him ready in case there are any problems with Daryll Clark. Clark is the unquestioned team leader and will be the star of the show, but last year the team needed Pat Devlin to come up with a big late drive to pull out the win over Ohio State. Devlin bailed, transferring to Delaware, meaning that Newsome has to prove he can handle the work this April. If he can’t, the offense might have to be more conservative to keep Clark from getting popped.
Spring attitude... Win the Big Ten title again. There might be ten-mile-wide holes to fill, and this isn’t going to be anywhere near the team that went to the Rose Bowl last season, but that doesn’t mean this can’t be a special year. The schedule could not possibly be more favorable, until late, with the toughest non-conference game a home date with Syracuse. In Big Ten play, the road game at Illinois isn’t going to be easy, and going to Michigan and Northwestern won’t be walks in the park, but Penn State will be favored in every game until the early November game against Ohio State, which will be a toss up. The fly in the ointment could be the regular season-ender at Michigan State, but if Penn State wants to win a title, that’s a game it needs to come up with.

Purdue   Begins: March 25   Game: April 18
The early spring buzz ... Danny Hope is ready to hit the ground running. After being part of the transfer process last year during Joe Tiller’s final tour of duty, Hope was able to go out and hit the recruiting trail hard and he’s taking charge of the program by naming some new assistants. Most notably, Donn Landholm will take over the defense. While Hope was brought on in the first place to continue the style of the Tiller era, this spring will be all about the new team with a new energy. There will be plenty of spirited position battles and this should be a lively off-season.
The big spring question is ... How is Hope going to do things differently? He’s not going to change things offensively too much, if at all, because he’s a Tiller guy. Hope’s real worth should come down the road when it comes to recruiting. He did a decent job this year and he should be more aggressive to bring in more talents rather than just pick and choose guys to fit the Purdue system. Tiller never believed he could get the top-shelf talents to West Lafayette, and he did a great job of developing the talent he brought in. Hope will try to own Indiana and will try to make a bigger push in the Midwest.  
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Purdue needs to find a steady running back, could use more explosion at receiver, and needs a few more killers to emerge on defense, but all the focus will be on the quarterback situation. Curtis Painter is gone, and while Joey Elliott was the top backup over the last few years, he’s hardly a lock to win the job. Justin Siller is a dynamic option who’ll add far more to the attack, but he’ll have to be consistent. This will be the first big decision in the Hope era, and the last thing he needs is to have an ongoing controversy.
Spring attitude... Go bowling. This was a bad team last year that couldn’t do much against the better teams and struggled against the bad ones. Even so, there are just enough winnable home games to match the four-win total of last year without a problem. Getting to six wins will require a few upsets, and they’ll need to come early with a tough second half of the season. Even with all the replacements, there should be just enough firepower to show a bit more pop.

Wisconsin   Begins: March 24   Game: April 18
The early spring buzz ... All talk of Bret Bielema being on a hot seat after a tremendously disappointing season has been squashed for the time being after his contract has been extended through 2013. Now he has to get the program back to the level that made New Year’s Day bowl appearances a yearly occurrence. 2008 was supposed to be the big season with so many veterans returning and so much promise that the next step was going to be taken on the way to the BCS. It didn’t happen, and now there’s a ton of turnover and plenty of big decisions needing to be made at several key spots. This will be a very, very interesting off-season with several good position battles.
The big spring question is ... Can anyone tackle? For all the issues all across the board in last year’s disappointment, the biggest problems were in the defensive meltdowns against Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa and Florida State. The defensive line was dominated in key stretches, and now some big replacements need to be made with tackles Jason Chapman and Mike Newkirk gone along with end Matt Shaugnessy. After last year’s problems in the big games, and with little pass rush, expect plenty of work on being more aggressive and a lot tougher up front.
The most important position to watch is ... Quarterback. Allan Evridge became the scapegoat for all the problems early on, but the losses weren’t his fault. He wasn’t good, but he wasn’t the only problem. In came Dustin Sherer to provide a bit more consistency, even if there wasn’t any pop to the passing game, and he showed severe limitations throwing outside the hashmarks. Even though Evridge is gone, Sherer is hardly the sure-thing to be the No. 1 guy going into the fall with Curt Phillips and Scott Tolzien neck-and-neck options. True freshman Jon Budmayr might be the No. 3 going into spring ball, but he’ll get his chance to show what he can do this spring after enrolling early.
Spring attitude... It’s time to flex more muscle. It might be easy to say that last year could’ve been far different had the Badgers been able to avoid the collapse against Michigan, stopped Terrelle Pryor late in the Ohio State loss, and not given up a big late pass in the loss to Michigan State, but being so close to winning those three games only goes to show just how galling some of the near misses were. The Badgers would’ve lost to Cal Poly at home if it weren’t for three missed extra points. Minnesota struggled against everyone late in the year but gave the Badgers a push in Camp Randall. Even the 38-17 opening day win over Akron didn’t tell the whole story. To set the tone, UW needs to come out and blast Northern Illinois, Fresno State, and Wofford at home in the first three games before hosting Michigan State. That’ll be far easier said than done.