Spring Football: What's On The Horizon
Big Ten football is almost back. Spring practices are set to begin with Northwestern kicking off on March 3 and most sessions culminate with a spring game of sorts. Three schools have new head coaches (Illinois, Ohio State, and Penn State) and the usual roster turnover hits every squad, too. In anticipation of these practices, I took a quick look at three primary areas of development for each school. And here’s the list of spring dates I posted a while back.
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Offensive line: The unit struggled much of last season trying to protect and generate a push in the ground game. And the departure of tackle Jeff Allen exasperates the situation for an attack that ranked ninth in the Big Ten (355.7 ypg). Donovonn Young is the top returning rusher and needs to build on the promise he showed in 2011 (451 yards rushing) as a freshman.
Receiver: A.J. Jenkins is gone after leading the Big Ten with 90 catches that went for 1,276 yards. The next leading pass catcher was Spencer Harris, with 26. And depth is needed at receiver if the new staff wants to run the same type of spread attack new coach Tim Beckman executed at Toledo.
Quarterback: Who will get the job? Nathan Scheelhaase is the veteran hand who has started for two years, but he figures to receive a challenge from Reilly O’Toole, a touted prospect who saw some action last season as a freshman. The signal-callers must learn a new system and work under a co-coordinator tandem of Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty. Neither has been a play-caller before at the FBS level.
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Offense: Kevin Wilson has tabbed former Arizona assistant Seth Littrell to serve as coordinator, but does he have the weapons to run his pass-oriented attack? Tre Roberson is a talented young quarterback, but he needs work as a passer and decision-maker. And depth is needed with the transfers of Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker. JC transfer Cameron Coffman is on campus for spring drills.
Defense: It’s an annual struggle to cobble together a decent defense, but coaches signed five JCs on the defensive side of the ball who will take part in spring drills: end Justin Rayside, linebackers Jacarri Alexander and David Cooper and defensive backs Ryan Thompson and Tregg Waters. New ends coach Jon Fabris brings a lot of experience to the table.
Running back: The Hoosiers need to do a better job on the ground after ranking ninth in the Big Ten in rushing (161.0 ypg). This is still a young team that played 32 freshmen last season (16 true; 16 redshirt). Stephen Houston is a big, physical back who carried the load last year after arriving from junior college.
New schemes: They must be learned, especially on offense. How quickly will quarterback Braxton Miller pick it up? Urban Meyer ran a spread at Florida and seems excited to see Miller run the offense, which figures to include him in designed draws as well as options. Miller showed flashes after being pushed into duty as a true freshman last year. He will work with one of the game’s top young coordinators in Tom Herman.
Offensive line: The new staff must get to work rehabbing an offensive line that needs three new starters. Gone are tackles Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts, as well as stellar center Michael Brewster. And the running back slot must be sorted out. Dan Herron is gone. That leaves players like Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde to battle for spots.
Receiver: Anyone who watched this team last year knows there’s a big need at receiver. DeVier Posey is gone after missing almost all of last year. Players like Corey Brown, Chris Fields and Devin Smith—among others—need to step up so Ohio State has some down-field threats to stretch defenses.
It’s all new: Penn State is turning the page after 46 seasons under Joe Paterno. Enter Bill O’Brien, who was offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots. He has lots of promise, but O’Brien never has been a head coach. He also will install new systems, though he will call plays on offense. Ted Roof was tabbed to run the defense. One of his big spring goals: replace T Devon Still, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
Quarterback: The Nittany Lions haven’t gotten stellar play under center in recent years from either Matt McGloin or Robert Bolden. Each is back and will get competition from Paul Johns. Bottom line: The Nits need more production and consistency from this position. And it has to start this spring. Complicating matters is the fact the coaches will be looking to replace four offensive line starters.
The secondary: The unit has been ravaged with the loss of all four starters, including safeties Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino and corners D’Anton Lynn and Chaz Powell. They were a big reason why Penn State paced the Big Ten in scoring defense (16.8 ppg).
