On-field action takes backseat to expansion
The Big Ten's biggest news event this spring didn't take place on a football field, but rather in an Arizona hotel. It didn't even involve Big Ten football players, but rather a sixtysomething ex-ACC basketball player.
And the big news was really no news, as Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany tried to put the brakes on the expansion hoopla.
The expansion story took center stage this spring as signs continued to point toward the Big Ten getting bigger, and quite possibly a lot bigger. Lost amid the steady stream of speculation about expansion was the fact that the 11 current Big Ten members actually practiced football this spring.
Spring ball clearly took a backseat, but the session still proved to be noteworthy, and, in some cases, revealing.
It was quiet at the top of the league as Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin went through fairly uneventful springs.
Ohio State seemingly got what it needed from quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who closed spring ball with a solid performance in the spring game as the offense rebounded from a troubling outing a week earlier in the jersey scrimmage. Iowa saw a group of offensive linemen separate itself this spring as it tries to reload up front. Wisconsin's defensive line made strides, while an offense that practiced without star running back John Clay (ankle surgery) and endured some injuries along the line had its ups and downs.
Quarterback competitions attracted plenty of attention around the league, especially at Michigan and Penn State. Michigan's fleet-footed sophomore Denard Robinson closed the gap with returning starter Tate Forcier and put on a show in the spring game, leading many to label him as the man to beat in Ann Arbor. The spring game wasn't as kind to Penn State quarterbacks Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin, whose struggles raised concern and possibly opened the door for true freshman Paul Jones.
Those two races are very open entering the fall, while teams like Minnesota (Adam Weber), Illinois (Nathan Scheelhaase) and Purdue (Robert Marve) have a decent idea of who will be calling signals in 2010. Potential quarterback competitions at Michigan State and Northwestern never got going as Kirk Cousins and Dan Persa were handed the keys to their respective cars.
Injuries, unfortunately, became a storyline around the league as key players such as Purdue running back Ralph Bolden (torn ACL), Minnesota safety Kim Royston (broken leg), Wisconsin backup quarterback Curt Phillips (torn ACL) and Illinois offensive tackle Corey Lewis (torn ACL) went down. Injuries hit Purdue so hard that the Boilermakers had to postpone two spring practices so they could have enough healthy bodies on the field.
Some scheme changes also arrived this spring, especially on defense, as Michigan State and Indiana both emphasized the 3-4 and Michigan caused a stir by saying it would use the 3-3-5 alignment.
So while spring ball in the Big Ten flew under the radar, it should give us plenty to discuss and debate during the next four months.
At least until the next blast of expansion buzz. You know it's coming.
What we learned this spring
You don't get to close the book on the Big Ten's 2010 spring football practice session without first identifying what you learned.
We saw quarterback competitions, defensive scheme tweaks, key injuries and emerging stars, among other things. Some teams welcomed new coordinators and talented early enrollees, while others took business-as-usual approaches to get better.
Here are five takeaways from the spring:
1. Quarterbacks step up: Quarterback play hasn't been a major strength for the Big Ten in recent years, but most signs this spring indicate an uptick is on the way in 2010. Returning starters, such as Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor, Michigan State's Kirk Cousins, Indiana's Ben Chappell, Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien and Minnesota's Adam Weber, took the necessary steps. Denard Robinson stole the show at Michigan's spring game, while new arrivals Purdue's Robert Marve and Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase also impressed.
2. Big Ten defenses will be more multiple: Several Big Ten teams employed three-man fronts during spring ball to increase their speed and athleticism on defense. Michigan State and Indiana both will operate out of the 3-4 much more in 2009, while Michigan worked in a 3-3-5 set. All three teams boast some versatility at linebacker/defensive end with players such as Greg Jones, Adam Replogle and Craig Roh.
3. New coordinators welcomed: Three new coordinators began their on-field duties this spring, and the results were favorable. Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning increased the level of accountability at Illinois, a major underachiever the past two seasons, and identified potential difference-makers on both sides of the ball. Jeff Horton pared down the offense at Minnesota, increasing the comfort level for Weber, MarQueis Gray and the linemen.
4. Penn State unsettled at quarterback: Jay Paterno doesn't sound too worried, but Penn State's quarterbacks didn't make a great first (public) impression in the Blue-White Game, as Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin both struggled. Early enrollee Paul Jones played well and might have worked his way into the mix; that is, if Joe Paterno could stomach playing a true freshman under center. There's no clear leader in what should be a very intriguing race.
5. Coaches see expansion coming: There seems to be greater support -- or at least acceptance -- among Big Ten head coaches that expansion is coming. Penn State's Joe Paterno continued to advocate for eastward expansion, while others such as Minnesota's Tim Brewster and Wisconsin's Bret Bielema also back additions to the Big Ten. Even Ohio State's Jim Tressel seems to understand what's coming, saying, "When things are brought forward and there's a rationale made, and it makes sense, I'm on board with it."
Best of spring
As we put a bow on spring football in the Big Ten, here's a look back at several things that stood out from the past seven weeks.
Best spring game performance: A lot of good choices, but in terms of both short-term and long-term impact, I'm going with Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. With a full offseason under his belt, Robinson capped a strong spring by guiding Michigan's offense to touchdowns on five of six possessions. He provided the scrimmage's highlight by finding Roy Roundtree for a 97-yard touchdown. Honorable mentions go to Illinois running back Mikel LeShoure (12 carries, 129 rush yards, 2 TDs), Michigan State wideout Mark Dell (138 receiving yards), Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush (13-for-18 passing, 147 yards, two TDs), Illinois linebacker/defensive end Nate Palmer (two sacks, INT, fumble recovery) and Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins (10-for-15 passing, 254 yards, TD).
Best out-of-the-blue performance: Kenny Guiton barely made it into Ohio State's 2009 recruiting class, but the quarterback made a strong case to be Terrelle Pryor's backup in the spring game. Guiton tossed two touchdown passes to Taurian Washington and racked up 167 passing yards to lift the Gray team to a win.
Top off-field story: A no-brainer here, as expansion was the story around the Big Ten and most of college football this spring. The expansion push gained greater support and/or more acceptance from Big Ten head coaches, several of whom see the writing on the wall. Although commissioner Jim Delany shot down reports that the expansion timetable has been accelerated, this story isn't going away any time soon.
Top newcomer: Robert Marve seems to have turned a page at Purdue, showing greater maturity off the field and strong play on it. The quarterback transfer from Miami drew good reviews from his new teammates and coaches this spring as he put himself in position to be the Boilers' starter Sept. 4 at Notre Dame.
Best position change: Until Robinson's scrimmage showcase, Cameron Gordon was the talk of spring ball at Michigan. The former wide receiver made an immediate impact at safety, a major position of need for the Wolverines, and drew praise from his coaches and teammates for his hard-hitting style. Keith Nichol also drew good reviews at Michigan State after moving from quarterback to receiver.
Best performance by a true freshman: Paul Jones might challenge Joe Paterno's stance on true freshmen after his performance in the Blue-White Game. While sophomore quarterbacks Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin struggled, Jones, an early enrollee, connected for two touchdown passes.
Biggest setback: Purdue starting running back Ralph Bolden suffered a torn ACL midway through spring drills and is sidelined indefinitely. Although the Boilers think Bolden could return for the fall, it would take a pretty amazing recovery. He'll be missed in the backfield.
Best quote: "There are a couple of defensive ends that haven't played much ball that are going to make a lot of people forget about Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton in a matter of minutes." -- Indiana co-defensive coordinator Joe Palcic, on Darius Johnson and Kevin Bush
Best quote II: "My name's Tucker, not sucker, so we're not going to have him get hit this spring." -- Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, on holding running back Jewel Hampton out of contact
BCS Contenders From Big Ten
Team-By-Team Spring Reports
Illinois: Illinois didn't announce its starting quarterback, but one stood out. For more on the Fighting Illini, click here.
Indiana: Will a switch to a 3-4 defense help Indiana's athleticism on that side? For more on the Hoosiers, click here.
Iowa: Jeff Tarpinian emerged from spring ball as Iowa's starting middle linebacker. For more on the Hawkeyes, click here.
Michigan: After a miserable year for the secondary, help has arrived. For more on the Wolverines, click here.
Michigan State: Arguably no Big Ten team boasts as many offensive weapons as Michigan State. For more on the Spartans, click here.
Minnesota: Adam Weber stepped up and won the quarterback job. For more on the Golden Gophers, click here.
Northwestern: The Wildcats need more help from the run game to help QB Dan Persa. For more on Northwestern, click here.
Ohio State: It looks like Buckeyes fans will get what they want: a more open offense. For more on the Buckeyes, click here.
Penn State: Penn State did some shuffling along the offensive line, and it showed. For more on the Nittany Lions, click here.
Purdue: The concerns about Robert Marve's maturity have disappeared. For more on the Boilermakers, click here.
Wisconsin: How will key players returning from injury, such as John Clay, bounce back? For more on the Badgers, click here.
Big Ten Games To Watch
Post-Spring Power Rankings
1. Ohio State: It was business as usual this spring for the Buckeyes, who are used to lofty expectations and boast experience on both sides of the ball. The offense rebounded nicely in the spring game after setting off alarm bells in the jersey scrimmage. Cameron Heyward leads a talented defense that found some answers along the line and at linebacker.
2. Iowa: Aside from a bunch of banged-up running backs, Iowa had a very solid spring. A very good defensive line got better, players stepped up at linebacker, quarterback Ricky Stanzi worked on avoiding interceptions and the offensive line saw some separation occur. Like Ohio State, Iowa has veterans who can handle the high expectations this fall.
3. Wisconsin: Not surprisingly, spring ball seemed quiet in Madison, as Wisconsin returned plenty of starters on both sides of the ball. A knee injury to backup quarterback Curt Phillips was the big negative, while the defensive line made strides and the secondary finished strong. Injuries prevented the offensive line from truly coming together.
T-4 Michigan State: The Spartans move into a tie with Penn State after a very solid spring. Quarterback Kirk Cousins made strides and should have a ton of weapons at his disposal this fall. A greater emphasis on the 3-4 defense seems to suit Greg Jones and his teammates. Offensive line, secondary and kicker are the big question marks entering the fall.
T-4 Penn State: The Blue-White Game set off alarm bells for many folks, as quarterbacks Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin struggled behind a shuffled offensive line. But I still give Penn State the benefit of the doubt. The Lions always will be very good on defense, and if they can move the ball with running back Evan Royster, they'll buy some time for a young quarterback to get settled.
6. Northwestern: Head coach Pat Fitzgerald called this the healthiest spring his team has gone through, a good sign after a rough season on the injury front in 2009. Quarterback Dan Persa embraced a leadership role, and the defensive front seven turned in a solid spring. Running back and the secondary are the big unknowns.
7. Michigan: A pivotal season for the Maize and Blue could come down to Denard Robinson and an improved offensive line. If Robinson builds off a strong spring, wins the starting quarterback job and gets some room to roam, Michigan should score plenty of points this fall. There's still a lot of work to do on defense and especially in the kicking game.
8. Purdue: The injury bug hit Purdue very hard this spring, as the Boilermakers practiced without 20 players and 10 starters during one stretch and had to postpone two practices because of all the health issues. Running back Ralph Bolden's torn ACL was the Big Ten's most significant spring setback, though Purdue is holding out hope that he can return this fall. Quarterback Robert Marve was a big bright spot for the Boilers this spring.
9. Minnesota: Quarterback Adam Weber answered the challenge this spring and likely will retain his job as the starter. Minnesota also saw growth from the offensive line, and new coordinator Jeff Horton and his simplified scheme clicked well with the players. The Gophers had some setbacks on defense, including safety Kim Royston's broken leg, and still have to replace a whopping nine starters.
10. Illinois: The Illini still have a long way to go, but players responded well to new coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning this spring. Illinois has enough talent at the skill positions, and it built some depth along the defensive line during spring ball. The young quarterbacks had their ups and downs, but Nathan Scheelhaase looked impressive for most of the session.
11. Indiana: This isn't so much a knock against the Hoosiers as it is a wait-and-see approach, especially regarding the defense. Indiana will pass the football very well this fall, but two things still concern me about this team: its struggles with the run game, and whether a chronically poor defense can replace key contributors like Jammie Kirlew and Matt Mayberry. If the Hoosiers can meet those two challenges, they should surprise a lot of folks this fall.