Spring flings: Big Ten football spring practice wrap-up

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 23, 2013 - 7:30 AM

A look at the state of the conference as spring football finishes up.

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Quarterback Braxton Miller passed last season. Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer (in white) expects big things from his offense.

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The Big Ten wraps up spring practice Saturday, when the Gophers and Iowa hold their annual spring games.

Here’s a look around the conference at how things look now and how they might change by this fall:

LEGENDS DIVISION

 

IOWA

Coach: Kirk Ferentz (15th year); 2012 record: 4-8, 2-6; bowl game: none; starters returning: offense 6/defense 8

Spring star: RB Mark Weisman. Iowa ranked 114th nationally in total offense last year, but the running game could become a strength. Weisman rushed for 815 yards last year.

Biggest concern: Iowa’s record the past four years has gotten progressively worse: 11-2, 8-5, 7-6 and 4-8, leaving fans to wonder if Ferentz has lost his touch. Second-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis is under pressure to improve that unit immediately. Now that James Vandenberg has moved on, it’s a three-way battle at quarterback.

Telling quote: “The mark we’ve left so far, if we’re being completely honest, isn’t a particularly good one. I’m not happy about it, but I’m excited we have one more opportunity to change things.” — Senior linebacker James Morris.

Schedule analysis: The Hawkeyes open at home with Northern Illinois, which made the Orange Bowl last year. After playing at Minnesota on Sept. 28, Iowa draws Michigan State, Ohio State, Northwestern and Wisconsin.

 

MICHIGAN

Coach: Brady Hoke (third year); 2012 record: 8-5, 6-2; bowl game: South Carolina 33, Michigan 28, (Outback); Starters returning: offense 5/defense 6

Spring star: QB Devin Gardner. With Denard Robinson gone, Gardner is ready to make the offense his own. He completed 59.5 percent of his passes last season and has several talented receivers coming back.

Biggest concern: Michigan lost two key players to torn ACL injuries this spring — linebacker Jake Ryan and backup quarterback Russell Bellomy. Fitz Touissant, their leading returning rusher, also missed the spring, recovering from a broken leg.

Telling quote: “About a baker’s dozen called me stupid. I’m not too worried, if I do the job I’m supposed to do, I won’t look stupid too much longer.” — Senior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan on delaying his entry into the NFL draft

Schedule analysis: November will tell the story with the following five games — at Michigan State, Nebraska at home, at Northwestern, at Iowa and finally Ohio State at home.

 

MICHIGAN STATE

Coach: Mark Dantonio (seventh year); 2012 record: 7-6, 3-5; bowl game: Michigan State 17, TCU 16 (Buffalo Wild Wings); starters returning: offense 9/defense 7

Spring star: LB Max Bullough. Ranked sixth in the Big Ten last year with 111 tackles and anchors a strong defense.

Biggest concern: RB Le’Veon Bell, DE William Gholston and TE Dion Sims all left early for the NFL draft. Bell was the biggest loss; he rushed 382 times last year for 1,793 yards.

Telling quote: Running back “obviously is a position of concern for us. We’ve got to find a guy you can give the ball to 250 times. I don’t know if we have that yet.” — Dantonio

Schedule analysis: The Spartans play Notre Dame Sept. 21. They miss Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin in conference play. Their five Big Ten losses were by a combined 13 points.

 

MINNESOTA

Coach: Jerry Kill (third year); 2012 record: 6-7, 2-6; bowl game: Texas Tech 34, Gophers 31 (Meineke Car Care); starters returning: offense 10 /defense 7

Spring star: DT Ra’Shede Hageman. The senior contemplated a jump to the NFL but returned, knowing he still has a lot to prove in college. Teammates and coaches repeatedly say they’ve never seen him so focused.

Biggest concern: Philip Nelson started the final seven games at QB last season and was inconsistent. Behind him, there is nobody on the roster with any in-game experience.

Telling quote: “Let’s be honest, a lot of people outside of here don’t think that we can make it to a Big Ten championship. We do, and that’s what matters.” — Senior safety Brock Vereen

Schedule analysis: In Big Ten play, they’ll get Iowa, Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin at home. They don’t have to play Ohio State, but they also don’t get to play Illinois or Purdue. Fans will remain skeptical until their conference record improves.

 

NEBRASKA

Coach: Bo Pelini (sixth year); 2012 record: 10-4, 7-1; bowl game: Georgia 45, Nebraska 31 (Capital One); starters returning: offense 7/defense 5

Spring star: QB Taylor Martinez. He was a first-team All-Big Ten selection last year, and Pelini said, “This spring, he’s a better football player, by far, than what I saw last year.”

Biggest concern: After giving up 70 points to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and 589 yards to Georgia in the bowl game, the Huskers need to rediscover their defensive identity.

Telling quote: “I think we’ll be throwing the ball a lot more this upcoming fall because our receivers are so talented.” — Martinez

Schedule analysis: UCLA gave Nebraska a humbling defeat last September, and they’ll meet again Sept. 14 in Lincoln. Nebraska isn’t scheduled to face Wisconsin or Ohio State.

 

NORTHWESTERN

Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (eighth year); 2012 record: 10-3, 5-3; bowl game: Northwestern 34, Mississippi State 20 (Gator); starters returning: offense 8/defense 7

Spring star: RB Venric Mark. The senior ranked fifth in the Big Ten last year with 1,371 rushing yards. The Gophers don’t need to be reminded, as he torched them for 182 yards and two touchdowns last year.

Biggest concern: Northwestern had 13 players undergo surgery after the season and started spring practice with just eight healthy offensive linemen. The Wildcats chose not to hold a traditional spring game, being careful not to get anyone else hurt.

