What to watch in the Big East this spring

Spring football in the Big East kicks off March 16. Here's a breakdown of three issues facing each program heading into the spring:


Spring practice starts: March 17

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Building depth: New coach Butch Jones said this is the biggest key for the spring. The Bearcats have a lot of top-flight players with starting experience back, like Zach Collaros, Armon Binns, Isaiah Pead and JK Schaffer. But there's a lot of youth and inexperience in potential backup roles, especially at positions like offensive line, linebacker and receiver. All slates are clean with the new coaching staff, and the spring will be a time when new names can emerge in key roles.

  • Defensive line retooling: Jones will switch back to the 4-3 after a year in the 3-4 scheme. Both starting defensive ends from last year are gone, but the smallish line was overpowered at times near the end of the season anyway. Derek Wolfe should be a fixture inside, Dan Giordano, Brandon Mills and John Hughes step into more prominent roles. Jones will have to decide whether to make Walter Stewart a defensive end or keep him at outside linebacker. The Bearcats could use a little more strength and bulk up front against the bigger Big East offensive lines.

  • Vidal's arrival: USC transfer Vidal Hazelton is eligible after sitting out last year. He reputedly dominated practices last season, and now he'll get to go full time with the first string. A lot of people will be watching closely to see how he and Collaros connect during the spring. A big year by Hazelton will lessen the loss of star wideout Mardy Gilyard and could keep Cincinnati as the Big East's best offense.


Spring practice starts: March 16

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • Secondary matters: UConn returns a truckload of starters and looks rock solid in most areas. But the defensive backfield will be an area of emphasis starting in the spring. Gone are stalwarts Robert McClain and Robert Vaughn from a secondary that got picked apart much of the season by opposing passing games. Dwayne Gratz and Blidi Wreh-Wilson showed progress by the end of their redshirt freshmen seasons and should be the starting corners. The Huskies need someone to replace Vaughn at safety and overall better performance from the unit.

  • Frazer vs. Endres: Zach Frazer and Cody Endres have been splitting starts since the second half of the 2008 season at quarterback. Endres took over early last year and played well until he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Frazer picked things up late after a slow start. The competition should be back on this spring, with Frazer probably holding the edge given his late-season improvement.

  • Catch as catch can: Receiver was a major question for UConn going into last spring, when walk-on senior Marcus Easley surprised everybody with his giant leap forward. He became the go-to guy in 2009, but now he's gone, along with starter Brad Kanuch. So the Huskies are basically back in the same position as this time a year ago, needing to find some reliable pass catchers. Kashif Moore may be the next to break out after some good, late-year performances. And perhaps former highly-touted recruit Dwayne Difton will emerge. UConn hopes to catch lightning in a bottle again like it did with Easley.


Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 16

What to watch:

  • Switching to Strong: The Cardinals will have their first practices under new coach Charlie Strong, who promises to bring a much different style than former coach Steve Kragthorpe. Strong is known as being an intense guy on the field, and as a former top-flight defensive coordinator, he will likely be particularly demanding of players on that side of the ball. There will be new terminology to learn, new assistants and new standards to which the Cardinals must adjust in a hurry.

  • The quarterback shuffle: Louisville had three quarterbacks -- Adam Froman, Justin Burke and Will Stein -- start games last year. All three will be given the chance to win the job in the spring, and mid-year enrollee Luke Woodley might see some snaps as well. Don't be surprised if this competition goes into the fall and if other newcomers like Dominique Brown get a look. Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford wants to run a Florida-style spread offense, which might favor the more mobile Froman if he chooses to go with a veteran under center.

  • Line play: The trenches have not been a particularly strong suit for Louisville the past couple of seasons, one of the reasons why the program has fallen out of annual postseason play. The Cardinals have gotten very little pass rush from the defensive line and not enough of a consistent push from the offensive line. Strong asked the offensive linemen to rework their bodies to prepare for the spread, and he'll need replacements for two senior defensive tackles. Junior-college imports Randy Salmon and Tyler Harrell will have a chance to impress on the defensive line. If the holdovers don't step up, we could see more newcomers in key spots by the summer.


Spring practice starts: March 18

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • QB competition: Just like last season, there will be an open competition for the quarterback job. Only this time, it's a two-man race instead of a three-way struggle. Sophomore Tino Sunseri would seem to have the inside track after winning the backup job last year behind Bill Stull. But Pat Bostick started most of his freshman year and won a big game at Notre Dame as a sophomore, and has worked hard to improve his mechanics. This is a competition that could linger into summer, but the good news is that Pitt feels like it has two capable quarterbacks.

  • Corner concerns: The Panthers lost two senior starting cornerbacks in Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel. Junior college transfer Saheed Imoru, who enrolled in January, will be given a long look for one of the jobs. Veterans Ricky Gary and Antwuan Reed will also battle for playing time. This is a key area for Pitt to shore up in order for it to compete for a Big East title in 2010.

  • Middle linebacker makeover: Over the last several years, you could count on Pittsburgh's middle linebacker to be among the most productive players in the Big East. There was H.B. Blades, followed by Scott McKillop, and last year sixth-year senior Adam Gunn performed at an all-conference level. It's an extremely important position in Dave Wannstedt's defensive scheme, which funnels a lot of plays toward the linebackers. Dan Mason got some significant playing time as a freshman when Gunn was hurt. The Panthers will need him to make big strides forward this spring in order to lead the defense.


Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • New-look O-line: The Rutgers offensive line didn't meet lofty expectations last year, but the Scarlet Knights would still like to have Anthony Davis, Ryan Blaszczyk and Kevin Haslam back. Instead, it's time to rebuild that unit, with Art Forst and Desmond Wynn as new anchors. Last year's prized recruit, Antwan Lowery, will move over from the defensive side to see if he can bolster the offensive front. It should be an interesting competition for jobs, and Rutgers' season could again depend on how well, and how quickly, the O-line comes together.

  • Finding more playmakers: Last year at this time, Rutgers knew it had Tim Brown at receiver and the rest was up in the air. Mohamed Sanu switched from defense late in the spring because of the other wideouts' poor showings and injuries, and he had a breakout year. Now, it's Sanu and a bunch of question marks. The Scarlet Knights need somebody like Mark Harrison or Julian Hayes to give quarterback Tom Savage another option in the passing game.

  • Cornering the market: Last year's best player, cornerback Devin McCourty, is off to the NFL Draft. As is his backup, Billy Anderson. Freshmen Darrell Givens and Logan Ryan will try to win that job and keep the secondary from losing too much. It should be a fun battle to watch.


Spring practice starts: March 16

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • Who'll take the snaps?: B.J. Daniels will be held out of contact drills, and South Florida doesn't have another scholarship quarterback on the roster since Evan Landi moved to receiver. New coach Skip Holtz will have to figure out ways to hold scrimmages and contact work with quarterbacks, even if that means bringing Landi back under center or holding quarterback tryouts. Daniels should be able to get enough work in while wearing the non-contact jersey, but building depth behind him for the fall is a top priority.

  • Youngsters on defense: South Florida lost six senior defensive starters, five were invited to the NFL Combine. That's a whole lot of talent for any team to replace. Luckily, the Bulls have some promising young players on defense, including sophomore linebacker Sam Barrington and defensive end Ryne Giddins, who's applying for a medical redshirt after an injury-filled freshman campaign. Junior college imports Claude Davis and Curtis Weatherspoon enrolled in January, and South Florida can only hope they make the kind of immediate impact that former juco players like Kion Wilson and Jason Pierre-Paul did.

  • Running back derby: The Bulls have a lot of candidates to become the main tailback but no definite No. 1 guy. Is it time for Mike Ford to finally claim that status after his huge performance in the International Bowl? Or will Mo Plancher reclaim starting duties by gaining a sixth year of eligibility? Lindsey Lamar also looked impressive as a freshman and is the speediest back. This should be a good competition to watch, and Holtz may want to solidify roles in the backfield more than the previous staff did.


Spring practice starts: March 22

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • Naturally Nassib?: Ryan Nassib was surprisingly named the starter a week into spring practice a year ago -- only to be unseated when Greg Paulus landed in the Orange's lap a few weeks later. Nassib still saw plenty of snaps last season behind Paulus and is the presumed starter going into 2010. But he'll still have to play well this spring to hold off redshirt freshman Charley Loeb and perhaps a challenge from incoming freshman Jonny Miller this summer.

  • Marrone's offense: Head coach Doug Marrone installed himself as offensive coordinator. Last time he held that title, Marrone oversaw a potent New Orleans Saints offense led by Drew Brees. The Orange aren't quite the Saints, but we'll see what kind of changes and new wrinkles Marrone has in store during the spring.

  • Overall improvement: By the final game against UConn, Syracuse was starting just four players who were first-stringers in 2008. The roster underwent serious upheaval in 2009 from dismissals, transfers and injuries, and multiple young players got their first taste of live college football. It's also the second year under Marrone, so there should be some natural progression that should begin to make itself evident in the spring. The Orange need better play at a lot of spots, including receiver and defensive line.


Spring practice starts: April 6

Spring game: April 30

What to watch:

  • Geno's time: This will be Geno Smith's team, especially in the spring. The sophomore takes over at quarterback and will face very little competition before Barry Brunetti and Jeremy Johnson arrive on campus. West Virginia moved the start of spring ball to a later date in large part to give Smith more time to heal a foot injury. He played well in relief of Jarrett Brown a couple of times as a true freshman and needs to really grow for the Mountaineers to be a major force in 2010.

  • Catching on: With leading deep threat Alric Arnett and slot guy Wes Lyons moving on, there's opportunity for new players to get involved at receiver. Look for Logan Heastie and Stedman Bailey to make improvements and compete for playing time after serving as understudies during their freshmen campaigns. The Mountaineers also may want to get Tavon Austin more involved, perhaps as the other slot receiver opposite Jock Sanders, forming a small, but blazingly fast, receiving duo.

  • Offensive line improvement: West Virginia's five offensive line starters took almost every single snap in 2009. That's the good news. The bad news was that the line didn't perform at the level it needed to every week. But three of those players, Don Barclay, Josh Jenkins and Joe Madsen, were in their first year of starting, so the hope is they'll improve off that experience. West Virginia brings four of the five back and needs to find a replacement for right tackle Selvish Capers.