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Continued: Big Ten football spring practice wrapup

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: April 23, 2012 - 12:05 AM
With spring football practice winding down, the Star Tribune's Phil Miller offers a look at how the Big Ten looks now -- and how things might change by the time the season comes around in the fall.

LEaders division

ILLINOIS

Coach: Tim Beckman (1st year)

2011 record: 7-6, 2-6 Big Ten

Bowl game: Illinois 20, UCLA 14 (Kraft Fight Hunger)

Spring star: RB Josh Ferguson. A slow-to-heal hamstring cost him most of his freshman season, but the suburban Chicago native capped a strong spring with 150 yards in the spring game, including a 68-yard romp.

Biggest concern: Illinois' passing attack collapsed during a six-game losing streak last season, three times failing to pick up 100 yards through the air. Now QB Nathan Scheelhaase, whose arm strength has always been in doubt, must cope without go-to receiver A.J. Jenkins, and behind an offensive line than allowed 36 sacks last year -- and nine more in the spring game.

Telling quote: "I feel like there's a whole new energy throughout the locker room. Coach Beckman just gets us excited." -- QB Reilly O'Toole

Football-fever temperature: 45. It's pretty chilly in Champaign these days, despite Beckman's promise of a wide-open offense. Barely 3,000 attended the spring game, and ticket sales are reportedly slow.

INDIANA

Coach: Kevin Wilson (2nd year)

2011 record: 1-11, 0-8

Bowl game: none

Spring star: TE Ted Bolser. He seemed to have star potential as a freshman, then faded into the background. But new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell promised to better use the weapons at his disposal, and proved it by getting the ball to the 6-6 Bolser six times in the spring game.

Biggest concern: Where to start? The Hoosiers were last in the Big Ten in scoring defense, rushing defense and total defense and gave up an average of 42.8 points in Big Ten play. The secondary showed improvement in spring, but until the Hoosiers can keep from being trampled on the ground, the record won't change.

Telling quote: "We probably as a staff didn't do as good a job as we needed to do connecting with players last year." -- Wilson, on the exodus of more than a dozen players during his first year

Football-fever temperature: 32. It's freezing in Indiana, where even the new-coach honeymoon was squandered by some boorish behavior and an abysmal season.

OHIO STATE

Coach: Urban Meyer (1st year)

2011 record: 6-7, 3-5

Bowl game: Florida 24, Ohio State 17 (Gator)

Spring star: QB Braxton Miller. Perhaps the No. 1 priority of Meyer's first spring as Buckeyes coach was to find out if the sophomore can handle the coach's signature spread offense. There's still plenty of improvement needed, but with a 24-for-31 performance in the spring game, he showed he's up to the job.

Biggest concern: The Buckeyes were 11th in total offense and last in passing and last year had no receivers who caught more than 14 passes. So finding playmakers who can get enough separation to catch a pass is critical.

Telling quote: "We knew we can run the quarterback. What we don't know, and unfortunately after this spring game, I still don't know -- can we throw the ball?" -- Meyer

Football-fever temperature: 85. Replacing Luke Fickell with Meyer has the Buckeyes thinking big again, and 81,000 attended the spring game in Columbus. But no postseason means the real excitement begins in 2013.

PENN STATE

Coach: Bill O'Brien (1st year)

2011 record: 9-4, 6-2

Bowl game: Houston 30, Penn State 14 (TicketCity)

Spring star: DE Brad Bars. O'Brien is an offensive guru, but he knows the Nittany Lions' strength this season will be on defense, and Bars looks like an emerging star. The junior from Nashville made four tackles for a loss in the spring game.

Biggest concern: The quarterback controversy that has reigned at Penn State for two seasons still hasn't gone away. Three serious contenders for the job -- holdovers Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin and newcomer Paul Jones -- all have weaknesses, and each threw at least one interception in the spring game.

