Breaking down the Big Ten

Can Ohio State fill its holes on offense and defense? Is Wisconsin the team to beat? Will the Ron Zook's recruiting classes make Illinois a dangerous foe? Can Michigan rebuild its defense? Take a look at what Big Ten questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall.

2006 overall record:
2006 conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 9, Defense: 9, Kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Juice Williams, RB Rashard Mendenhall, WR Chris James, T Akim Millington, LB J Leman, CB Vontae Davis
Key losses

K Jason Reda, P Kyle Yelton, RB Pierre Thomas, DT Josh Norris

Top newcomer: DE Martez WilsonInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Pierre Thomas (755 yds)
Passing: Juice Williams* (1,489 yds)
Receiving: Kyle Hudson* (403 yds)
Tackles: J Leman* (152)
Sacks: Derek Walker* (5.5)
Interceptions: Brit Miller*, Travon Bellamy*, Kevin Mitchell (2)

Spring answers: 1. Freshman wide receiver Arrelious Benn is better than advertised: Illinois opened eyes by recruiting Benn away from Notre Dame, but not as many eyes as Benn opened with his performance in the spring. He was outstanding leading up to the spring game, then put on a show to end spring practice. Benn accounted for 187 total yards and a touchdown, flashing his big play ability as both a receiver and ball carrier. Benn caught five passes for 145 yards and had three plays of 30 yards or more. So much for needing a stretch-the-field threat to pair with Isiah "Juice" Williams. Cross that one off the list now that Benn is on campus.

2. Despite nine returning starters on defense, some newcomers will crack the lineup. One thing that helps a developing program is hunger. The redshirt freshman class has it, and no one personifies it more than defensive end Jerry Brown. Illinois doesn't have a vacancy at his position, but expect him to make one off a spring game in which he played well against the first-team offensive line. Brown had 1.5 sacks and 2.5 negative-yardage tackles. He's too light at 253 points to be an every-down factor, but his 6-foot-4 height seems suited to making him a third-down factor as a tough obstacle to throw over.

3. The special teams woes may be over. Illinois' punting game was a disaster in 2006, finishing last in the league in net punting at 31.1 yards. Kyle Yelton's 37-yard average was part of the problem, but so was coverage. Now two years deep into Zook's recruiting, there are enough athletes to make plays in the open field. As for punting deeper, redshirt freshman Anthony Santella appears to have a much bigger leg than the guy he'll replace, Kyle Yelton. Santella boomed punts of 51 and 59 yards in the spring game, with excellent hang time on both.

4. Juice Williams looks ready to take charge: Williams had his hands full just running the offense as a true freshman, having taken the job early in the year. Now he's had an offseason to assert himself as a workout warrior and as the focal point of everything the Illini are trying to accomplish when in possession of the football. Zook has surrounded him with some additional playmakers and the offensive line now has a better sense of when Williams will buy time in the pocket and when he'll scramble. Better yet, Williams showed more touch on his short passes and began looking off defenders more effectively.

5. People care for the first time in years: It wasn't Alabama's 92,000 or Ohio State's 75,000, but the 10,000 Illinois drew for its spring game was still significant. It shows they believe in Zook and what he's doing, or at least want to believe. Either way, at least they have hope, which is something that had all but evaporated from the program before Zook's arrival.

Fall questions: 1. Will freshman D'Angelo McCray come back quickly from offseason knee surgery and help on the defensive line? Chris Norwell and David Lindquist are the starters at tackle exiting spring practice. McCray could offer immediate help once he arrives, because Illinois really doesn't have another player with his size (6-4, 290) and athleticism to provide depth at the position.

2. Can Martez Wilson make an immediate impact at linebacker and offer J Leman some help? Leman's play in 2006 merited first-team all-conference mention. He led the Big Ten with just under 11 tackles per-game. It would be nice if Wilson could come in immediately and take some of the pressure off Leman by delivering on the outlandish expectations that accompany his arrival from Chicago's Simeon High School. At 6-4, 230 pounds, Wilson has the physical attributes required of a great Big Ten linebacker. Will he adapt quickly to the college level? If so, Illinois' defense could get appreciably better in a hurry.

3. Does a veteran offensive line mean a great offensive line? The Illini return four starters up front, but that may not be good. Sure, Illinois led the league in rushing last season, but it was last in passing and next-to-last in scoring. Williams wasn't as sure of himself in the pocket as coaches would like, but some of that was protection-related. With a year's experience as a unit, the offensive line needs to give its quarterback protection and still maintain its outstanding success rushing the football.

4. Who steps in if Williams goes down? There are so many issues to address with a 2-10 program that backup quarterback might seem a stretch, but Illinois puts so much faith in Williams that who plays in his absence could be huge. Williams not only runs a lot, he's not afraid of contact and often initiates it. So, a tweaked shoulder or turned ankle is always one snap away. Redshirt freshman Eddie McGee was outstanding in an early scrimmage, but dreadful in the spring game. He held the ball too long and threw an interception. Coaches must impress upon him the necessity of preparing as if he will play each week, because it's possible he could be needed any time.

5. Will Ron Zook make his critics eat crow? Everything about Illinois' program screams up and coming. Zook is a relentless recruiter, the facilities have been upgraded and there's a buzz about Illini football similar to when Ron Turner was on the cusp of building his Big Ten championship team in 2001. Now is the time for Zook to put it in the face of those who hounded his every move at Florida. But can he do it? Can he close the deal now that the talent is falling into place and he has the support of fans like he never got in Gainesville? The Illini didn't exactly surge last season after their big road win at Michigan State. Instead, they didn't win any of their last seven. Some would say the Zook factor took hold. Now's the time to prove them wrong.

2006 overall record:
2006 conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 8, Defense: 8, Kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Kellen Lewis, TB Marcus Thigpen, WR James Hardy, LB Will Patterson, CB Tracy Porter
Key losses

WR Jahkeen Gilmore, FS Will Meyers

Top newcomer: QB Christopher HagerupInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Kellen Lewis* (441 yds)
Passing: Kellin Lewis* (2,221 yds)
Receiving: James Hardy* (722 yds)
Tackles: Will Meyers (78)
Sacks: Kenny Kendal (4)
Interceptions: Will Meyers (5)

Spring answers: 1. Kellen Lewis establishes himself as the quarterback: Lewis got the job last year because of an injury to Blake Powers. Would they battle and introduce uncertainty to the position, or would one make the job his own? Lewis grabbed the challenge and looks like a better-throwing version of Antwaan Randle El.

2. Powers finds a spot: Powers won't wilt on the bench waiting for an injury to get him back on the field. He's moved to tight end, where he can be an outlet for Lewis and perhaps make a big impact in the passing game, given his understanding of it from the quarterback's perspective.

3. Stability and talent rises up on the corners: Cornerbacks Leslie Majors and Tracy Porter appear capable of playing man-to-man and allowing safeties to help more in run support. Majors started four times last season and Porter was second-team All-Big Ten. Many teams in the league would be content with corners this talented.

4. Nick Polk can play both ways: Polk might start for the Hoosiers at safety and play some wide receiver. It's clear from his performance in the spring game he's capable of double duty. How about six catches for 113 yards, without taking a single offensive snap in practice the final two weeks of camp? IU is looking for two safeties and Polk was impressive there, as well.

