QB battle continues in Madison while Illinois' backfield reloads

Updated: April 22, 2008, 1:12 PM ET

Ongoing Arms Race

Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst doesn't chain himself to a system, but he wouldn't mind chaining himself to a starting quarterback.

Allan Evridge

AP Photo/Andy Manis

Allan Evridge is pushing to be Wisconsin's starting QB.

"There's times when you just want them to go grab that thing, whoever it is, go grab it," Chryst said. "You'd love for it to go that way, and yet it's not like I'll come away disappointed with the spring that someone didn't move forward."

Top contenders Allan Evridge and Dustin Sherer competed throughout this spring, but the distance between them remained negligible when practice wrapped Saturday. Evridge, a transfer from Kansas State who hasn't seen meaningful playing time since 2005, holds a slight edge over Sherer, but the competition will spill over to the summer.

Chryst isn't surprised. He didn't settle on last year's starter, Tyler Donovan, until weeks before the season. And given that Evridge and Sherer entered the spring with just 15 combined pass attempts for the Badgers, a lengthy contest seemed probable.

"Guys have had their moments where one is starting to separate, and then it's followed up by another guy [improving] or inconsistency," Chryst said. "Understanding it's April, not August, I'm all right with it. There's nothing that needs to be decided now."

Chryst admits that sometimes a team can identify the starting quarterback before the coaches can, but he's not concerned about split loyalties.

"It's not like there's a clubhouse favorite," he said.

Whoever wins the job will run an offense tailored to his skill set. Chryst doesn't believe in the plug-and-play method and embraces change with new personnel.

"Our offense should have enough structure, but also enough flexibility," Chryst said. "If you lose Brian Calhoun or Brandon Williams or Owen Daniels, you lose a Luke Swan, you lose a Joe Thomas, you don't replace those guys with guys just like 'em."

The Badgers don't have to replace anybody at running back, and Chryst doesn't mind the logjam there. He spent the spring evaluating a four-pack of backs: incumbent P.J. Hill, top reserves Zach Brown and Lance Smith, and redshirt freshman John Clay.

Smith, the only back who participated in practice last spring, comes off a season in which he rushed for 429 yards despite playing only in home games because of a suspension stemming from an alleged fight with his girlfriend.

"There were a lot of distractions and no continuity," Chryst said. "It's been good for him to go to work."

The same goes for Hill, who had never been healthy for spring ball before this year.

Hill and Clay, who check in at 228 and 231 pounds, respectively, provide power in the backfield. Smith and Brown counter with top-shelf speed.

"They all are a little bit different," Chryst said. "That's what is kind of nice."

No Big Rush

As Illinois' running backs drilled in a corner of the practice field on a recent afternoon, men carrying hard hats and lunch buckets trudged by, a hard day's work behind them.

Mikel LeShoure

AP Photo/The News-Gazette, John Dixon

Illinois RB Mikel LeShoure inherited Rashard Mendenhall's No. 5, and will try to emulate his success.

The renovation of 85-year-old Memorial Stadium is in full swing, and a makeover is also under way in the Illini backfield. Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Rashard Mendenhall is gone, passing down his No. 5 jersey to Mikel LeShoure, a freshman who enrolled a semester early.

LeShoure is one of only three running backs who participated in spring ball, working alongside projected starter Daniel Dufrene and redshirt freshman Darius Purcell, a converted safety. Redshirt freshman Troy Pollard will rejoin the group this summer after undergoing knee surgery, and true freshman Jason Ford also is expected to compete for carries.

The spring didn't provide many answers for the backs, who weren't helped by injuries to starting offensive linemen Ryan McDonald (neck) and Jon Asamoah (turf toe). They combined for just 43 rushing yards in an April 12 scrimmage, raising anxiety about how the Illini can survive without the nation's sixth-leading rusher.

"There ain't many guys out there that could take over from Rashard," coach Ron Zook said. "A year ago at this time, we didn't know that. So we were saying the same things. But we've run the ball pretty well since we've been here. We're going to be fine."

Illinois has led the Big Ten in rushing each of the past two seasons. A three-peat hinges on continued improvement from quarterback Juice Williams and a collective effort from the backs.

Dufrene averaged 6.3 yards a carry in limited work last season, and hopes are high for Ford and LeShoure.

"We know the guys we've recruited have ability," running backs coach Reggie Mitchell said. "It's just a matter of the freshmen getting acclimated to what we're doing."

Spread the Wealth

The incessant buzz about prodigious freshman Stephfon Green hasn't fazed Evan Royster, Penn State's projected starter at running back.

"I never really thought of it as an insult to me," said Royster, who rushed for 513 yards and five touchdowns playing behind Rodney Kinlaw last season. "It's his first year actually getting out and getting a chance to play. I'm sure Rodney felt the same way last year when people were talking about me."

If things go as planned, people will be talking up both Royster and Green this fall. As Penn State shifted to more of a shotgun spread look this spring, the two players were on the field together, either in the backfield or with one lined up at slot receiver.

The Nittany Lions also used two backs last season but complemented Kinlaw or Royster with a fullback rather than another tailback. Green had 87 rushing yards in Saturday's Blue-White game, including an electrifying 57-yard touchdown run against the first-team defense on his first carry of the day.

