Spring look around the Big Ten

Who will replace Troy Smith at QB for Ohio State? Can Michigan rebuild its defense? Will Wisconsin stay hungry? Our Big Ten notebook addresses those questions and much more.

Illinois Fighting Illini
Spring practice starts: March 27
Spring game: April 21
Key area: Improving the offense is crucial to a climb from 1-7 in the league last year. The Illini finished 10th in the Big Ten in scoring and managed more than 16 points only three times in those seven league defeats.

Indiana Hoosiers
Spring practice starts: March 20
Spring game: April 14
Key area: IU has been trying to upgrade its defense since Terry Hoeppner's arrival prior to the 2005 season. That mission remains a top priority, since the unit placed eighth or lower in every statistical category last season. Allowing more than 400 yards and 32 points per game simply cannot continue for the Hoosiers if they hope to end a bowl drought dating to 1993.

Iowa Hawkeyes
Spring practice starts: March 7
Spring game: April 14
Key area: Sophomore Jake Christensen takes over at quarterback for three-year starter Drew Tate. Is Christensen the same charismatic leader, or will he need to be? Perhaps not, if the Hawkeyes can develop some receiving talent that wasn't available to Tate last season.

Michigan Wolverines
Spring practice starts: March 17
Spring game: April 14
Key area: The defense was a monster for 11 games last season. Then, either the vaunted Michigan D forgot how to cover the pass, or it never knew how and was simply the creation of a bad Big Ten. Either way, the Wolverines allowed 72 of their 207 points in losses to Ohio State and USC in the Rose Bowl. Losing impact players like CB Leon Hall, DE LaMarr Woodley and DT Alan Branch won't help the rebuilding efforts.

Michigan State Spartans

Spring practice starts: March 20
Spring game: April 21
Key area: The transition from head coach John L. Smith to Mark Dantonio will bring some stability. Dantonio learned under Jim Tressel at Ohio State, so he won't be slapping himself at any postgame news conferences. Instead, it might be reporters who need to slap themselves awake. Running backs Jehuu Caulcrick and Javon Ringer (if back healthy from a midseason knee injury) will allow MSU to be patient with Drew Stanton's replacement at QB.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Spring practice starts: March 1
Spring game: April 7
Key area: The Gophers must find a capable replacement for four-year starting QB Bryan Cupito. Trouble is, the guy who eventually wins the job might not be on campus until the fall. That's incoming freshman Clint Brewster, the son of head coach Tim Brewster. Three other candidates have the spring to impress their new head coach: redshirt freshman Adam Weber, junior Tony Mortensen and senior Mike Frankberg.

Northwestern Wildcats
Spring practice starts: March 26
Spring game: April 21
Key area: Head coach Pat Fitzgerald presides over his first spring practice and will try to refine an offense that showed flashes last season. Once QB C.J. Bacher took over in midseason, the Wildcats passed for 200 yards every week and won two of five games and should have claimed a third, had they not blown a 38-3 lead against Michigan State. That proves there is much work to be done on defense, too.

Ohio State Buckeyes
Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 21
Key area: There are three candidates to succeed Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith at quarterback. Fourth-year junior Todd Boeckman is the front-runner over sophomore Rob Schoenhoft and redshirt freshman Antonio Henton. The Buckeyes must also shake the mental fallout of a 27-point loss to Florida in the national championship game.

Penn State Nittany Lions
Spring practice starts: March 31
Spring game: April 21
Key area: Anthony Morelli is one of three returning starting quarterbacks in the Big Ten. He must develop some rapport with a talented receiving group to help Penn State become more explosive on offense. The Lions ranked eighth in the league in passing and ninth in scoring in 2006.

Purdue Boilermakers
Spring practice starts: March 21
Spring game: April 21
Key area: Is it a blessing or a curse that Purdue returns nine defensive starters? That unit not only ranked last in the Big Ten in 2006, it ranked 114th nationally. Some of the Boilermakers' problems were related to injuries in the secondary, so the job may not be as big as it appears.

Wisconsin Badgers
Spring practice starts: March 13
Spring game: April 21
Key area: The Badgers must pick between Tyler Donovan (2-0 as a starter) and Kansas State transfer Allan Evridge at QB. That will be much easier now that offensive coordinator Paul Chryst decided to stay in Madison and turned down a job with the Dallas Cowboys. Wisconsin returns so many veterans, the biggest challenge for head coach Bret Bielema may be keeping his team hungry after a 12-1 season in 2006.

Bruce Hooley has covered the Big Ten for 18 years and now hosts a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.