Big Ten Notebook: Spring Ball Rolls On

As a handful of Big Ten Spring Football games approach, I found out what’s making news on Big Ten gridirons. Which team does Montee Ball see as the favorite in the Leaders Division? Who can help Rex Burkhead carry the load at Nebraska? How has Iowa freshened up the offense? Plus, get my takes on a few Big Ten-related tweets.

Also, remember: Saturday is a big day for seven Big Ten football teams on BTN. If you want to watch the games, we tell you how.

Looking ahead: Wisconsin running back Montee Ball thinks Ohio State should be the favorite in the Leaders Division? Hmmm. I think I agree with him. In fact, the Buckeyes may end up with the best record in the Big Ten. Too bad the team can’t win the league title or go to a bowl because of probation. What do you think? Tell me in the comments below.

The Buckeyes will be loaded on defense, featuring what should be one of the top lines in the Big Ten led by John Simon.

The secondary also looks good. The issue is the linebacking corps, which has a lot to prove. The offense teems with potential if quarterback Braxton Miller can pick up the new offense and find some playmakers.

But, don’t write off the Badgers claiming the Leaders Division title for a second year in a row.

“This year, because our kids have been in the (division) race and know what it takes … everyone thinks it’s complacency that’s going to affect us, but here at Wisconsin we’ve become greedy,” said Bret Bielema. “Our kids are anxious to be able to get back to Indianapolis (for the title game) and prove themselves again and have an opportunity to play in the Granddaddy of Them All (the Rose Bowl).”

Huskers on the run: The young Nebraska running backs have something to prove, says Steve Sipple of the Lincoln Journal Star.

Players like Ameer Abdullah and Aaron Green need to step up this fall to lessen the workload of star running back Rex Burkhead.

“We’re a very run-based team — we run the ball 60-70 percent of the time,” Abdullah said. “There’s no way Rex can carry that whole load. I feel like I can be that reliever for him.

“He takes a lot of pounding. He’s a workhorse. So, I feel like last year all the carries he got kind of took a toll. For him to recover and get back to full speed this spring is the best thing — which I think he’s done.”

A fully-charged Burkhead could be a Heisman contender. And he would take focus off quarterback Taylor Martinez, allowing him to throw to one of the deepest collections of receivers in recent Husker history.

Heads up: Have you seen this wonderful video from Northwestern? Pat Fitzgerald had his staff fire footballs up in the air from the JUGS pitching machine and then had his lineman try to catch them as part of a challenge. It’s not an easy drill even if you’re trained to catch footballs, but the results are fun to watch.

Freshening up: Hey, Mike Hlas of the Cedar Rapids Gazette likes what he is hearing from new Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis. What’s not to like about a fresh approach?

Even the most diehard Hawkeye fan has to admit that the offense was growing stale and had become predictable. Davis will spice up the passing game and quicken the pace, among other things.

“We need to be faster,” Davis said. “We need to be able to stretch the field a little better. There is no question about that. At the same time, there are certain things you can do to help that. Bunch receivers, stack receivers and do some things to gain an advantage. Because sometimes when you get in those sets, they come out of a man look into a zone kind of situation. But one of the things that we’re all aware of is we’d like to have more speed on the outside.”

Up front: Penn State thinks its defensive line can survive life without star tackle Devon Still. You would be confident, too, if you had an anchor like Jordan Hill, who is one of the most underrated players in the Big Ten. In fact, don’t be shocked if he emerges as the top tackle in the conference.

In addition to Still being gone, the Nits also will be without Eric Latimore and Jack Crawford. Sean Stanley joins Hill as a top returnee, writes Greg Pickel of the Harrisburg Patriot-News. Pete Massaro is back from a new injury, giving the unit more hope. DaQuan Jones and James Terry also figure to play big roles for line coach Larry Johnson, who is one of the best in the business.

With a potentially strong line protecting a good set of linebackers, Penn State’s front seven could be good.
The secondary? It’s a big concern.

Throwin’ Illini: Nathan Scheelhaase is still No. 1 at quarterback for Illinois, apparently fighting off challenges from Reilly O’Toole and Mike Osei with the spring game this Saturday. Why not? The guy has led the Illini to consecutive bowl wins for the first time in school history. He’s good.

“I think all of the guys can do it,” first-year Illinois coach Tim Beckman told Bob Asmussen of the Champaign News-Gazette. “They’ve all shown and proven in scrimmages that they can run the offense. All three of the quarterbacks have run with the ones.”

But it’s Scheelhaase on top for now, even though he is learning his third offense in three years. Impressive.

Tweets That Matter

My take: The Leaders Division is SO green, with Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema being the longest tenured coach at his school in the division. And he has been in Madison all of six seasons.

My take: Why? Why would Bo Pelini walk away from a Nebraska program he has invested four years of equity and sweat? Makes no sense to leave for a lesser job at Arkansas and compete with Alabama and LSU in the same division.

My take:  It’s also worth noting that Brady Hoke never has coached in the NFL. So there you go.

My take: That’s good, because leadership is one of the few issues looming over what looks like a very good Michigan State team, especially with quarterback Kirk Cousins gone. If Andrew Maxwell can be half the leader Cousins was, the Spartans will have a great chance to repeat as Legends champs.

BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is on Twitter and Facebook, and all of his work is at btn.com/tomdienhart. Send questions to his weekly mailbag, subscribe to his RSS feed, and check out his video Q&A.

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