Spring Football: Previewing Big Ten Leaders Division

Snow is still on the ground in parts of the Midwest and the calendar still says “February.” No matter, Northwestern kicked off spring football on Wednesday, the first Big Ten school to take the lid off this beautiful annual rite. Yes, the 2013 season is a day closer. And, that’s a tremendous thing.

Many questions loom across the Big Ten landscape, as the other 11 schools will begin practice in March. Here is a look at three things that schools in the Leaders Division must work on this spring. On Friday, I will look at the Legends Division.

[RELATED: Get the full Big Ten Spring Football Game schedule. ]

Big Ten Conference Standings – Leaders Division
Conference Overall vs
W-L PF PA Home Road W-L PF PA Home Road Top 25
w-Ohio State 8-0 295 205 4-0 4-0 12-0 446 274 8-0 4-0 3-0
w-Penn State 6-2 261 168 3-1 3-1 8-4 349 229 5-2 3-2 1-2
z-Wisconsin 4-4 244 146 2-2 2-2 8-6 414 268 5-2 2-3 1-3
Purdue 3-5 189 265 1-3 2-2 6-7 373 406 4-3 2-3 0-2
Indiana 2-6 231 328 1-3 1-3 4-8 369 423 2-4 2-4 0-1
Illinois 0-8 94 281 0-4 0-4 2-10 200 385 2-5 0-5 0-2

Illinois:

  • With players like CBs Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green gone, the secondary lacks experience and will be a big emphasis for a defense that ranked 10th in the Big Ten (387.6 ypg) overall and 11th in scoring (32.1 ppg) in 2012.
  • Tim Beckman fired co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty and saw co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales leave to coach receivers at Mississippi State. Beckman hired Bill Cubit, the former head coach at Western Michigan, to take over as coordinator. What’s it mean? QB Nathan Scheelhaase will be working with fourth coordinator as an Illini for an offense that ranked 11th in the Big Ten in rushing (127.8 ypg); 11th in passing (168.8 ypg); last overall (296.7 ypg); last in scoring (16.7 ppg).
  • Three positions need to develop depth: defensive line, offensive line and linebacker. Players like DE Michael Buchanan, DT Akeem Spence; DT Glenn Foster; LB Ashante Williams are gone from the front seven. In a word, the offensive line was a mess. Injuries and youth were factors for a group that has a new coach. There also is a new defensive line coach.

Indiana:

  • How will QB Tre Roberson look coming off a broken left leg suffered in the second game of the season vs. UMass that ended his season? The offense could use his athletic ability and ever-improving passing skills. Cam Coffman and Nate Sudfeld are back after flashing promise, making the quarterback spot intriguing.
  • The defense must find replacements on the interior of the line for stalwart DTs Adam Replogle and Larry Black. More pass rushers also are needed off the edge for a defense that lacks playmakers.
  • The defense showed improvement last season, but work remains for a unit that ranked last overall in the Big Ten (463.5 ypg); ninth in pass defense (232.2 ypg); last in rush defense (231.3 ypg); last in scoring defense (35.3 ppg).

Ohio State

  • All four starters on the defensive line are gone—E/T John Simon; T Johnathan Hankins; E Nathan Williams; T Garrett Goebel. Players like E Noah Spence, T Tommy Schutt and T Adolphus Washington, among others, must step up for a young-but-talented group.
  • The offensive line was a major surprise last season. Credit line coach Ed Warinner. And it should be strong again, with four starters back for an offense that also needs to develop more big-play ability at receiver. But a right tackle is needed with Reid Fragel gone.
  • Storm Klein and Zach Boren are gone, so some linebackers need to step up around Ryan Shazier. Former five-star recruit Curtis Grant will once again try to win a spot. The unit underwhelmed in 2012. That must change. Keep an eye on youngsters like Joshua Perry, David Perkins, Conner Crowell and Camren Williams.

Penn State

  • Matt McGloin leaves big shoes to fill at quarterback. Who will assume command? Redshirt freshman Steven Bench is the only signal-caller with any experience (two games). Three new quarterbacks will go through spring drills: JC transfer Tyler Ferguson and walk-ons D.J Crook and Austin Whipple. Touted incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg will arrive over the summer.
  • There is lots of work to do along the defensive line. Penn State must replace All-Big Ten T Jordan Hill along with E Sean Stanley and reserves Pete Massaro and James Terry. E C.J. Olaniyan is a player to watch for a unit that can build around stud E Deion Barnes, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Oh, and secondary coach John Butler was promoted to coordinator after Ted Roof left for Georgia Tech.
  • Bill O’Brien must develop young receivers. Brandon Moseby-Felder will be a senior and Allen Robinson and Alex Kenney will be juniors. And there are several youngsters who will have great opportunities to contribute, including sophomore Trevor Williams and three redshirt freshmen: Eugene Lewis, Malik Golden and Jonathan Warner.

Purdue

  • A new staff means a new offense, which never was a strength during the disastrous Danny Hope era. NFL vet John Shoop is the coordinator of what figures to be a pro-style offense that will feature a rushing attack. Is the personnel on hand to execute it? Help is needed at running back with top rusher Akeem Shavers gone. Freshmen backs will have to help. And more playmakers are needed at wideout for an attack that lacks big-play punch.
  • The quarterback spot is up for grabs with Robert Marve and Caleb TerBush gone. Rob Henry is back, but he saw limited action under center in 2012 and may not fill the bill. Instead, keep an eye on redshirt freshmen Austin Appleby and Bilal Marshall along with touted incoming freshman Danny Etling, who already is on campus.
  • New defensive coordinator Greg Hudson needs to develop a linebacking corps that hasn’t been good in over a decade. The lack of playmakers is astounding. Stud DT Kawann Short also must be replaced, but there is some talent up front as well as in the secondary.

Wisconsin

  • The players must adapt to the new Gary Andersen regime. How steep will the learning curve be under the former Utah State boss? Will the attack under offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig look different? Yes, Montee Ball and his truckload of touchdowns are gone. No worries with studs like James White and Melvin Gordon back. But keep an eye on the new center (Dan Voltz) with Travis Frederick gone and on the new left tackle (Ryan Groy) with Ricky Wagner gone.
  • Who will be the quarterback? With Curt Phillips granted a sixth year, there’s a logjam under center. Joel Stave is back after making some starts last season before a broken collarbone ended his year. Danny O’Brien also returns after opening the season as the starter and then getting benched. And redshirt freshman Bart Houston also is in the mix along with mega JC transfer Tanner McEvoy.
  • The new defensive staff will like its front seven. But the secondary needs to develop. Players like CB Reggie Mitchell and S Darius Hillary need to make a move this spring with the likes of CB Devin Smith, CB Marcus Cromartie and S Shelton Johnson gone.

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About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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Josh on 3/1/2013 @ 11:13pm EST Said:

FYI- Conner Crowell is no longer with the Buckeyes. Left the team in January.