Spring Preview 2010 - Big Ten
Ricky Stanzi, Tate Forcier, & Keith Cousins
Ricky Stanzi, Tate Forcier, & Keith Cousins
Posted Mar 23, 2010

The Big Ten appears to have come back around, but several teams have major quarterback concerns. Could that mean that Iowa, Michigan, and Michigan State can take advantage? As spring ball is rolling, here are the big questions, the most important positions and more for each Big 10 team.

Spring Preview 2010

Big Ten Spring Preview - Part 1

2010 Spring Preview 
- 2010 Big Ten Spring Preview - Part 2 (Northwestern through Wisconsin) 
- 2010 Big Ten Player You Must Know - Iowa S Tyler Sash 
- 2010 Spring Question ... Just how hot is the Big Ten for expansion? 
- 2010 Big Ten Offseason Lookback & Lookahead 
- 2010 Big Ten Schedule Breakdown
- 2010 Big Ten Composite Schedule  
- 2010 Big Ten Pre-Preseason Rankings 
- 2010 Big Ten Recruiting Rankings 
By Pete Fiutak

Part One - Illinois through Michigan State

Spring Practice Begins: March 30  Game: April 24

The early spring buzz: There aren't any excuses. Head coach Ron Zook is saying all the right things about how Illinois should be great and that all the problems of the past few years were merely bumps in the road. While there isn't open talk about Zook being in a do-or-die year as far as his job, the pressure is on to show that things are pointed in the right direction. Basically, there's a lot riding on a good year, and there's a lot riding on the evaluation of some key players in key positions this spring.
The big spring question is … what will be done with the defense. The offense was in the team photo for the honor of being the biggest disappointment of 2009, but the defense was an even bigger disaster. Even when Illinois was truly awful a few years back, the defense was plucky and kept the team in games. Last year's D was simply bad, and now it'll be up to new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning to breathe some life into this group. There are athletes and there are good talents to build around, helped by the return of LB Martez Wilson from a neck injury, but there's a ton of work to be done.
The most important position to watch is … Quarterback. Juice Williams was the Illinois quarterback, for the most part, for the last four years and was the signature player during good times and bad (and yes, over Rashard Mendenhall), and when he wasn't the main man it was Eddie McGee. Now McGee will likely spend his time at receiver with the hope that Jacob Charest can be the type of passer who finally takes advantage of all the Illinois receiver speed. Freshmen Nathan Scheelhaase and Chandler Whitmer will get looks, but this is Charest's job, and team, to lose.
Spring attitude: Nobody believes in us. The most tired of sports clichés will apply to the Illini team in transition, but unlike the last two years when the athletic and talented teams underachieved, this year's group won't have any pressure whatsoever. Getting by Missouri, something the good teams of the past few years haven't been able to do, is a must with Ohio State, at Penn State and at Michigan State to kick off the Big Ten schedule a few weeks later, so getting the right pieces in place this spring is a must.

Spring Practice Begins: March 23   Game: April 17

The early spring buzz: There's talk that this has the potential to be the strongest Hoosier team in years. There are massive holes to fill on defense, but the offense is full of veterans to go along with enough talented young players to finally make a push to be more than just the 11th best program in the Big Ten. The team wasn't as bad as the record indicated, and now the potential is there to start winning … really.
The big spring question is … How will the defense be better with so many key losses? From Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton on the line, to Will Patterson and Matt Mayberry at linebacker, to safeties Nick Polk and Austin Thomas, IU didn't just lose a slew of top starters; it lost some fringe-NFL talents. Even with all of those stars in place, the Hoosiers still finished tenth in the Big Ten in both scoring and total defense. The defense will have to simply hang on with an offense that should be far, far better than last year, but some new stars will have to emerge right away.
The most important position to watch is … Safety. IU has a good linebacker to work around in Tyler Replogle, and the tackles should be just good enough to allow Deonte Mack, Fred Jones, Darius Johnson, and Terrance Thomas to grow into their roles on the end, but replacing Polk and Thomas, along with backups Matt Kurz and Collin Taylor, will be harder, even though the secondary struggled throughout last year. Wide receiver Mitchell Evans, who caught 33 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns last year, will move over to try to help the cause at strong safety, while Chris Adkins will get the first look at free safety.
Spring attitude: Bowl or bust. Starting with Towson, Western Kentucky, and Akron should provide a nice base of three wins, and there's still Michigan at home, Arkansas State, at Illinois, Northwestern, and at Purdue to provide hope for another three. If nothing else, IU football should be fun with eight starters returning on offense including all the key skill players. Four of last year's eight losses were by three points or fewer, and with a better team returning there's no reason not to expect a 13th game.

Spring Practice Begins: March 24 Game: April 17

The early spring buzz: This is a hot program again. After a few years when it seemed like the Kirk Ferentz era had cooled off, now Iowa is a big deal after winning 11 games and a BCS bowl. Ferentz is suddenly turned into a genius again, there are enough veterans returning to create a few whispers about being a BCS Championship sleeper, and there's a general feeling around the insiders that the team and the coaching staff are good enough to overcome any personnel obstacle.
The big spring question is … is Iowa a mirage? Yes, good teams find ways to win, but average teams that stand on their heads eventually get exposed. Iowa has been able to avoid major problems over the last two years, but if you think you can win the Big Ten title by finishing tenth in total offense, tenth in scoring offense, tenth in rushing, and by hoping for mini-miracles like the blocked kicks against Northern Iowa and the last-second comeback against Michigan State, there's an Outback Bowl waiting for you.
The most important position to watch is … Offensive tackle. Bryan Bulaga might be the first offensive lineman taken in the 2010 NFL Draft, and he'll certainly go in the top 20 picks, if not in the top five, and Kyle Calloway was an all-star caliber right tackle who'll find a spot in The League. Even so, the Iowa O line was awful in pass protection and did next to nothing for the running game for long stretches. The interior should be fine, and Ferentz is always terrific at filling in the gaps at tackle, but if there's one thing that could kill the season early on, this will be it.
Spring attitude: Don't get cocky. Yeah, everyone is back to a backfield that looks great on paper. The receivers should be fine, the O line will be good in time, and the defense will be terrific with two sure-thing All-Americans in safety Tyler Sash and end Adrian Clayborn. Throw in a schedule with road games at Arizona, Michigan, Indiana, Northwestern, and Minnesota, and it'll be tempting to book tickets for Pasadena right now. However, this should be a fine-line team that's good enough to run the table, but with enough question marks to blow a home game or two against a Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State or Ohio State. In other words, Iowa can't be a part of the preseason lovefests held in its honor.