The defense: It must adapt to its third coordinator in as many years with the hiring of Tim Tibesar, who was in the CFL the past three years. (Yes, the CFL.) And Kevin Wolthausen was brought in to coach the defensive line and Greg Burns to run the secondary. Tibesar will install an attacking style that can morph from a 3-4 to a 4-3 and vice versa in hopes of helping the defense better defend zone reads and spread attacks.
Running back: Ralph Bolden is back, but his 2011 season ended with a knee injury in the regular-season finale. He also missed 2010 with a knee injury. Can he be counted on to hold up? Akeem Hunt and Akeem Shavers, among others, will have to step up. The receiving corps needs help. Players like O.J. Ross, Gary Bush, Antavian Edison need to be difference makers.
Who will block? It’s something to monitor, with a lack of depth being a concern. The best blocker, left tackle Dennis Kelly, is gone. The staff will move tight end Robert Kugler to center. Massive JC transfer Devin Smith needs to help.
Chemistry: There are six new assistant coaches on board: Matt Canada (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks) and Eddie Faulkner (tight ends) were hired from Northern Illinois; Ben Strickland was promoted to assistant defensive backs/special teams coach; Mike Markuson (offensive line) was at Ole Miss; Zach Azzanni worked at Western Kentucky (receivers); Andy Buh (linebackers) was at Nevada. The only holdovers are running backs coach Thomas Hammock, defensive line/co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge and defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Chris Ash.
Re-tool the offensive line: The group lost three All-Big Ten picks in Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby. But seamlessly replacing blockers has become commonplace in Madison, right?
Who will replace Russell Wilson at quarterback? Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips are coming off surgeries, so who knows how capable they will be this spring. Joel Stave and Joe Brennan figure to get long looks. Some think when incoming freshman Bart Houston arrives, he will win the job. Stay tuned. Also, keep your eye on the receiver slot, as a complement is needed for Jared Abbrederis with Nick Toon gone.
Staff shakeup: Long a bastion of stability, Kirk Ferentz’s staff has a big makeover with offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe and defensive coordinator Norm Parker both gone. Ferentz promoted defensive backs coach Phil Parker to take over for Norm Parker and tabbed former Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis to run the Hawkeye attack. LeVar Woods was promoted to linebackers coach, and Brian Ferentz, Kirk’s oldest son, was tabbed to coach the offensive line.
Will this all work? Every player who started on the defensive line in the bowl game is gone, highlighted by end Broderick Binns and tackle Mike Daniels. Not good. The group wasn’t great to begin with. Now, more questions loom. Big tackle Carl Davis is one to watch. It’s vital for this unit to step up.
Who will run the ball? Marcus Coker and Mika’il McCall each has transferred, severely hampering depth. That leaves players like Jason White and Jason Canzeri, among others, to step up. True freshman Greg Garmon could end up impacting once he arrives in the fall. It’s also worth watching the offensive line, which saw tackle Riley Reiff turn pro early, and guard Adam Gettis and tackle Markus Zusevics depart.
Defensive line: There is work to do on the defensive line with Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger gone. The tackle spot may be especially troubling. Keep an eye on Will Campbell to see if he takes the next step. Quinton Washington is another one with potential if Michigan wants to build on the improvement it made last season, when it had the No. 4 defense in the Big Ten (322.2 ypg) and No. 2 scoring defense (17.4 ppg).
Offensive line: The offensive front needs work. Center David Molk, the Rimington Award winner, and right tackle Mark Huyge are gone. They helped fuel a rushing attack that ranked second in the Big Ten (221.9 ypg). And the Wolverines still need that workhorse back. Fitzgerald Toussaint has potential after running for 1,041 yards.
Receivers: Denard Robinson, who must trim those 15 picks, needs some targets. Junior Hemingway is gone, and Darryl Stonum has been booted from the squad. And tight end Kevin Koger also is gone. Staffers can count on Roy Roundtree, but who else?
Playmakers: With B.J. Cunningham, Keith Nichol and Keshawn Martin gone, the Spartans need to identify playmakers at receiver. Keep an eye on Tony Lippett, who is moving back to wideout after playing corner, and DeAnthony Arnett, if the Tennessee transfer is granted immediate eligibility. Bennie Fowler is another player with the chance to step up. Tight end Dion Sims could take the proverbial next step after playing the second half of 2011 with a broken hand. He looks like a playmaker down the field.