Royster had three carries for 24 yards and a touchdown in the game.

"It can confuse the defense a lot," Royster said. "Stepfhon brings a new aspect to the game with his speed. We saw it with our pro day-type thing, he was running sub-4.3. He opens things up for me. I can suck the defense in with the inside run, and he can break it outside."

To do so, Penn State needs a legitimate threat at quarterback. Daryll Clark and Pat Devlin competed throughout the spring, though Clark appeared to gain a slight edge working with the first-team offense and running a system Royster likens to West Virginia's.

"It's kind of the offense Daryll is meant to run," Royster said.

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com.


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Job Opening?

As several Big Ten teams choose quarterbacks from a pool of new candidates, Iowa must decide whether its incumbent deserves another term. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz reconfirmed Jake Christensen as his No. 1 quarterback coming out of spring ball, but it was hardly a ringing endorsement.

"We're going to keep it open and let everybody compete for a while," Ferentz said. "We're going to go into [August] with an open mind."

Christensen completed 10 of 16 passes for 124 yards and a touchdown in Saturday's spring game, but he didn't help his cause when cornerback Chris Rowell picked off his first pass attempt and returned it for a touchdown.

Top challenger Ricky Stanzi completed 8 of 14 passes, including a 40-yard touchdown strike to Trey Stross. "In my mind, I'm the guy, but that's not up to me," Christensen told reporters. "I can only take care of my job."

Sideline Captain

Penn State linebacker Sean Lee remains disappointed about the noncontact practice play that left him with a torn ACL and a lost season. Lee was blitzing quarterback Daryll Clark in an April 11 practice when he overextended his knee making a cut. "It was just a freak accident," Lee said. Despite upcoming surgery and the guarantee of a season on the sideline, Lee will remain heavily involved with the team, possibly as a captain.

"I'd accept it," said Lee, a shoo-in for the job if he had remained healthy. "That would be an honor, and I would try to help out in numerous ways. It's frustrating because it wouldn't be the way I wanted to help, but I feel I still have influence on our team."

Lee expects on-field leadership to come from players such as senior safety Anthony Scirrotto, senior cornerback Lydell Sargeant and senior defensive end Josh Gaines. "The leadership's not going to be a problem at all," he said.

Receiving Orders

Michigan State's wide receivers have been in the spotlight all spring, and they likely will remain there for some time as the search to replace explosive wideout/returner Devin Thomas continues.

Returning starter Mark Dell and promising redshirt freshman B.J. Cunningham have gotten a close look this spring while Deon Curry recovers from a back injury. Both Dell and Cunningham saved their best performances for the spring game, combining for 217 receiving yards. Chris D. Rucker, one of two wideouts with the same first and last name, added 90 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

The Spartans will be helped by Curry's return and the arrival of heralded freshman Fred Smith this summer.

"We're going to surprise a lot of people," Dell told The Detroit News. "It's not like we just have one receiver. We, collectively, are capable of doing a lot of things. Devin was a great player. It's going to be tough to fill his spot. We've just got to get collectively better."

Extra Points

• Iowa went through spring practice scrambling for answers at running back, and it might have found one from an unlikely source. Walk-on Paki O'Meara finished spring ball atop the depth chart at running back after competing with junior college transfer Nate Guillory.

Shonn Greene is expected to rejoin the mix this summer after spending a year improving his academics. Although Greene has Big Ten experience, he could take time to get back into playing condition.

"He's practiced well and improved," Ferentz said of O'Meara. "If he's our starter in September, we'll go with him and have a lot of confidence."

• Bryant Browning finished spring practice with the inside track to claim Ohio State's starting right tackle spot. With several of his competitors battling injuries this spring, Browning emerged as the front-runner to replace Kirk Barton on the line.

"If we had a game tomorrow, it would be Bryant," coach Jim Tressel told reporters. "He's very dependable. He's got power. He does some things that we think are going to be very, very special, and he works like crazy."

• Linebacker depth was among Purdue's biggest uncertainties entering the spring, but Jason Werner has started to put the coaches at ease. Werner turned in a strong spring practice and will enter the summer as the top candidate to start at strongside linebacker.

Kevin Green put his stamp on the starting middle linebacker spot, and returning starter Anthony Heygood fills the weak side. Werner had five tackles and two pass breakups in the spring game.

"I still think [Werner] is our best linebacker," coach Joe Tiller said. "He comes out of his hips when he hits you."

Purdue's already thin offensive line lost another member when tackle Ryan Prater suffered a serious knee injury in an April 12 scrimmage.

• Indiana finished spring ball feeling much better about its cornerback play than when it started. Cornerbacks Donnell Jones, Christopher Phillips and Richard Council all recorded interceptions in Saturday's spring game, providing hope that the Hoosiers can avoid a drop-off after losing starters Tracy Porter and Leslie Majors.

"Going into the spring, a lot of people were concerned [about] 'What are you going to do at corner?'" coach Bill Lynch said. "We felt the young guys were going to be good players, and I think they showed it today."