5. Terrance Turner will be the one that got away: Every year in the Big Ten, there's a player who crops up on one team and prompts the question: "How did he get overlooked by his home-state school?" Expect Turner to be that guy. The redshirt freshman out of Auburn Hills, Mich., will have Lloyd Carr and Mark Dantonio wondering how they overlooked him once he makes his debut. At 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, he has the size to cause cornerbacks big problems. Consider his seven-catch, 157-yard, two-touchdown performance in the spring game the first warning.

Fall questions: 1. Will coach Terry Hoeppner be cleared to return to the sidelines? Hoeppner missed spring football to attend to "personal health matters.'' That sounded chilling, given his recent medical history. Hoeppner missed two games last season when doctors conducted a follow up procedure to his original brain surgery from December of 2005 for what was described as a possible recurrent tumor. Test results, Hoeppner said later, showed the best possible results, implying that doctors removed scar tissue. He signed a two-year contract extension after that health scare.

2. Is James Hardy ready to be the Hardy of 2005 or of 2006? Hardy's numbers were similar to his breakout freshman season, but his 51 catches for 722 yards and 10 TDs last season were deceiving. Seven of those touchdown catches came in two games. As a freshman, he was much more consistent, catching 61 passes for 893 yards and 10 TDs.

3. Can Marcus Thigpen consistently make big plays other than on special teams? Thigpen has Ted Ginn Jr.-type speed, but does it translate to an every-down tailback? He has a 100-yard rushing game on his résumé. Is that an aberration, or a sign of things to come?

4. Do the players believe in Hoeppner's bowl bid dream? Hoeppner exudes confidence he can end an IU bowl drought dating to 1993, but it's not apparent his team buys in. IU has been close the past two years, but faded after a 5-4 start last season and lost its last three games. Now it's time the Hoosiers take that step, or stop talking about it.

5. Are the young offensive line recruits of 2006 ready to challenge for playing time? Hoeppner lauded his five line signees in his first recruiting class as the building blocks of the program's future. They don't have to be this year, because IU returns five linemen who each made five or more starts last season. But after a year sitting and watching, it's time the youngsters press for time and reward their coach's confidence.

2006 overall record:
2006 conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 6, Defense: 8, Kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
TB Albert Young, TB Damien Sims, DE Kenny Iwebema, DE Bryan Mattison, LB Mike Klinkenborg, C Rafael Eubanks
Key losses

QB Drew Tate, OG Mike Elgin, TE Scott Chandler, K Kyle Schlicher, CB Marcus Paschal

Top newcomer: OT Bryan BulagaInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Albert Young* (779 yds)
Passing: Drew Tate (2,623 yds)
Receiving: Andy Brodell* (724 yds)
Tackles: Mike Klinkenborg* (129)
Sacks: Bryan Mattison* (6.5)
Interceptions: Mike Humpal*, Adam Shada, Miguel Merrick (3)

Spring answers: 1. Watch out for Brett Greenwood. The former walk-on made a big impression with his play at free safety and could start in the fall. A year ago, Greenwood didn't have any offers he liked coming out of high school, so he came to Iowa with a chip on his shoulder and turned heads during his redshirt season. He made the travel squad, but didn't see game action. That will definitely change this year, given that Marcus Paschal and Miguel Merrick are now in the NFL, opening up two spots in the defensive backfield. Coaches love Greenwood's toughness and leadership. He could be the classic fall-through-the-cracks player who ends up starting for many years.

2. Adrian Clayborn is on the perfect schedule. Clayborn, the Missouri high school player-of-the-year in 2005, won't be asked to step in and start at defensive end this season. But that doesn't mean he won't contribute significantly. Clayborn is behind both Kenny Iwebema and Bryan Mattison, so the starting jobs are spoken for. That's OK, though, because Clayborn will be allowed to specialize in rushing the passer and should make an impact on third down. Coach Kirk Ferentz spoke highly of Clayborn during bowl preparations and has hinted that maybe Clayborn could have been used last season, when he redshirted. Ferentz likely won't regret that move in the future, because it will keep Clayborn on campus a year longer.

3. The receiving corps won't be a detriment again. Quarterback Drew Tate had a subpar conclusion to his Iowa career, but some of that wasn't Tate's fault. It's hard to be an effective quarterback without a few reliable receivers. Iowa had none at the start of last season and developed only one Tate could count on. This year, that won't be a problem for Jake Christensen or Arvell Nelson. James Cleveland, the first early enrollee in Iowa history, has now had two spring practices and a full redshirt season to grasp the offense. His development is crucial, because Iowa needs more than just Dominique Douglas and Andy Brodell to run the three-receiver sets it favors. Right now, Cleveland is in the two deeps and he is one of the better bets to see plenty of playing time this season.

4. The defense looks solid against the run. Iowa's rushing defense fell off horribly after September last season. The Hawkeyes allowed 163 rushing yards per-game over their final eight games. That can't continue, and it won't. What went wrong? Injuries, mostly. Now, with Iwebema and defensive tackle Mitch King healthy, Iowa should be able to play as well as it did against run-oriented Wisconsin and Minnesota late last season. The front four looked so good in the spring it's evoking comparisons to Iowa's 2004 unit that helped the Hawkeyes gain a share of the Big Ten title.

5. Another tight end stands up. Hayden Fry introduced the peculiarity of a tight end standing up at the line of scrimmage and it's been hard not to notice Iowa's tight ends ever since. Scott Chandler was Option No. 1 in the passing game last season, more by necessity than anything else. But tight ends are crucial to what Iowa does offensively, not just in the passing game, but in run blocking. Brandon Myers' development in the spring alleviates the concern over losing Chandler to the NFL. Myers and Tony Moeaki will give Iowa a pair of reliable players at the position.

Fall questions: 1. Will Jake Christensen play well enough at quarterback to hold off Arvell Nelson? It's Christensen's job, but his hold on the position is tenuous. He's not as mobile as Tate, which will force Iowa to block better up front to avoid some of the sacks Tate's mobility spared the team the past three years. Nelson was outstanding in the spring and brings the same flair to the position as Tate. Nelson, who prepped at Cleveland Glenville in Ohio, the same school that produced Troy Smith, can make plays with his legs and by creating time to find receivers down field. Christensen needs to start fast, or he could be watching.

2. Can the Hawkeyes be special on special teams? Iowa went 31-7 from 2002-2004 thanks in part to a field goal conversion rate of 87 percent. Nate Kaeding was rock solid the first two years of that stretch, but Kyle Schlicher did well in his first season as a starter in 2004. Schlicher wasn't quite as reliable the past two years, and the concern is that sophomore Austin Signor and freshman Daniel Murray won't be much of an upgrade from Schlicher's 13-of-20 success last season.

3. Will Dominique Douglas take the next step and dominate? Douglas developed under fire last season, when Iowa had no established receivers. His 49 catches for 654 receiving yards ranked second nationally among true freshmen. Now it falls upon him to be a guy defenses must game plan to stop. He must make the tough catches look easy and convert balls that could fall incomplete without him being to blame into receptions that make the highlight reel and, more important, keep drives going. Iowa has enough other talent around him that if Douglas can occupy considerable attention, his teammates will be given openings to do things they otherwise couldn't against straight-up coverage.

4. Can Kirk Ferentz once again earn his reputation as an offensive line wizard? The Hawkeyes will have no shot of rebounding from their sub-.500 finish if either of their young quarterbacks is under fire. That makes developing a dependable offensive line the first priority of fall camp. Plenty of guys got looks in the spring. The offensive line shuffling looked like a game of musical chairs at times. That's what happens when you lose three NFL-caliber linemen in Mike Elgin, Mike Jones and Marshal Yanda. Ferentz has done it before, plugging holes on the line and developing productive players. It's not like he doesn't have talent to work with, starting with tackle Dace Richardson and guard Rafael Eubanks. But others, specifically at right tackle, need to step forward. Christensen is a lefty, so pressure can't be coming from his blind side.

