Spring Preview 2010 - The Big East

Posted Mar 17, 2010

The Big East should better than ever led by a loaded group of backs. Louisville's Victor Anderson, Pitt's Dion Lewis, and West Virginia's Noel Devine are just a few of the interesting stars to watch. Just as spring ball gets underway, here are the big questions, the most important positions and more for each Big East team.

Spring Preview 2010

Big East Spring Preview

2010 Spring Preview 
- 2010 Spring Question ... Just how close the Big East has come to a national title? 
- 2010 Big East Player You Must Know - Connecticut RB Jordan Todman 
- 2010 Big East Offseason Lookback & Lookahead 
- 2010 Big East Schedule Breakdown
- 2010 Big East Composite Schedule  
- 2010 Big East Pre-Preseason Rankings 
- 2010 Big East Recruiting Rankings 
By Richard Cirminiello

Spring Practice Begins:
March 17 Game: April 24

The early spring buzz ... There might not be a school in America with more of a split personality than Cincinnati. Despite being the back-to-back Big East champion, so much has changed since December that an underdog role might seem fitting. Gone from a team that swept the regular season are head coach Brian Kelly and his staff, QB Tony Pike, playmaker Mardy Gilyard, and half of a leaky defense. Still, new coach Butch Jones is talking tough, flashing the confidence of a coach who feels his team can make it three-in-a-row. If QB Zach Collaros, last year's emergency sparkplug, can pick up where he left off in 2009, the Bearcats could be halfway to another impressive rebound.

The big spring question is ... Did the magic of the last three seasons join Kelly in South Bend? Put differently, can Jones keep the momentum going, much the way he did after succeeding Kelly at Central Michigan? Although there's no way for either question to be definitively answered over one month in the spring, you could start to get an idea whether the kids are buying into his message and the philosophy of his new staff. Unlike three years ago, Kelly is now a nationally-known figure, with much larger shoes to be filled.

The most important position to watch is ... the defensive line. Not only does Cincy lose productive ends Ricardo Mathews and Alex Daniels to graduation, but switching back to a 4-3 creates a need for more bodies. After Derek Wolfe, a budding star on the inside, the ‘Cats will be putting out help wanted ads, especially after struggling versus the run. DE Dan Giordano and DT Brandon Mills impressed in their debuts, and it's possible super-sized LB Curtis Young will be asked to put his hand back in the dirt.

Spring attitude... One of Jones' biggest challenges will be to prevent the onset of schizophrenia. While a big chunk of this roster has played for a championship team, it could also take a while to adapt to life after Kelly. He had that big of an impact on these Bearcats. Cincy has enough parts on offense to keep piling up points, especially now that USC transfer Vidal Hazelton joins an already talented receiving corps. Continuity rests with a defense that got abused down the stretch and is missing six starters.

Spring Practice Begins: March 16 Game: April 17

The early spring buzz ... Never one to sit tight or rest on his laurels, Randy Edsall has been busy this offseason, replenishing his staff and treating the depth chart like a chess board. The coach has a track record for successfully moving kids around in order to maximize their value. On defense, he hopes to offset the loss of leading sacker Lindsey Witten by moving Greg Lloyd from linebacker once he returns from ACL surgery. Taking Lloyd's spot in the middle will be Scott Lutrus, the former starter at strongside. And for good measure, converted S Kijuan Dabney will compete with young Jory Johnson for the opening at strongside. If there's a better combination out there, Edsall will work to find it in the spring.

The big spring question is ... How much better will the quarterbacks be? Yes, Zach Frazer and Cody Endres made strides a year ago, but the Huskies need them to be even better in 2010 in order to achieve a higher degree of balance. Just because the offense will be built around Jordan Todman and the running game, doesn't mean Connecticut won't try to get the young receivers more involved in the offense. Frazer played his best ball toward the end of the year, and Endres is back from shoulder surgery to keep applying pressure.

The most important position to watch is ... the secondary. Not only do the Huskies lose starters Robert McClain and Robert Vaughn, but underrated assistant Scott Lakatos is now a Georgia Bulldog. Lakatos consistently did a brilliant job of coaching up what others believed to be marginal talent. Also factoring in last fall's tragic murder of CB Jasper Howard, Connecticut will have to dig deep for replacements and lean on a slew of kids with limited experience.

Spring attitude... The Huskies can't wait to get back to work. And who can blame them? They'll begin the spring with a ton of momentum, courtesy of a four-game winning streak and a bowl upset of South Carolina, and high hopes for 2010. There's enough talent, especially at linebacker with Lutrus and Lawrence Wilson, for Connecticut to be right in the thick of a wide-open Big East race this fall.

Spring Practice Begins: March 24 Game: April 16

The early spring buzz ... Now that the storm has passed, it's time for the healing to begin. Steve Kragthorpe was an unmitigated disaster at Louisville, leaving behind a mess that Charlie Strong and his staff will begin trying to clean up. There's extensive work to be done on a roster that's painfully short on depth and star power. Strong will spend most of his first spring getting a better read on the personnel he inherited and rolling out new systems on both sides of the ball. On offense, former UNLV coach and Urban Meyer assistant Mike Sanford will be installing a spread attack that'll require a more athletic quarterback than the Cards have had the last few years.