Telling quote: "I want to see these guys' decision-making get better. I want to see their accuracy get better. I want to see them grasp the offense better." -- O'Brien, on his quarterbacks

Football-fever temperature: 70. They're still reeling from the nightmare that was 2011, and it remains to be seen if PSU football will ever be the religion it was under Joe Paterno. Winning would help.

PURDUE

Coach: Danny Hope (4th year)

2011 record: 7-6, 4-4

Bowl game: Purdue 37, Western Michigan 32 (Little Caesars Pizza)

Spring star: CB Normando Harris. The junior was limited to nickel coverages last season but appears ready to move into the starting lineup, making a statement during the Boilermakers' spring game with a pair of athletic interceptions.

Biggest concern: Purdue has three quarterbacks with a variety of skills, and Hope so far appears willing to look for playing time for everyone. But the identity of the QB won't matter if the offensive line, which lost three starters, can't provide time to throw.

Telling quote: "It's fun because we've all been around each other through the whole process. It's a tossup. If somebody has a hot hand and gets into a rhythm, he's going to keep playing." -- QB Rob Henry, one of three current Purdue quarterbacks who have started at least seven games

Football-fever temperature: 60. There are plenty of questions to sort out in the fall, but there is plenty of optimism in West Lafayette.

WISCONSIN

Coach: Bret Bielema (7th year)

2011 record: 11-3, 6-2

Bowl game: Oregon 45, Wisconsin 38 (Rose)

Spring star: RT Casey Dehn. Not only is Dehn back after quitting the team last October, but he's better and more motivated.

Biggest concern: The defensive line is competent but not play-making, and the Badgers may feel the loss to graduation of tackle Patrick Butrym more than expected. The linebacking corps is solid enough to make up for some collapse-the-pocket shortcomings, but that will put added pressure on an untested secondary.

Telling quote: "I was blessed to have several great opportunities, but the vibe I got when I was at Wisconsin was special. It was kind of everything I was looking for." -- QB Danny O'Brien, who is transferring to Madison from Maryland

Football-fever temperature: 80. It feels as if the Badgers blew a legitimate shot at a national title last year with a couple of last-minute upsets and a lot of talent headed for the NFL. But a fast start will get Wisconsinites thinking about a third consecutive Rose Bowl.

IOWA

Coach: Kirk Ferentz (14th year)

2011 record: 7-6, 4-4

Bowl game: Oklahoma 31, Iowa 14 (Insight)

Spring star: RB Damon Bullock. The Hawkeyes have had plenty of bad luck with tailbacks. But Bullock, a sophomore who gained only 20 yards in six games last year, romped to an 84-yard touchdown in Iowa's spring scrimmage and finished with 121 for the day.

Biggest concern: The Hawkeyes' passing defense was dreadful last season, and the secondary didn't appear any speedier in the scrimmage. With two new coordinators installing new systems, there is more for Iowa's players to absorb in a hurry than at any time during Ferentz's tenure.

Telling quote: "I've never had a tight end like C.J. [Fiedorowicz], with his size and ability to play at the line of scrimmage and also stretch the field." -- Offensive coordinator Greg Davis

Football-fever temperature: 65. Too much turnover, in the roster and coaching staff, to expect to make a splash in the tougher-all-the-time Legends Division.

MICHIGAN

Coach: Brady Hoke (2nd year)

2011 record: 11-2, 6-2

Bowl game: Michigan 23, Virginia Tech 20, OT (Sugar)

Spring star: RB Thomas Rawls. He's only 5-10, but at 220 pounds, Rawls looked born to break tackles in the spring game. Speedy Fitz Toussaint remains the Wolverines' top ball-carrier, but watch for Rawls to get time as a change-of-pace.

Biggest concern: Three-fourths of Michigan's defensive line has graduated, leaving an otherwise deep and experienced defense wondering if it can contain Big Ten ballcarriers at the line of scrimmage.

