The Big Ten wraps up spring drills this Saturday with Michigan State and Wisconsin being the last two schools to finish. And, in some ways, it’s fitting they punctuate spring practices in the Big Ten Conference. The Spartans and Badgers met last season in the inaugural Big Ten title game, with Wisconsin pulling an exhilarating 42-39 victory. Earlier in the season the teams played perhaps the game of the year in the Big Ten, with Michigan State claiming a 37-31 win in East Lansing on a last-second Hail Mary pass from Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol that forever will be part of Spartan lore.
Following is a look at three key things to watch for during the Spartans’ and Badgers’ spring games this Saturday.
1. How do the receivers look? The Spartans’ corps was gutted, as B.J. Cunningham, Keith Nichol and Keyshawn Martin all are gone. Also, tight ends Brian Linthicum and Garrett Celek also have departed. Players like Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphrey and Juwan Caesar will be on the spot. And Dion Sims is a tantalizing prospect at tight end. The new pass catchers will work with backup quarterback Connor Cook, as projected starter Andrew Maxwell will sit out the spring game with a knee injury.
2. Trenton Robinson has left a big void at safety. Who will step up? Kurtis Drummond will be the first in line. The 6-1, 200-pound sophomore has shown flashes. R.J. Williams is another guy to watch. Working with standout safety Isaiah Lewis will help ease the transition for whoever wins the job.
3. Keep an eye on the defensive tackles. Jerel Worthy and Kevin Pickelman are gone from the interior. Staffers like Anthony Rashad White, a big body who can anchor inside. Tyler Hoover has moved in from end. Is he legit and can he hold up? Micajah Reynolds and Damon Knox also could be factors inside, too.
1. The Badgers need some pass catchers. Last year’s star, Nick Toon, is gone and Jared Abbrederis is out with injury. That has left steady Jeff Duckworth as the leader. Others in the mix are Fred Willis, Isaiah Williams, Chase Hammond, Marquis Mason and Kenzel Doe. It would appear that Abbrederis has a spot sewn up. And you have to like Duckworth’s chances to start. But who will provide depth?
2. How do quarterbacks Joel Stave and Joe Brennan look? Honestly, the two most likely are just keeping the seat warm for Danny O’Brien, who will arrive in the summer after transferring from Maryland. Still, it will be important to establish some type of pecking order behind O’Brien. Looks like Stave may have a slight edge over Brennan, who was the backup to Russell Wilson last season. Jon Budmayr (arm) and Curt Phillips (knee) will join the fray in full in the offseason, and freshman Bart Houston (shoulder) also will be arriving.
3. Special teams are an unknown with seniors departed from all three phases of the kicking game. Gone are standout punter Brad Nortman and kicker Philip Welch. If losing those two wasn’t bad enough, the Badgers also need a long snapper. Kyle French has some experience kicking. But Drew Meyer is a question mark at punter. Look for James McGuire to snap the ball.
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.