The big spring question is ... Who gets first dibs at running Sanford's offense? It's been a couple of years since Brian Brohm was in the saddle, but it feels a whole lot longer. The Cardinals have been feeble at the position the last two seasons, opening the door for a heated battle that'll last well into the summer. Adam Froman, Justin Burke, and Will Stein all started games in 2009, but none distinguished himself, putting all three on relatively equal footing in the eyes of a new staff.

The most important position to watch is ... linebacker. While the entire defense needs Strong's attention, the linebackers are feeling particularly needy after losing top tacklers Jon Dempsey and Chris Campa. Considering how often running plays get beyond the first line of defense, it's critical for Louisville to develop linebackers who can limit the damage. Seniors Brandon Heath and Antwon Canady are logical choices to be promoted on the outside, but a sure-tackler on the inside needs to be developed in the spring.

Spring attitude... Although no one is expecting miracles in Strong's first season, the positive vibe and sense of relief that comes with a new staff is undeniable. Absolutely no one's job is safe, so bank on plenty of competition and some first-year players to work their way into the two-deep. Louisville can revel in the return of RB Victor Anderson, the program's best overall player, who was limited by nagging injuries to just 89 carries.

Spring Practice Begins: March 18 Game: April 17

The early spring buzz ... Beating North Carolina in the bowl game was essential for a team that ended the regular season with crushing losses to West Virginia and Cincinnati. While it's not as if the Panthers would still be dwelling on the past in April, the 2010 outlook is just a little brighter now that they're not riding a three-game losing streak. Of course, it also helps to have your best player on offense and defense returning. Dion Lewis is back for an encore after rushing for 1,799 yards and 17 scores in one of the great debuts ever for a running back. On the other side of the ball, Pitt got a gift when DE Greg Romeus opted to return to school and hold off on the NFL Draft.

The big spring question is ... Can sophomore Tino Sunseri hold off senior Pat Bostick in the quest to replace Bill Stull at quarterback? Stull wound up being one of the unsung heroes of last year's 10-win season. The Panthers need someone to feed dynamic WR Jonathan Baldwin and prevent defenses from stacking the box. Bostick actually has more game experience, but Sunseri was the backup a year ago and has the greater overall upside as a downfield passer in this offense.

The most important position to watch is ... the interior of both lines. The Panthers pride themselves on their line depth, which will be tested in 2010. From the offense, both guards and starting C Robb Houser have graduated. From the defense, both tackles, including Big East Defensive Player of the Year Mick Williams, are gone. While Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein are being counted on to step up on defense, the battles on the offensive line should be fierce and last well into the summer.

Spring attitude... It took a few years to get the engine cranking under Dave Wannstedt, but after 19 wins over two seasons, the Panthers now expect to compete for Big East championships. With Lewis and Romeus providing the foundation, Pitt will spend the offseason building on their backs, with the quarterbacks, cornerbacks, and both lines receiving most of the staff's time. If patches can be applied, there's no reason this program can't end the year in a BCS bowl game.

Spring Practice Begins: March 23 Game: April 24

The early spring buzz ... Greg Schiano will have an unusually full plate this offseason, looking to replace 10 starters from a year ago. The good news is that the cornerstones of the offense, QB Tom Savage, RB Joe Martinek, and do-everything WR Mohamed Sanu, were all underclassmen a year ago. The concerns? The Scarlet Knights need to replace three starters on the offensive line and the back seven of the defense looks like a whiffle ball. Schiano has made sure there's a base of talent in Piscataway, but getting beyond the middle of the Big East pack requires building on that over the next few months.

The big spring question is ... How much has Savage grown since his debut season? There's no doubt that he's the franchise at Rutgers, a heralded recruit who just kept better after becoming the starter. Young players often make their biggest strides between their first and second seasons. If that applies to Savage, the Scarlet Knights will have a balanced attack that's capable of beating opponents through the air and on the ground with Martinek and De'Antwan Williams.

The most important position to watch is ... offensive tackle. The Scarlet Knights are losing a couple of good ones in Anthony Davis and Kevin Haslam, who'll both play in the NFL. After allowing way too many sacks last season, Rutgers will be hard-pressed to improve in pass protection if the replacements can't soar past expectations. All eyes this spring will be on Art Forst, who might move from guard, Desmond Stapleton, and Devon Watkis, among others competing to fill the openings.

Spring attitude... As usual, the non-conference schedule is tailor-made for bowl eligibility, but one of these years, Rutgers hopes to break through and win the Big East. While there's certainly no shame in five consecutive bowl appearances, the program has a nagging desire to elevate beyond just the International Bowl or St. Petersburg Bowl. If this is going to be that breakthrough season, the Knights will need to plug a bunch of holes and build a line that keeps Savage from being concussed in a second straight year.