Spring Practice Begins: March 14   Game: April 17

The early spring buzz: Many teams will have the spotlight in this spring, but almost no team will be as closely watched when it comes to time on the field. After the fiasco with the alleged overwork of the players under Rich Rodriguez, extra time isn't going to be an issue. If the first year under RichRod was a transition and Year Two was pressure packed, then the tone around this year's spring can only be described as condition critical.
The big spring question is … is this thing ever going to work? The defense has been the bigger disaster, but that's been overshadowed by a spread offense that hasn't exploded like it was supposed to. While the Wolverine offense has been balanced, it has hardly been devastating. Now it's time for the machine to really hum, and if the numbers start coming and there's a sign that the attack can eventually be special, that will be a good argument for Rodriguez's camp to use for why patience needs to be more of a virtue around Ann Arbor.
The most important position to watch is … Quarterback. Rodriguez supposedly had his guy in Tate Forcier from last year's recruiting class, and while he's a baller, he got beaten up. Denard Robinson simply isn't good enough at quarterback to entrust the offense to him for this must-win year, and his talents can be better used elsewhere. Meanwhile, super-recruit Devin Gardner might be the special spread quarterback who can be the main man, but he's going to have to do something truly special to beat out Forcier.
Spring attitude: Use the negativity. Rodriguez hasn't been given any sort of a chance by the fan base, even though the program had to rebuild and retool and is just now working with the right parts to do what's needed. The schedule couldn't work out better, the offense should be improved, and the defense can't be worse. Now the team has to take on an attitude that it can be better than all the predictions and all the naysayers. If not, then the whole thing will start from scratch next year (cough … Les Miles … cough).

Michigan State
Spring Practice Begins: March 23   Game: April 24

The early spring buzz:
The party won't end. The infamous rumble on November 24th that gutted the team before the Alamo Bowl loss to Texas Tech continues to screw up the program with receiver Fred Smith sentenced to four days in jail and offensive tackle J'Michael Deane got a year of probation. That brings the grand total to 11 players pleading guilty, and while it shouldn't have too much of an effect on the season, it continues to be a cloud that hangs over the program this offseason.
The big spring question is … will the controversy become the type of thing that brings the entire team together? This is a good enough team to be in the hunt for the Big Ten title, and sometimes it takes an outside force that galvanizes and focuses a team to become something special. In the end it all comes down to blocking and tackling, but all the players will be asked questions about the fracas on a daily basis.
The most important position to watch is … quarterback. Kirk Cousins became the best option as last season went on, but Keith Nichol is a talented player who could shine if he got all the reps with the ones and got the shot to make the team his. There's still a chance of rotating quarterbacks and go with the hot hand, but if that happens, special packages and a different look would happen with the more mobile Nichol under center. But if Cousins is lights out, and he might have to be with all the issues at receiver, the question will be answered.
Spring attitude: Win the Big Ten title … or a piece of it. There's a big matzo ball hanging out there is a trip to Penn State to close out the regular season and there's a trip to Iowa, but there's no Ohio State to deal with and Wisconsin has to come to East Lansing. There are holes to fill at receiver and on the defensive line, but this is a strong enough team to hope for 10-2, or better, if everything breaks right.

Spring Practice Begins: March 23   Game: April 24

The early spring buzz: All the talk is about the quarterback position. The buzz about the new stadium is over, and while head coach Tim Brewster needs to win or there might be changes on the horizon, the only real question early on is how and in what capacity MarQueis Gray will be a part of the attack. He was a tremendous recruit brought in to handle the spread offense, but now the Gophers run a more pro-style attack that better suits three-year starter Adam Weber. Brewster and his staff can't mishandle this situation.
The big spring question is … Can the Gophers run the ball? The running backs, with Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge leading the way, should be solid as long as they get some space to move. The problem is the offensive line that was substandard last year with no pass protection and no help for the ground game. Minnesota, the team that was such a rushing juggernaut not all that long ago under Glen Mason, was last in the Big Ten and 111th in the nation averaging under 100 rushing yards per game.
The most important position to watch is … Linebacker. Of course the spotlight and the attention is on the quarterbacks, but the biggest problem is at linebacker where heart-and-soul leader Lee Campbell, Simoni Lawrence, Nate Triplett, all NFL Combine attendees, won't be easily replaced. Keanon Cooper could be the new star on the outside, while Gary Tinsley is an interesting athlete who needs to shine early.
Spring attitude: Let ‘er rip. The Brewster era doesn't appear to be taking any big steps forward and he probably has one year to show something big to get this right, but it's not going to be easy with most of the with nine starters gone off the defense and without much in the way of sure-thing production on offense. For the team, it's not time to play things straight; it has to take a ton of chances to have any shot of coming up with a good year with a brutal schedule (USC in non-conference play and missing relative Big Ten lightweights Indiana and Michigan) to deal with.

- 2010 Big Ten Spring Preview - Part 2 (Northwestern through Wisconsin)