Telling quote: “Are we that far away, or that close? It’s something we have to decide as a program.” — Fitzgerald, on the fact Northwestern trailed last year for just five minutes and three seconds combined.

Schedule analysis: The Wildcats face Ohio State and Wisconsin in their first two Big Ten games before facing the Gophers. Can the Wildcats build on the school’s first 10-win season since 1995 and its first bowl game victory since the 1948 Rose Bowl?

 

LEADERS DIVISION

 

ILLINOIS

Coach: Tim Beckman (second year); 2012 record: 2-10, 0-8 Big Ten; bowl game: none; starters returning: offense 9/defense 4

Spring star: RB Donovonn Young. The junior led the team in rushing last year and looked more explosive in the spring game, carrying 19 times for 86 yards and three touchdowns.

Biggest concern: Beckman revamped his coaching staff, so even though senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has started 36 career games, he’ll be learning a new offense — again. The Illini averaged only 11.8 points per game in Big Ten play last year.

Telling quote: Scheelhaase said the goal of spring was establishing an identity. “That’s something I don’t know that we necessarily had last year — on offense or defense or as a team in general.”

Schedule analysis: Illinois plays Washington at Soldier Field on Sept. 14 and then opens Big Ten play with a tough quartet: Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State.

 

INDIANA

Coach: Kevin Wilson (third year); 2012 record: 4-8, 2-6; bowl game: none; starters returning: offense 10 /defense 9

Spring star: WR Shane Wynn. One of four good receivers coming back for the Hoosiers, he had six catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.

Biggest concern: The return of dual-threat QB Tre Roberson should make the offense more potent, but the defense ranked last in the Big Ten last year, allowing 41 points per game in conference play.

Telling quote: “We just signed the best recruiting class in the history of this school.” — Wilson. The Hoosiers were 1-11 in Wilson’s first season but showed signs of a turnaround last season.

Schedule analysis: The nonconference schedule features two bowl teams — Navy and Missouri. On Nov. 23, the Hoosiers get another chance against Ohio State after losing a 52-49 home thriller last year.

 

OHIO STATE

Coach: Urban Meyer (second year); 2012 record: 12-0, 8-0; bowl game: none; starters returning: offense 9/defense 4

Spring star: QB Braxton Miller. The Heisman Trophy candidate went 16-for-25 for 217 yards in the spring game.

Biggest concern: As good as the team is, there’s some question if this is a national championship caliber defense. Meanwhile, Meyer also has called the wide receiver spot a “major, major concern.”

Telling quote: “I would be disappointed if we’re not the best offense in the Big Ten.” — Meyer

Schedule analysis: The Buckeyes should breeze through nonconference play, but the Big Ten schedule starts with Wisconsin at home (Sept. 28) and at Northwestern (Oct. 5). Ohio State is bowl eligible after a one-year ban.

 

PENN STATE

Coach: Bill O’Brien (second year); 2012 record: 8-4, 6-2; bowl game: none; starters returning: offense 8/defense 6

Spring star: RB Akeel Lynch. The redshirt freshman established himself as a viable second option to returning 1,000-yard rusher Zach Zwinak. In the spring game, Lynch carried 13 times for 83 yards and a touchdown.

Biggest concern: Matt McGloin did a terrific job at QB last year, but now he’s gone — as are three All-Big Ten selections on defense — Jordan Hill, Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges.

Telling quote: “Coming from pro football, I definitely have to learn more patience with all these young players.” — O’Brien, on his quarterbacks.

Schedule analysis: The nonconference slate looks easy at first glance, but three opponents played bowl games last year — Syracuse (Pinstripe Bowl), Central Florida (St. Petersburg Bowl) and Kent State (GoDaddy.com Bowl).

 

PURDUE

Coach: Darrell Hazell (first year); 2012 record: 6-7, 3-5; bowl game: Oklahoma State 58, Purdue 14 (Heart of Dallas Bowl); starters returning: offense 5/defense 9

Spring star: RB Akeem Hunt. He averaged 8.0 yards per carry as a sophomore and rushed 19 times for 134 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.

Biggest concern: Besides adjusting to a new coaching staff, the Boilermakers need to find a new quarterback. Senior Rob Henry is one possibility, but a more intriguing option is true freshman Danny Etling.

Telling quote: “We’re going to keep that position [quarterback] open probably until two weeks before we play Cincinnati in the [opener], so the competition continues.” — Hazell

Schedule analysis: Purdue’s three Big Ten wins last year came against Iowa, Illinois and Indiana — and the Boilermakers get to face each of them in November.

 

WISCONSIN

Coach: Gary Andersen (first year); 2012 record: 8-6, 4-4; bowl game: Stanford 20, Wisconsin 14 (Rose); starters returning: offense 8/defense 7

Spring star: RB Melvin Gordon. Montee Ball has graduated, but the Badgers shouldn’t miss a beat. James White averaged 6.4 yards per carry last year, and Gordon averaged 10.0 yards per carry, including 216 yards in the Big Ten title game.

Biggest concern: Bret Bielema’s sudden departure for Arkansas threw AD Barry Alvarez into a coaching search. The Badgers landed Andersen from Utah State, and while the early reviews are positive, coaching changes can be tough.

Telling quote: “We’ve hit it off as a team with Coach Andersen from the get-go. He’s a player-oriented coach, and everybody’s got a lot of respect for him.” — linebacker Chris Borland

Schedule analysis: Arizona State (Sept. 14) and BYU (Nov. 9) highlight the nonconference slate. In Big Ten play, the Badgers will miss Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska. The talent is there to return to Pasadena, but it’ll be tougher now that Ohio State is eligible.

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