South Florida
Spring Practice Begins: March 16 Game: April 17

The early spring buzz ... Although it'll be weird at first without Jim Leavitt, the father of USF football, the buzz about Skip Holtz's arrival is extremely positive. For all he did to put the Bulls on the national radar, Leavitt had also hit a wall with the program. Holtz, who had elevated East Carolina to back-to-back Conference USA championships, could be just the guy to turn South Florida into a Big East power. He's a proven leader, with access to better talent than he had in Greenville, which has the folks in Tampa borderline giddy about the future. In the short-term, it'll all be about restocking the defense and getting everyone familiar with a new system and a more conservative coaching style.

The big spring question is ... Is South Florida rebuilding or retooling? Of course, no one will know for sure until the season begins, but you should start getting signals of its 2010 potential in March and April. There's clearly work to be done on a defense looking to replace seven starters, many of whom will continue playing on Sundays. It's a good thing Holtz and his assistants have had success on that side of the ball in the past because all of their experience and acumen will be needed this fall.

The most important position to watch is ... defensive end. After being an area of strength for so long, the Bulls could be light at defensive end for a change. The graduation of George Selvie and early exit of Jason Pierre-Paul deprives the defense of last year's two best edge rushers. With a rebuilt secondary likely to be more vulnerable as well, it'll be incumbent upon Craig Marshall, Ryne Giddins, David Bedford, and Patrick Hampton to perform with a next-man-in mentality.

Spring attitude... There's cautious optimism in Tampa these days. While the hiring of Holtz has been almost universally praised, he is taking over a team with a lot of issues on defense. In the early going, the Bulls might be forced to lean a little heavier on multi-dimensional QB B.J. Daniels, RB Mike Ford, and the rest of an offense returning just about everyone from a year ago.

Spring Practice Begins: March 22 Game: April 17

The early spring buzz ... You just knew last year was going to be a painful one in Upstate New York. The staff was new and the roster had a revolving door, with players exiting frequently. Still, the Orange survived Doug Marrone's debut season, won a game or two more than expected, and should be better going forward for the experience. Not only does the coach have a much better feel for his personnel, but the players are intimately aware of what it takes to be a success in this system. Marrone also added a new title in the offseason, firing Mitch Browning and taking over as the coordinator and play-caller for the offense.

The big spring question is ... Is anyone going to mount a serious challenge to Ryan Nassib at quarterback? It appears that Nassib, Greg Paulus' backup in 2009, will be under center when the Orange opens the season. He easily has the most potential and the most experience of any of the holdovers. However, Marrone wants him to earn it and make strides in his decision-making from a year ago. In other words, if he leaves the door open, redshirt freshman Charley Loeb or James Jarrett is liable to take advantage.

The most important position to watch is ... defensive tackle. Syracuse loses a ton of experience and one fantastic anchor at the position. An All-Big East first teamer in each of the last two seasons, Arthur Jones was a key reason why the Orange finished No. 13 against the run a year ago. Maintaining that trend and supporting dynamite linebackers Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue will require Cory Boatman, Oliver Haney, and Bud Tribbey to flourish in expanded roles up front.

Spring attitude... For those who survived last season at Syracuse, there's a general feeling that brighter days lay ahead. There's no doubt that this program is better prepared to compete in the Big East than it has been in years. There's a nice mixture of veterans, like RB Delone Carter and DE Chandler Jones, and youth, such as S Shamarko Thomas and WR Alec Lemon. If Nassib can deliver in his first year as the starter, bowl eligibility is no longer a pipe dream.

West Virginia
Spring Practice Begins: April 6 Game: April 30

The early spring buzz ... For the first time in five years, the Mountaineers won't have an established presence at quarterback. Pat White is entering his second year with the Miami Dolphins and fifth-year senior Jarrett Brown has exhausted his eligibility. That leaves sophomore Geno Smith, who was poised in spurts as a rookie, to take command of a team that has plenty of experience on both sides of the ball. His development is obviously paramount to West Virginia's immediate success, which makes the broken bone in his foot all the more unsettling. Bill Stewart has actually pushed the spring schedule back solely to ensure that Smith will be available for all 15 practices.

The big spring question is ... Will Smith be ready to hit the ground running? There's no doubt that this team is built for a Big East championship, especially after big-play RB Noel Devine and WR Jock Sanders decided to return for their senior years. However, a raw second-year quarterback, with 49 career passing attempts, could complicate those expectations. From the staff to the supporting cast, everyone in Morgantown will be joining hands between now and September to make sure that Smith doesn't wind up becoming the fly in the Mountaineer ointment.

The most important position to watch is ... wide receiver. Although Sanders is back, West Virginia lost its top field-stretcher, Alric Arnett, to graduation. The slots are fine and Bradley Starks should step up at one outside position, but what happens on the other side? The coaches are cautiously optimistic that redshirt freshman Logan Heastie begins to bloom. One of the highest-rated recruits to ever choose Morgantown, he has the size and speed to really open up the field for the jackrabbits.

Spring attitude... Inexperienced quarterback or not, it's time for West Virginia to rise again and become the class of the Big East. Sure, Smith is the one potential stumbling block if he fails to develop quickly enough, but it's hard to find a weakness on the rest of the team. Both lines are terrific, the defense will be among the league's best, and there are enough playmakers to make life simpler for the quarterback. In his third try, Stewart has few excuses for not winning a title in 2010.