Telling quote: "You're only as strong as you are down the middle, and that's going to be our whole deal this year. We'll be fine outside." -- Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison

Football-fever temperature: 95. If Hoke improves the Wolverines as much this year as he did last, the thinking in Ann Arbor goes, a division title is inevitable, a Rose Bowl likely and a title-game berth possible. Hard to believe they were 1-7 in the league less than three years ago.

MICHIGAN STATE

Coach: Mark Dantonio (6th year)

2011 record: 11-3, 7-1

Bowl game: Michigan State 33, Georgia 30, OT (Outback)

Spring star: DE Will Gholston. The junior-to-be had a breakout bowl game in January and has been so dominant in the spring, Spartans coaches have experimented with standing him up at linebacker on short-yardage situations.

Biggest concern: It's not as much a concern as a curiosity, because the Spartans profess unshakable faith in Andrew Maxwell, the junior-to-be successor to QB Kirk Cousins. But receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keyshawn Martin left with Cousins, and it's not clear how well the brand-new passing attack will function.

Telling quote: "We're laying in the weeds. We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?" -- Dantonio to espn.com, stirring the in-state rivalry

Football-fever temperature: 90. Spartans fans feel they have the league's best defense, an offense that's better than people expect and the motivation to avenge their last- second disappointment in the league title game.

MINNESOTA

Coach: Jerry Kill (2nd year)

2011 record: 3-9, 2-6

Bowl game: none

Spring star: QB MarQueis Gray. Now that he knows the offense, his confidence has risen, and it makes a big difference, especially when he throws the ball. If his passing ability matches his running, Minnesota will score far more frequently.

Biggest concern: No quarterback can be effective if he has nobody to throw to, and the Gophers aren't certain yet that they can provide reliable targets. All of Gray's deep threats are either startlingly young or frustratingly inconsistent.

Telling quote: "When I look at the footage from last year from start to finish, I'm like, 'Oh my God, I was horrible.' ... But as the season went on, I got better. I felt, 'Wow, OK, I can do this.'" -- Gray

Football-fever temperature: 50. There's no denying the optimism that Kill engenders, and most fans understand that real success is still a couple of years away, but he's going to have to continue to show progress in order to keep fans from growing restless once more.

NEBRASKA

Coach: Bo Pelini (5th year)

2011 record: 9-4, 5-3

Bowl game: South Carolina 30, Nebraska 13 (Capital One)

Spring star: QB Taylor Martinez. After throwing only 13 touchdown passes in 13 games in 2011, coaches insisted he become more mechanically sound. The results, coaches say, is improved footwork, more accurate passing and a corresponding increase in confidence.

Biggest concern: RB Rex Burkhead was forced to basically carry the Cornhuskers offense for long stretches last year, but the center and both tackles who made that possible have graduated. Nebraska hasn't had a truly dominant offensive line since Pelini arrived.

Telling quote: "The Big Ten was exactly what we thought it would be -- tough. Difficult. Relentless. But we like that challenge. We accept that challenge." -- Pelini

Football-fever temperature: 80. After discovering that they were probably a little overconfident about their new conference in Year 1, the Cornhuskers seem more determined than ever to contend for a conference title.

NORTHWESTERN

Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (7th year)

2011 record: 6-7, 3-5

Bowl game: Texas A&M 33, Northwestern 22 (Meineke Car Care)

Spring star: WR Kyle Prater. Not many prep All-Americas wind up in Evanston. Prater attended USC but made only one catch last season, then transferred home. He may have to sit out this season, though he's asked the NCAA for a waiver, but quarterback Kain Colter can't wait, comparing him to NFL All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson.

Biggest concern: It's hard to win games when your defense gives up an average of 6.1 yards on every snap, and the Wildcats have taken steps to shore up an overwhelmed secondary.

Telling quote: "That group [the defense] was very grateful for the negative comments. They said, 'We deserved it,' and have used that as fuel." -- Fitzgerald

Football-fever temperature: 45. It rarely gets much higher in Evanston, where the Wildcats have remained in the middle of the Big Ten pack, never great or terrible, for more than a decade now.

LEGENDS DIVISION

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