5. Can Iowa's tailbacks take the pressure off its quarterbacks? Senior Albert Young is one of those guys who seems like he's been around for eight years. He was fantastic two years ago, rushing for 1,334 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman. Last year, his production fell off to 779 yards and seven touchdowns. Some of that was offensive line-related, but some of it was Young not making enough happen on his own. He should be fresh this year, because Iowa plans to also use junior Damian Sims. The platoon worked OK last season, with Sims producing 664 yards and six TDs. Together, they need to produce 1,800-2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns this season to make defenses think run first. That would allow Christensen or Nelson a cushion to develop and not force them to win games on their own.

2006 overall record:
2006 conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 6, Defense: 4, Kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Chad Henne, TB Mike Hart, WR Mario Manningham, WR Adrian Arrington, G Adam Kraus, T Jake Long, DT Terrance Taylor, LB Shawn Crable

Key losses

LB David Harris, CB Leon Hall, DT Alan Branch, DE LaMarr Woodley, LB Prescott Burgess, C Mark Bihl, WR Steve Breaston, T Rueben Riley

Top newcomer: QB Ryan MallettInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Mike Hart* (1,562 yds)
Passing: Chad Henne* (2,508 yds)
Receiving: Mario Manningham* (703 yds)
Tackles: David Harris (103)
Sacks: Lamarr Woodley (12.0)
Interceptions: Leon Hall (3)

Spring answers: 1. Adam Kraus won't have to move from guard to center: Michigan hoped it could keep Kraus and monster left tackle Jake Long together, and now it can thanks to the development of sophomore Justin Boren at center. Boren played some guard and some tackle last season as a backup. Now he looks ready to become a force, not just a stop-gap at the most important position on the line.

2. Sophomore receiver Greg Mathews is a viable option if Adrian Arrington doesn't return. Mathews won a coaches' award following spring ball for showing the most desire, character, capacity for leadership and success on and off the field. Now, did he deserve it, or was that a way for head coach Lloyd Carr and his staff to tweak senior Adrian Arrington, who was suspended from spring ball and whose return remains undetermined? Mathews did make the biggest impact of any of the seven true freshmen who played last season. Michigan was going to need some young wideout to step forward, even if Arrington returned, because of the graduation of Steve Breaston. Mathews looks capable of 30 catches or more.

3. The void at middle linebacker won't be damaging. Second-team All-American David Harris is gone to the NFL. Who replaces him isn't known yet, but Michigan's coaches won't lose sleep over the summer. That's because they have juniors John Thompson and Austin Panter and redshirt freshman Obinna Ezeh to pick from. Thompson backed up Harris for two years, so it seemed his job to lose until both Panter and Ezeh had big springs. Ezeh also backed up Shawn Crable outside, but saw enough time in the middle to be in the mix there, as well.

4. Will Johnson is ready to take over for Alan Branch at defensive tackle. Branch's departure for the NFL with one season of eligibility remaining leaves a huge gap -- literally and figuratively -- in the middle of Michigan's defensive line. While the 291-pound Johnson can't match Branch's 320-pound girth, he showed in the spring that there won't be a dramatic drop-off in quickness or athleticism where Branch ruled last year. Johnson backed up both Branch and the returning Terrance Taylor last season with good results. Defensive coordinator Ron English likes Johnson's toughness and dedication, predicting he will be "an outstanding player for us this year. You don't have to worry about his position."

5. Charles Stewart gives Michigan a versatile player in the secondary: Stewart moved from cornerback to safety and played well. Jamar Adams' absence due to injury allowed Stewart to get repetitions at strong safety, but Adams' return in the fall likely means Stewart will move to free safety and challenge Stevie Brown. Brown impressed teammates and coaches with his speed and instincts, so he might hold onto the starting job there. But Stewart, being able to play both safety positions and with his experience at corner, will be valuable in nickel and dime packages.

Fall questions: 1. Will Brandent Englemon be a factor, or fade into the background? The fifth-year senior safety should be on the cusp of his best season. Trouble is, Englemon didn't make the impact in five starts as a junior that he did in 12 as a sophomore. Some of that was injury-related, but if Englemon isn't careful, he'll be an afterthought this year. Jamar Adams has one safety spot locked up, and Stevie Brown and Charles Stewart look impressive at the position, as well. Englemon should be a valuable commodity, given his experience. But is he up to the challenge?

2. Can Morgan Trent be a lock-down cornerback? Leon Hall is gone to the NFL, so Trent should ascend to the role of one-on-one corner. Last year, rather than throw at Hall, most teams attacked Trent. The results weren't pretty in losses to Ohio State and USC, but the entire Michigan secondary was exposed in those defeats. Trent should have taken that humbling and let it stoke his fire for 2007. But his spring was largely indifferent and a disappointment to the coaches. He must be someone on whom they can depend this fall if Michigan is to be an elite pass defense.

3. Will the defense be scarred by the losses to Ohio State and USC? The Wolverines dictated to every opponent through 11 games, allowing just 12 points per game. In the two biggest games of the year, however, Michigan got gashed for 42 and 32 points. Now the Wolverines are missing virtually every playmaker from that defense. Coordinator Ron English will earn his money this year. Maybe the return of Vance Bedford, UM's secondary coach in its co-national championship year of 1997, will help solidify things.

4. Is Chad Henne a big-game quarterback? Henne's statistics are outstanding, and no one doubts his arm strength. But the nagging numbers he must put behind him this year is an 0-3 record against Ohio State and an 0-3 record in bowls. There are other big games Henne has won -- Notre Dame, Penn State, Wisconsin -- but the two biggest games on Michigan's schedule are against the Buckeyes and a bowl opponent. Sometimes, a quarterback is victimized by a lack of talent around him. Playing at Michigan, Henne can't play that card.

5. Is freshman Ryan Mallett ready if Henne if he gets hurt? Michigan's coaches held their breath throughout 2006, because they really had no viable option as a No. 2 quarterback. That's not as true now, because freshman Ryan Mallett's early enrollment allowed him to go through spring practice. At 6-6, 247 pounds, Mallett is the future. Michigan hopes he gets a full year to understudy Henne. But if not, can Mallett be solid enough to not put Michigan in peril with numerous mistakes or turnovers?

2006 overall record:
2006 conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 6, Defense: 6, Kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
TB Javon Ringer, TE Kellen Davis, LB Kaleb Thornhill, FS Otis Wiley, SS Nehemiah Warrick

Key losses

QB Drew Stanton, WR Matt Trannon, WR Jerramy Scott, C Kyle Cook, DT Clifton Ryan, LB David Herron Jr.

Top newcomer: WR Mark DellInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Javon Ringer* (497 yds)
Passing: Drew Stanton (1,807 yds)
Receiving: Kerry Reed (775 yds)
Tackles: Otis Wiley* (94)
Sacks: Ervin Baldwin, Clifton Ryan (4)
Interceptions: Demond Williams, SirDarean Adams (2)

Spring answers: 1. Javon Ringer looked as good as new: Ringer is the Spartans' most-talented tailback and a proven big-play threat. He missed most of the second half of last season with a knee ligament injury that sent shivers through the program, since he missed most of his final year of high school with the same injury. Rather than have surgery, Ringer rehabbed and returned late in the year, but was noticeably slower. Now he looks fine, and promises to shed the brace he wore in the spring once the season begins this fall.

2. The offensive line stayed healthy: Drew Stanton was a shooting gallery target last season as MSU's offensive line vanished in front of him. The Spartans were missing as many as three starters from some games, forcing a constant shuffle up front and zero continuity. All four returning starters avoided injury in the spring and the unit will get even healthier in the fall once right tackle Mike Gyetvai recovers from the shoulder surgery that kept him out all spring.

3. Sir Darean Adams provides some defensive speed: The former Bandit, a glorified safety who blitzed a lot, in the John L. Smith defensive scheme is now a linebacker. At 230 pounds, he might be a shade light for the position, but it's worth the upgrade in speed, which was sorely missing from the Spartans' linebacker crew in 2006.

4. T.J. Williams shows playmaking ability: MSU needs a wide receiver to come forward, since its top three receivers graduated. Williams has the talent to get deep and stretch opposing defenses. His attitude is combustible, so the challenge is to harness his enthusiasm and not let it take him out of games.

5. Eric Gordon impresses the coaching staff: Redshirt freshmen are often the biggest losers in a coaching change, since they are the last group recruited by the former staff. That won't happen to Gordon, though. The 6-0, 225-pounder picked up the defense quickly and could start. If not, he'll offer depth behind the oft-injured Caleb Thornhill.

Fall questions: 1. Can Mark Dantonio build toughness into the marshmallow program of the Big Ten: Michigan State is famous for its fast starts and slow finishes. The Spartans have been a team that wilts at the first sign of pressure. When adversity strikes again, will it be different under Dantonio than it was under John L. Smith?

2. Will Brian Hoyer be a less-spectacular, but more steady quarterback than Drew Stanton? Hoyer won't offer the same run-pass mix, but for all of Stanton's wondrous talents, he never took MSU to a bowl game in three years as a starter. Hoyer won't be asked to do as much, so maybe he can accomplish more.

3. Can MSU devise an offensive game plan to hide its defensive deficiencies, without being too predictable? Dantonio loves to run the ball, and with Ringer, Jehuu Caulcrick and A.J. Jimmerson, he has the weapons to make the run a priority. But there must be enough diversity to keep teams from loading up, yet still own the clock so MSU's defense need not play more than half the game.

4. Will Dantonio's defense pick up the intricacies of his system? Spring only gave the new coach so much time to cover the basics. His strength has always been halftime adjustments, something MSU sorely lacked last season. The Spartans allowed 111 fourth-quarter points a year ago after allowing 133 in the second period. So, clearly, there were no adjustments made, or executed.

5. Will tight end Kellen Davis finally play as good as he looks. Davis is an Adonis to look at, but a Girl Scout when it comes to blocking and performance. If he ever performs to the level of his physical tools, he'll be a first-round NFL draft pick and an unbelievable weapon for the Michigan State offense.

2006 overall record:
2006 conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 6, Defense: 9, Kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
TB Amir Pinnix, DE Alex Daniels, WR Ernie Wheelwright, C Tony Brinkhaus, LB Mike Sherels, CB Dominic Jones

Key losses

QB Bryan Cupito, TE Matt Spaeth, WR Logan Payne, CB Trumaine Banks

Top newcomer: QB Clint BrewsterInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Amir Pinnix* (1,312 yds)
Passing: Bryan Cupito (2,819 yds)
Receiving: Logan Payne (804 yds)
Tackles: Mike Sherels* (104)
Sacks: William Van DeSteeg* (10)
Interceptions: Dom Barber* (4)

Spring answers: 1. Both Tony Mortensen and Adam Weber can make plays at quarterback. The Gophers must replace three-year starter Bryan Cupito, and while they don't know who will do that yet, they do know they have two capable candidates. Mortensen and Weber are similar enough picking between them won't force a drastic change in game plan. Just look at their numbers from the spring game. Mortensen completed 9-of-13 attempts for 103 yards and one touchdown, while rushing for 23 yards on seven carries. Weber went 8-of-15 for 75 yards and one TD, running for 25 yards on four carries. So both can throw it and both can run it a bit, which affords head coach Tim Brewster some consistency.

2. The quarterback will have more than one target. Senior Ernie Wheelwright is the Gophers' best receiver, but effective passing games need more than one option. Minnesota won't be caught short because of the development of redshirt freshman Eric Decker. He caught four passes for 80 yards, including a 48-yard touchdown from Mortensen, in the spring game and impressed the coaches throughout the spring with his hands, concentration and toughness.

3. The defense's confidence has been rebuilt. Credit the infectious personalities of Brewer and his defensive coordinator Everett Withers for making this unit believe in itself after the demoralizing loss to Texas Tech in the Insight Bowl. Minnesota got ripped for 30 points in the fourth quarter and one possession of overtime, leading to a loss and the firing of Glen Mason. There was not one shred of self-belief left in the defense after that, but Withers installed a scheme that seems to trust the players more. They'll be asked to play press coverage in the secondary and to blitz a lot up front. It's a strategy that strives to make things happen, not just react when they happen. Of course, it's easy to do that in the spring, when every mistake by the defense is a great play by the offense.

4. Dominic Jones isn't just a hitter. Jones offered the signature stop of Minnesota's season in 2006, decleating Ohio State's Ray Small on a pass into the flat. That was a big moment for Jones, a 5-8, 190-pound junior from Columbus. It showed his hometown school it might have erred passing on him, and it sent a message that, while not the biggest cornerback, Jones was definitely physical enough to play in the Big Ten. That's just the sort of aggression Brewster and Withers were looking for in trying to build a defense with attitude. Jones will be one of the Gophers' two cornerbacks this fall. Will teams attack him because of his size? Maybe. But ask Ray Small about the risks that come with venturing into Jones' territory.

5. There's some depth on the defensive line. Minnesota's problem hasn't been a lack of talent as much as it's been a lack of depth. Injuries on the defensive line have been especially problematic. That's not as big a concern now that Minnesota has some promising prospects ready to step forward. Raymond Henderson transferred in from Tennessee and redshirted last year. He should help immediately. Alex Daniels looks to have found a home after shuttling between linebacker, tailback and the defensive line. And junior college transfer Eric Small might be the best defensive tackle on the roster

Fall questions: 1. Can wide receiver Ernie Wheelwright play like the No. 1 he wears? Nothing helps a young quarterback transition to the starter's role like a receiver he can count on to get open, no matter what the coverage. Wheelwright has shown flashes of being that guy, catching 10 touchdown passes the past two years. Trouble is, Wheelwright didn't build on his sophomore year (568 yards, five TDs) as a junior (437 yards, five TDs). At 6-5, 220 pounds, there's nothing holding him back but himself. If Wheelwright wants a career in the NFL, and wants to lead Minnesota to its best season of his career, it's all in front of him to make that happen.

2. Can the running game deliver like it has in the past? Glen Mason got criticized for a lot of things, but Minnesota fans will be fortunate if Brewer teaches the running game as effectively as his predecessor. It was no big deal for Mason to routinely produce not just one, but two 1,000-yard rushers in a season. Minnesota has a tandem capable of that in Amir Pinnix and Jay Thomas. Pinnix rumbled for 1,272 yards last year. Thomas contributed four touchdowns on just 37 attempts, which went for an eye-opening 6.1 yards per-carry.

3. Will attitude and effort be enough on defense? Brewster and Withers talk big about how much the defense can improve, but it's not like the previous staff didn't try to put players in position to succeed. Sometimes there's a reason why cornerbacks play 15 yards off the line of scrimmage and why eight players drop into coverage on passing downs. Maybe the Gophers can be goaded into pressuring quarterbacks, stopping tailbacks and covering receivers with just a massive attitude adjustment. If so, score one for positive thinking.

4. Will Alex Daniels, Keith Massey and E.J. Jones be cleared to play? The three players were implicated in a sexual assault on campus in early April. Prosecutors are still investigating and determining whether to bring charges. Brewster suspended all three from team activities, so they can't work out with their teammates until cleared. Brewster would love to have Daniels to solidify the defensive line, but he can't make his first brush with an off-field incident seem portray him as soft on discipline. Right now, there's nothing the players or their coach can do but wait.

5. How long does the love affair between Brewster and the fans last? The faucet never closes on the steady stream of salesmanship from the Gophers' new head coach. He's coined the term Gopher Nation and appealed to longtime fans' love for their school by gushing about Minnesota's great football tradition. He hasn't been talking about Mason's numerous trips to the Music City Bowl, either. Of course, to modern players, Bernie Bierman and Murray Warmath might has well be dinosaurs. Sometime, though, the infomercial has to stop and the football must begin. What happens if the Rose Bowl trip Brewster has been talking about doesn't seem realistic a year, or a half-year, into his tenure?

2006 overall record:
2006 conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 7, Defense: 8, Kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
QB C.J. Bacher, TB Tyrell Sutton, WR Eric Peterman, C Trevor Rees, DE Corey Wootten, DT John Gill, LB Adam Kadela, FS Reggie McPherson

Key losses

LB Nick Roach, CB Marquice Cole, OT Ryan Keenan, WR Sean Herbert

Top newcomer: TE Drake DunsmoreInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Tyrell Sutton* (1,000 yds)
Passing: C.J. Bacher* (1,172 yds)
Receiving: Sean Herbert (494 yds)
Tackles: Adam Kadela* (80)
Sacks: Corey Wootten* (4.5)
Interceptions: Brendan Smith* (3)

Spring answers: 1. The shock of Randy Walker's death no longer looms over the team. Walker's sudden death last summer left Northwestern no time to do anything but soldier through the most difficult of circumstances as best it could. Walker's replacement, Pat Fitzgerald, planned on getting the job about 10 years later than it fell to him. Fitzgerald said and did all the right things, but there's no way he or his staff could have been prepared for the emotional challenges thrust upon them and their players. Walker will always be a part of Northwestern football, but the offseason gave both Fitzgerald and his players a chance to prepare for a normal approach to spring ball, without the emotional baggage that saddled them last fall.

2. Tyrell Sutton knows where he fits in the offense. Sutton has a pair of 1,000-yard seasons on his résumé, but he wasn't the force last season that he was as a freshman. That's because he didn't get 20 carries in any game until game No. 8. Northwestern didn't rely on him the way it should have to help its three quarterbacks acclimate to their first season in the lineup. Fitzgerald won't make that mistake again. He knows Sutton has seven 20-plus carry games in his career, and has surpassed 100 yards each time. Look for a lot of Sutton this fall now that Northwestern knows its quarterback is C.J. Bacher and need not experiment with others as that position.

3. The wide receivers are as good as anticipated. Bacher's ascent to the starting quarterback job came at the expense of Andrew Brewer, but it may be to Brewer's long-term benefit. He is too good of an athlete to sit on the bench, so Northwestern experimented with him at receiver late last season. Consider that experiment both over and a rousing success. Brewer and Eric Peterman are both former high school quarterbacks that Northwestern will use in diverse ways this fall as receivers. Couple them with Ross Lane and the Wildcats have a trio who proved in the spring they are capable of being playmaking weapons in the passing game.

4. Chris Jeske looks like he can help. Jeske was Northwestern's highest-profile recruit in a long time when he signed in February of 2005. As Illinois' state player-of-the-year, he was supposed to be the next Fitzgerald, a game-changing force at linebacker. Instead, Jeske had back surgery and didn't play either of his first two years on campus. He went through spring ball without incident, however, and could be ready to deliver on those expectations in the fall.

5. The defensive line developed some nastiness and could dictate to opponents. Northwestern has been a first-division team when it's had a capable defensive line with a standout player or two. The Wildcats may have their best tandem since Luis Castillo and Barry Cofield with John Gill inside and Corey Wootten outside. Wooten's potential as a disruptive pass rusher is scary. The 6-7, 275-pounder was a freshman All-American last season and could double his 4.5 sacks from last season. The 290-pound Gill is an ideal run-stuffer who can keep the linebackers behind him clean.

Fall questions: 1. Can Kurt Mattes fill the only void on the offensive line? Mattes gets the first shot at replacing Ryan Keenan. Mattes was a highly-touted recruit, but he hasn't seen the field yet in two years on campus. At 6-6 and 290 pounds, he has good size and is a capable athlete. Now it's time he prove he can block consistently.

2. Will Trevor Rees be available for game one? Rees has started at center for three seasons and could make all-Big Ten as a senior. That assumes he'll come through a DUI case without a significant suspension from Fitzgerald. Rees was arrested just after Northwestern's spring game. He didn't play that day because of a minor injury. Question is, once his case goes to court, how long will Fitzgerald sit him to send a message to other players?

3. Can C.J. Bacher stay healthy and be the next Brett Basanez? Bacher didn't play until mid-season last year because of a leg injury. He seemed the worst fit for the Wildcats' offense, because he was the worst runner of the three candidates for the job. Instead, Bacher's arrival injected life and scoring potential in a unit that struggled mightily until his emergence. He passed for 200 or more yards in his last five games. So, problem solved, right? Nope, because Bacher missed the first half of spring practice with a toe injury. If this guy can stay in uniform, he has the chance to make the Wildcats relevant.

4. Will the offense come out ready to attack once Big Ten play begins? Northwestern scored 10 or fewer points in four of its first five league games last season. That absolutely should not happen in 2007. Bacher is more comfortable in his role, and Sutton knows where he fits in the offense. Besides that, the wide receiving corps is talented and offers a twist of two former quarterbacks playing receiver. Expect Eric Peterman and Andrew Brewer to throw a few option passes to keep defenses honest. The line is experienced, so blocking should not be a problem, either. There's no reason Northwestern can't put pressure on and make opponents uncomfortable.

5. Will Stefan Demos be a reliable kicker, or will first-year jitters be his undoing? The redshirt freshman has excellent credentials and a strong leg. Northwestern's spread attack is the type that often breaks down in the red zone. That makes converting field goals extremely important. If Demos can ignore the pressure on him and be money in the bank, the Wildcats could cause trouble. If not, it will be trouble, because there's nothing more demoralizing than driving down the field, only to come away with no points.

2006 overall record:
2006 conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 4, Defense: 5, Kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
TB Chris Wells, T Alex Boone, G Steve Rehring, T Kirk Barton, DE Vernon Gholston, LB James Laurinaitis, CB Malcolm Jenkins, P A.J. Trapasso, K Aaron Pettrey

Key losses

QB Troy Smith, TB Antonio Pittman, WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Anthony Gonzalez, C Doug Datish, G T.J. Downing, S Brandon Mitchell, DT David Patterson, DT Quinn Pitcock, CB Antonio Smith

Top newcomer: S Eugene CliffordInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Antonio Pittman (1,233 yds)
Passing: Troy Smith (2,542 yds)
Receiving: Ted Ginn Jr. (781 yds)
Tackles: James Laurinaitis* (115)
Sacks: Vernon Gholston* (8.5)
Interceptions: James Laurinaitis* (5)

Spring answers: 1. Ohio State's wide receivers are untested, but its tight ends look capable. Holdover Rory Nicol wasn't much of a factor at tight end last season because OSU had so many downfield throwing options. That's not true now that Ted Ginn Jr., Anthony Gonzalez and Roy Hall are off to the NFL. Nicol had a good spring, but another guy at his position was even better. Jake Ballard wowed coaches with his ability to catch and block. When OSU was pounding its way to the national championship in 2002, it used plenty of double-tight end alignments. That hasn't been available to the Buckeyes since, but it will be this year.

2. Larry Grant is the real deal at linebacker: Grant and returning starter Marcus Freeman both scored touchdowns in the spring game. Grant's came after he forced his second fumble, recovered it and ran it the length of the field for six points. The former JC transfer is pressing for time as a blitz specialist in a deep linebacker corps that includes hungry and capable youngsters Austin Spitler and Ross Homan. Grant had the best spring at this position, and it's a very deep unit.

3. Special teams are good enough to make a difference. No one wins more close games than Jim Tressel. He's legendary for squeezing opponents with his field position vice, built on great defense and a capable punter. Junior A.J. Trapasso could be as good as Andy Groom and B.J. Sander before him, both of whom gained All-America mention. Then, in the kicking game, sophomore Aaron Pettrey has been solid ever since a slow start through the first two games of 2006. Pettrey has range beyond 50 yards, which means more close wins for the Buckeyes are in the offing.

4. Maurice Wells won't be the forgotten Wells. The junior tailback spoke openly of transferring before the BCS national championship blowout to Florida, but an injury to expected starter Chris Wells left the spring for Maurice Wells to shine. He did so, and now is a much bigger hurdle for Ohio Mr. Football Brandon Saine to get over upon his arrival in August. Maurice Wells offers a good change of pace to Chris Wells' power, and Maurice's pass-catching skills and experience in blitz pick-up might get him on the field on the third-and-longs OSU faces.

5. OSU won't lack for defensive playmakers. Defensive end Vernon Gholston is primed for a huge year; middle linebacker James Laurinaitis already had one and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins is the biggest secret in college football. Don't expect any of them to operate under the radar this season. They'll each be OSU's respective leader at their level of the defense. Based on each player's outstanding spring, it wouldn't be surprising if each gained considerable All-America attention.

Fall questions: 1. Will Todd Boeckman be just a caretaker QB, or a playmaker? Filling the shoes of a Heisman Trophy winner is never easy, but Boeckman has cleared the first hurdle by bettering freshman Antonio Henton and sophomore Rob Schoenhoft in the battle to succeed Troy Smith. Boeckman took his last meaningful snap as a high school senior in 2002. He's waited four years for this chance, so he's hungry, but perhaps a bit rusty. He didn't show much in the spring, but his offensive line was banged up and the protection was lacking. A soft nonconference schedule should help him develop.

2. Will the young receivers prove reliable? Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline played secondary roles to Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez. Now Robiskie and Hartline become the top options in the passing game. They'll be fine, but who fills in behind them so OSU can continue to run three-, four- and five-receiver sets? Juniors Devon Lyons and Albert Dukes haven't been able to crack the lineup. Is that because players ahead of them have been too good to overcome, or because Lyons and Dukes don't measure up? Sophomore Ray Small came in with big expectations, but so far there's nothing on his résumé but press clippings.

3. Will Chris Wells stay healthy and be the workhorse expected? Wells rushed for 542 yards in 2006 while backing up Antonio Pittman. Wells broke a 52-yard touchdown run against Michigan, and it's that which has OSU faithful expecting a 1,200-yard season founded on numerous 25-to-30-carry games. Trouble is, Wells couldn't stay healthy in the spring and sat out the final two weeks with an ankle sprain. Is he durable, and is he reliable? He fumbled four times last season, including in three consecutive games.

4. Are there sufficient defensive tackles to stuff the run? Ohio State has traditionally been one of the stingiest teams in the country against the rush. Its linebackers often get the credit for that, because they're making most of the tackles. But that couldn't happen without standout defensive tackles in front of them to occupy blockers. The graduation losses of co-captains Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson, plus their top backup, Joel Penton, leaves OSU with no proven defensive tackles on which to rely. Sophomore Todd Denlinger and Doug Worthington are the top candidates to start.

5. Will the defense be what it was the first 11 games, or the last two games, of 2006? OSU looked as if it had seamlessly replaced nine starters off its 2005 defense with the way the Buckeyes marched through their first 11 games. Opponents managed only 7.8 points per game. Then Michigan struck for 39 and Florida went for 41. The emotional scars from that still linger. It's paramount the memories from that don't accompany OSU into the 2007 season, because unlike last year, when the offense carried the team, the defense will have that burden this year.

2006 overall record:
2006 conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 8, Defense: 6, Kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Anthony Morelli, WR Deon Bulter, WR Derrick Williams, LB Sean Lee, LB Dan Connor, CB Justin King, SS Anthony Scirrotto

Key losses

T Levi Brown, TB Tony Hunt, DE Tim Shaw, DT Jay Alford, LB Paul Posluszny, P Jeremy Kapinos

Top newcomer: OG J.B. WaltonInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Tony Hunt (1,386 yds)
Passing: Anthony Morelli* (2,424 yds)
Receiving: Deon Bulter* (637 yds)
Tackles: Paul Posluszny (116)
Sacks: Jay Alford (8)
Interceptions: Anthony Scirrotto* (6)

Spring answers: 1. Penn State has a big-time receiver, and it's not Derrick Williams. Williams came in with the hype of being the nation's No. 1 recruit, but it's Deon Butler, a former walk-on, who continues to prove himself as the Nittany Lions' most dependable option in the passing game. His 691 receiving yards and nine TDs as a freshman led to a 48-catch season last year that ranked as the sixth-best year in Penn State history. Williams is far from a bad player or even a disappointment, but he doesn't give the Lions the same reliability as Butler, who could match his career total of 1,328 receiving yards if head coach Joe Paterno will loosen the reins on quarterback Anthony Morelli.

2. Maurice Evans will deliver on expectations. The 6-2, 272-pound sophomore defensive end could be the next great Penn State pass-rusher if his outstanding spring is any indication of what's to come. Evans has added 18 pounds of muscle since the Outback Bowl and should no longer be vulnerable to big offensive tackles. His quickness is still there, as are the avoidance techniques that helped him make 3.5 negative-yardage tackles last year as a backup. He's without question Penn State's starting right end, with a three-year future in the lineup ahead of him and great expectations upon him.

3. Linebacker U keeps churning them out. Paul Posluszny is gone to the NFL, a hit few programs can absorb without a dramatic drop-off in production. Penn State might be able to withstand it, though, because of the continued development of Sean Lee, the experience of Dan Connor and the development of sophomore Jerome Hayes and junior Tyrell Sales. Hayes and Sales had 21 of their team's 55 tackles in the spring wrap-up.

4. Jared Odrick might be the answer to one of the three vacancies on the defensive line. Odrick spent last season at defensive end, because at 6-5, that's the position for which he seems ideally suited. He was, however, an outstanding defensive tackle in high school, and that's where he returned for spring practice. By adding 12 pounds, up to 291, he now has the bulk to compete in the middle and clog opposing running lanes. He performed well enough this spring to loom as one of the four tackles Penn State plans to platoon on defense.

5. Dennis Landolt has accepted the challenge of following Levi Brown at tackle. It's one thing to back up an outstanding player and get a few garbage minutes in blowouts or when he needs a rest. It's another to succeed that player, step into his position and perform without a noticeable decline in production. The latter challenge remains in front of Landolt, a 6-4, 94-pound sophomore. But judging from his performance in the spring, Landolt might adequately fill the shoes of the All-American whom he understudied last season. Landolt excels at pass blocking because of good feet that allow him to maintain his balance. The only reason Landolt wouldn't play left tackle this season is if junior Gerald Cadogen is deemed ready for duty, allowing Landolt to move to the right side. Cadogen is 6-5, 313 pounds, so he brings more ideal size to left tackle. But either way, Penn State appears to have answers for one of its most glaring offseason losses.

Fall questions: 1. Will Matt Hahn continue to get chances to move the chains on offense? Maybe it's because Joe Paterno coached in the era when the fullback was the preferred mode of transportation in the running game, but Paterno has been one of the last coaches to abandon that spot in game-planning. Granted, his fullbacks aren't the focal point, but they've remained more involved than at any other school in the Big Ten. That could be crucial this year if Paterno decides to unleash senior Matt Hahn as a receiver out of the backfield. There are plenty of other options that might keep that from happening, but Hahn showed in the spring that he can make plays and move the chains on third down.

2. Can anyone step forward and fill the gap left by Elijah Robinson's career-ending spinal condition? Robinson was battling for a starting job at right guard when doctors discovered a tight spinal canal that exposed him to devastating injury. He's therefore given up the sport, leaving the job he was contesting to either redshirt freshman Lou Eliades or junior Rich Ohrnberger. A wild card in the mix could be JUCO transfers Ako Poti and Nerraw McCormack, provided they can learn the system fast enough.

3. Is Derrick Williams ready to live up to expectations, and will Paterno allow him to try? Williams revitalized Penn State's offense as a freshman until he broke his arm late in the season. His sophomore year was mostly disappointing, but was that because he didn't produce, or because the Lions' offense doesn't afford him enough opportunities? No one knows for sure, but Williams is certainly capable of more than a 4.0 yard per-carry average as a rusher and an 11.0 yard per-catch average as a receiver. That's what he offered last season, scoring only two touchdowns. Take the restrictions off and let this kid play. The results could be eye-popping.

4. Will Anthony Morelli's big arm be on display? Morelli's signing with Penn State raised hopes of an all-out downfield passing game, particularly when young receivers like Butler, Williams and Jordan Norwood made Michael Robinson look like a talented thrower. But in his first year as a starter, Morelli either didn't or wasn't permitted to cut it loose and go deep very often. Maybe that's because handing off to Tony Hunt was more of a certainty. Now that Hunt is gone, it's time the handcuffs come off Morelli and the ball go airborne. Penn State might be surprised where that leads.

5. Will Anthony Scirrotto and Chris Baker weather their legal storm and be allowed to play? Scirrotto, a returning starter at safety, and Baker, a sophomore defensive tackle, are facing multiple charges stemming from a fight at an apartment near campus on April 1. Baker is scheduled to stand trial for burglary, criminal trespass and simple assault. Scirrotto faces charges for burglary, criminal trespass, two counts of criminal solicitation, simple assault and harassment. Paterno has stood by players and allowed them to play while their cases were pending. But he evaluates every case individually, and if he believes there is merit, he could keep either, or both, players off the field in the fall.

2006 overall record:
2006 conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 9, Defense: 9, Kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Curtis Painter, RB Kory Sheets, RB Jaycen Taylor, WR Dorien Bryant, LB Dan Bick, LB Stanford Keglar, DE Cliff Avril

Key losses

DE Anthony Spencer, OT Mike Otto, G Uche Nwaneri

Top newcomer: QB Justin SillerInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Kory Sheets* (780 yds)
Passing: Curtis Painter* (3,985 yds)
Receiving: Dorien Bryant* (1,068 yds)
Tackles: Dan Bick* (95)
Sacks: Anthony Spencer (10.5)
Interceptions: Justin Scott* (3)

Spring answers: 1. Alex McGee offers flexibility up front. McGee was penciled in as a defensive tackle after making six starts their last season, but he showed enough speed off the edge that he will also see time at defensive end in the fall. That gives Purdue some flexibility with personnel groupings and, should McGee continue to progress, may fill some of the pass-rushing gap left by Anthony Spencer's graduation.

2. Anthony Heygood finds a spot: The logjam at running back didn't bode well for Heygood, who switched sides of the scrimmage line in mid-season last year in search of time at linebacker. He found it and more; coach Joe Tiller says Heygood might be the best Purdue has at the position.

3. Developed depth at running back: Heygood wouldn't have left his old spot if it weren't for the line ahead of him. Kory Sheets has the greatest name recognition, having started every regular season game last season, while rushing for 780 yards. He ranks seventh all-time on Purdue's rushing list. But right now, he ranks second on the depth chart behind Jaycen Taylor. The JC transfer started the Champs Sports Bowl and still has Tiller's designation as the No. 1 tailback off a year in which he rushed for 677 yards.

4. Curtis Painter looks like he gets it. Painter's accuracy wasn't the problem last season. Consistency with his accuracy was the problem. Some games, he'd be dialed in and would find his receivers in stride. The next week, he'd throw the ball on the wrong side or negate possible yards-after-catch by making his targets work too hard to get the pass. Maybe it's because he's more comfortable in the offense now, but Painter is better able to hit his receivers in rhythm, the way both Drew Brees and Kyle Orton did before him.

5. The secondary will be better because of last season. Injuries and inexperience combined to relegate the Boilermakers to 10th in the league in pass defense in 2006. It's almost impossible to win when teams average 241 passing yards and throw for 20 scores. All four starters were new to the program in 2006, and season-ending injuries knocked two players out who would have started or contributed. Now everyone is back and playing with a determination to prove that last season was an aberration. Former JC recruits Terrell Vinson and Justin Scott, along with sophomores Royce Adams and Brandon Erwin, are the best of a talented group.

Fall questions: 1. Can Michael McDonald reward the coaches' confidence? McDonald is a 6-2, 250-pound senior slated to start at defensive end. That's not the requisite size of most players at his position, but Purdue believes McDonald's speed can neuter the weight he'll give up to opposing tackles. It's a risk, particularly since McDonald has made only one career start.

2. Is the rogue element under control? Tiller groused throughout the entire 2005 season about lousy leadership from some headline players. The attitude was much better last year, but then in the spring, wide receiver Selwyn Lymon was stabbed and safety Torri Williams was charged with DUI. Purdue isn't loaded enough for players on whom the coaches are counting to get mixed up in off-field transgressions. Such incidents can bring an entire team down, particularly one with as small a margin for error as the Boilermakers.

3. Is Dan Bick healthy enough to last at middle linebacker? The team's leading tackler last season with 95 stops, Bick played through a shoulder injury, then missed spring ball with neck problems. If he can't go, Purdue would turn to senior Josh Ferguson, redshirt freshman Kevin Green or incoming JC transfer Brian Ellis. The preference here would be Bick. If he can't go, Purdue is already thin at linebacker, and would therefore be considerably thinner.

4. Who has Painter's blind side? Three starters return up front, but none of them played the left side last season. Garret Miller and Jonathan Patton were expected to take over those jobs, but Miller missed the spring because of shoulder surgery, and Patton had his operated on during spring drills. That left the jobs to Dan Zaleski and Eric Hedstrom, but either or both could be vulnerable to a challenge in the fall. Painter probably doesn't care who has his back. Just so someone does the job.

5. Can kicker Chris Summers be reliable? Summers went 8-of-20 on field goals last season, which isn't great. It's even worse when considering he made 3-of-14 to finish the year after starting 5-of-6. Purdue's offense will move the football and get him into position. If the offense can't get into the end zone, it's vital that Summers knock it through for three points.

2006 overall record:
2006 conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 9, Defense: 7, Kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
TB P.J. Hill, WR Travis Beckum, WR Luke Swan, G Andy Kemp, CB Jack Ikegwuonu, LB DeAndre Levy, LB Jonathan Casillas, DE Matt Shaughnessy, K Taylor Mehlhaff

Key losses

QB John Stocco, T Joe Thomas, LB Mark Zalewski, S Joe Stellmacher

Top newcomer: OT Josh OglesbyInsider

2006 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: P.J. Hill* (1,569 yds)
Passing: John Stocco (2,185 yds)
Receiving: Travis Beckum* (903 yds)
Tackles: Mark Zalewski (90)
Sacks: DeAndre Levy* (6)
Interceptions: Allen Langford* (3)

Spring answers: 1. Both Tyler Donovan and Allan Evridge showed the ability to be worthy heirs to John Stocco. Stocco didn't get much ink relative to Michigan's Chad Henne, Ohio State's Troy Smith, Iowa's Drew Tate and Michgan State's Drew Stanton. All were in the spotlight more over the past three seasons. None of them, however, won more games than Stocco. He provided a steady hand and enough big throws to make the Badgers purr on offense. Neither Donovan nor Evridge will be the star of this offense. That's for sophomore tailback P.J. Hill. But it was important for Wisconsin to find a quarterback who it could turn to for good game management and enough downfield throws to keep defenses honest. Both Donovan and Evridge have shown themselves more than capable of that.

2. The receiving corps' performance last season wasn't a mirage. Wide receivers Paul Hubbard and Luke Swan, plus tight end Travis Beckum, could be the league's top receiving corps. Their polish showed through in the spring after a breakout 2006 season in which all were playing significantly for the first time. Beckum's 61 catches for 903 yards and five touchdowns were unbelievable for a converted defensive end, and he should be even better now with a year's experience. Regardless of which quarterback is playing, the receivers will offer plenty of available targets for big plays down the field. And make no mistake, Wisconsin does throw the ball down the field. Its 14.1-yard per-catch average last season proves a willingness to scorch secondaries too preoccupied with Hill and the running game.

3. There's adequate depth behind Hill, even if he's injured and can't play. Sophomore Lance Smith had the job all to himself in the spring, with Hill sitting out to rehab an injured shoulder. Smith still doesn't show the consistency coach Bret Bielema wants. In fact, Bielema ripped into him when spring practice ended. Don't fall for that. It's likely Bielema's rant was only to keep Smith interested in the summer. Down deep, the coach was pleased with the way Smith persevered through an ankle injury and kept practicing. Last year, Smith couldn't mine that sort of toughness. He'll be a good backup for Hill, and if he isn't, two talented freshmen are arriving in the fall to push for playing time.

4. The pass rush looks better. Wisconsin's 35 sacks last season weren't bad, but if you want to win the Big Ten, you can't rank fifth in too many categories. That's where the Badgers finished pressuring the quarterback, which forces its secondary to cover longer and therefore exposes the defense to big plays. That shouldn't be a problem this year with Matt Shaughnessy back for his third year as a starter. He's now had well over a year to recover from an ACL tear that slowed him a bit last season, when he was just nine months removed from suffering that injury. Shaughnessy won't be the only guy exerting pressure, either. Senior Kurt Ware shows good potential at left end and the linebackers have the speed and savvy to score with their blitzes. Sophomore Elijah Hodge, the brother of former Iowa linebacker Abdul Hodge, was a beast in the spring and should seamlessly fill the gap in the middle left by leading tackler Mark Zalewski's graduation.

5. The safeties won't be as vulnerable as opponents hoped for. Wisconsin owned the nation's second-best pass defense in 2006, and that wasn't all the work of the cornerbacks. Veterans Joe Stellmacher and Roderick Rogers held the secondary together in their final seasons. Perhaps the best news of spring was the emergence of 6-2, 204-pound Shane Carter. The brother of former NFL wide receiver Cris Carter, he made a big impression at free safety with his coverage skills and penchant for contact. At strong safety, sophomore Aubrey Pleasant's only drawback is his health. And he practiced throughout the spring without incident.

Fall questions: 1. Playing with expectations: The Badgers have the Big Ten's best record since 2004, but their 31 wins have gone virtually unnoticed outside the league because of the headlines grabbed by Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. Now the bright lights are trained on Madison, given the return of 18 starters from a 12-1 team that won its bowl game. How will Wisconsin play when it's expected to be the class of the league? Will its players meet the challenge and keep on rolling, or assume that success comes with pressing auto-pilot? That's the players' challenge, and the gauntlet thrown in front of second-year coach Bret Bielema.

2. Will Jack Ikegwuonu be sidelined by legal troubles? Ikegwuonu played in the Capital One Bowl and offered one of the headline plays of the postseason, running down Arkansas' Darren McFadden from behind to save a touchdown. The race Ikegwuonu is in off the field, however, could catch up with him. He and his brother were charged with criminal trespass and burglary around Thanksgiving. The case has moved ponderously, so it's possible Ikegwuonu could play the entire year before the matter goes to court. If he's found guilty, or disciplined by Bielema and forced to miss playing time, that would be a gigantic loss.

3. Can opponents give the offensive line the same trouble Arkansas did in the Capital One Bowl? Wisconsin couldn't block the Razorbacks, no matter what front they showed. Of course, not all opponents have the speed of an SEC West contender. Still, that was an eye-opener. The only player who handled himself well was left tackle Joe Thomas, and he's now in the NFL. The battle for Thomas' replacement is crucial. Sophomore Jake Bscherer played last season and so he has the edge on freshman Gabe Carimi. The 6-8, 292-pound Carimi is the long-term answer, most believe, because of his superior athleticism. Since Wisconsin returns veterans at the other four spots, coaches can and will intensify Carimi's schooling in the fall to get him ready, if not for the season-opener, then for the start of Big Ten play.

4. Can P.J. Hill keep the weight off and stay healthy? Hill sat out spring ball rehabilitating from offseason shoulder surgery. He'll be fine by the fall, unless he regains the weight he lost after the season to hopefully be fresher and better able to handle the work load thrust upon him by his 1,589-yard, 15 touchdown season as a redshirt freshman. Hill battled through a neck injury late last year. He is the Badgers' meal ticket and makes them appreciably better if he can log 25 carries per game.

5. Which quarterback will Bielema pick? The choice is tough because coaches tend to be loyal to fifth-year seniors who have delivered in the past. Donovan therefore built up considerable good will last season by subbing for an injured Stocco at Iowa and winning. Donovan also won the following week against Buffalo. Evridge transferred in from Kansas State, so he wasn't going to play, and therefore ran the scout team. So in the spring, Evridge got his first shot and was essentially even with Donovan. One guy has five years in the system; the other has a few months. Evridge has two seasons to play; Donovan has one. The choice seems inevitable -- if not Evridge right away, then certainly by the start of the Big Ten. Most important for Bielema, pick someone and be committed to the choice. Nothing tears a team apart like uncertainty under center.

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