New QB: Now that three-year starter Kirk Cousins is gone, Andrew Maxwell needs to start making this his team. He’s a terrific leader and a better athlete than Cousins in the mind of some Spartan watchers. And depth needs to be developed behind Maxwell. Connor Cook figures to get lots of reps this spring.
Interior defense: Rebuild the interior of the defensive line. It will miss Jerel Worthy and Kevin Pickelman. Anthony Rashad is the lone established presence inside for what was a killer run defense that paced the Big Ten last season (100.5 ypg). The spring is when youngsters like Micajah Reynolds, Brandon Clemons, Shilique Calhoun, Joel Heath, Damon Knox, Matt Ramondo, Mark Scarpinato need to step up.
Offensive line: It needs to be solidified with starters center Ryan Wynn and guard/tackle Chris Bunders gone. Staffers also will be looking to establish a rotation at running back with top rusher Duane Bennett gone. Also, leading receiver Da’Jon McKnight is gone. Keep an eye on wideout Marcus Jones, who missed the last five games last season with a knee injury.
Defense: The defense needs to improve. It finished 11th in rushing defense (186.4 ypg), ninth in pass defense (216.7 ypg) and 10th in the Big Ten (403.1 ypg). Areas of focus will be the line and secondary. Safety Kim Royston and Gary Tinsley, the team’s top tacklers in 2011, are gone. The defense got a boost when cornerback Troy Stoudermire was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing most of 2011 with a wrist injury. He doubles as a standout return man. Linebacker Mike Rallis needs to become a leader.
Gray’s next steps: MarQueis Gray has to refine his quarterbacking skills, including his accuracy. He tossed eight picks and completed only 50.7 percent of his passes in his first year as a starter. But Gray can run. He gained a school-record 966 yards rushing for quarterbacks and eclipsed the 100-yard mark four times.
New defensive coordinator: Carl Pelini left to become head coach of Florida Atlantic. That means the players must adapt to John Papuchis, who was promoted to coordinator of a unit that underachieved last year. Nebraska hired Rick Kaczenski from Iowa to coach the defensive line. The defense needs some playmakers with stars like linebacker Lavonte David, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and tackle Jared Crick gone. Keep an eye on JC corner Mohammed Seisay and Chase Rome and Kevin Williams at tackle. Also, Braylon Heard could move from running back to cornerback this spring.
Martinez’s next steps: Quarterback Taylor Martinez needs to take the next step. No one denies the fact that Martinez is a dynamic athletic who can run, but he needs to improve his passing. The two-year starter hit 56.4 percent of his passes in 2011 with 13 touchdown passes and eight picks.
Hard hats: The offensive line is under construction. The Huskers lost starters in center Mike Caputo and tackles Marcel Jones and Yoshi Hardrick gone. Blockers must step up to pave the way for standout running back Rex Burkhead.
Find a stud running back: NU can’t keep relying on the quarterback to run so often. The Wildcats haven’t had a decent running game in a number of years, failing to produce a 1,000-yard rusher since Tyrell Sutton did so in 2006. Jacob Schmidt is gone. Touted incoming freshman Malin Jones may be the guy but isn’t on campus yet. But until then, Treyvon Green will try to build on a promising debut with Mike Trumpy out this spring recovering from a torn ACL suffered last season. Depth took a hit when Adonis Smith transferred in February. A year earlier, Arby Fields transferred.
Defense: As usual, the defense needs to improve. The Wildcats ranked 10th in the Big Ten (177.4 ypg) vs. the run, last vs. the pass (230.4 ypg) and 11th in total defense (407.7 ypg). The secondary is especially troublesome with three starters gone, including corners Jordan Mabin and Jeravin Matthews and safety Brian Peters. And who will rush the passer with Vince Browne departed? It’s time for a young defense to grow up.
Quarterback Kain Colter must develop: He showed great potential playing when Dan Persa was hurt last season. Will Colter, who also is a good wideout, seize the job in the spring? He needs to become more accurate and savvy in the pocket. And the attack needs to find some targets to replace Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore.