Big Ten Football: 3 Teams That Can't Wait for Spring Practice
Now that the 2013 recruiting classes are largely harvested and in the barn (yes, Big Ten country, the farm commercials on Big Ten Network have ruined my brain as well), the focus turns to winter conditioning and the arrival of spring practices. Some teams like Northwestern actually start spring practice later this month, so it will be here before you know it!
For all of the Big Ten teams, spring ball is a chance for young athletes to compete for open starting positions or simply more playing time behind established veterans. It is a time of endless possibilities for both the players and the fans following these teams, as the 2013 season is still many months away.
However, for some Big Ten teams, spring football is extra special this season. For each of the three teams on the following slides, the coaches and players have extra motivation to get back on the field and run drills for the first time since bowl practice (or in some cases, since November).
Don't be fooled, Big Ten fans: spring practice and summer conditioning are a big part of where championships are won. Let's take a look at those teams with extra motivation and desire for spring practices to begin this year.
Spring practice begins March 5, spring game April 13 (in Cincinnati, Ohio)
Leading off the list of teams that cannot wait for spring practice is Ohio State, which just happens to be coming off a 12-0 season and one of the best recruiting classes in the country in 2013. However, Ohio State paid the NCAA penance last season with no conference championship game or bowl appearance, and that meant no December bowl practices.
Urban Meyer did not underplay the importance of this part of the NCAA sanctions in December, saying that:
"We’ll lose all that for the bowl practices. We’ll lose a minimum of 15 practices. That’s not right. That’s going to be hard for us to recoup that. You can’t just say those are gone. Somehow you’ve got to recoup them. That’s why I’m going so hard on Sunday with the young players." (per Columbus Dispatch)
In other words, the last thing Urban Meyer wants is a loss of practice time with all of the new players coming in and the continued adjustment to his type of schemes on offense and defense.
While the Buckeyes were able to patch some holes in 2012, there will be even bigger gaps to fill in 2013 on the defense. Ohio State loses all starters on the defensive line and all but Ryan Shazier at linebacker. That means the young crop of talent Meyer brought in during his first recruiting class in 2012, including the likes of Noah Spence, must figure out a lot in spring practice thanks to the lack of practices since the Michigan game in November.
The Buckeyes also welcome five of the recruits from the highly-touted 2013 class into spring practice thanks to the players enrolling early. There will be a lot of new faces competing right away for this year's Buckeye squad.
The talent will be there (and the offense brings nearly everyone back to lessen the spring ball burdens), but this Buckeye defense has a long road to climb to be ready to lead the team to another undefeated season. If the NCAA sanctions put the Buckeyes a few practices behind the other conference competitors in the conference, then that could be huge come October and November.
Thus, the Buckeyes want spring practice to arrive more than perhaps anyone else in the Big Ten.
Spring practice begins March 2, spring game April 6
As it turns out, the Buckeyes are not the only team who won a division title, failed to win a conference championship or bowl game, and now have to replace up to nine starters on defense heading into a season where the fans expect championship contention.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers fall right into those same categories (although Nebraska did get the bowl practices that Ohio State did not). The first priority for Bo Pelini is to finally shake loose the bonds that have been holding his defenses back the past few seasons in big games. When teams like Wisconsin and Ohio State are putting up 60 or 70 points or more on a defense, there are significant problems that need to be addressed in the offseason.
That makes it sound like a terrible time to need to replace up to nine starters on that unit, but this new infusion of youth might be just what the doctor ordered for the Cornhuskers. Pelini will likely go back to basics this spring, as Nebraska's problems often came from missed assignments and poor tackling as much as anything else.
Also like the Buckeyes, Nebraska does not have much to figure out on the offensive side of the team heading into spring. Taylor Martinez is a lock to start again this season, and Nebraska will be fine-tuning by finding out which players will be reliable options as a second quarterback or a third running back if needed, for example. There will also be a couple of positions on the offensive line up for grabs, and that could be vitally important if Nebraska wants to stop losing four games a season.
It almost seems ironic that the two division champions from a year ago are the most likely to be looking ahead to spring practice, but great results lead to great expectations and a drive to do even better than in 2012 for both of these programs.
Spring practices begin March 9, spring game April 20
Although the first two teams do not leave much room for debate, finding a third team to stand out for looking ahead to spring practice is a bit more of a tough question. There are new coaches at Purdue and Wisconsin who need to get off to a good start, quarterback battles all over the conference (including at Penn State, Iowa, Michigan State and Minnesota), and other compelling storylines to follow.
Nonetheless, Wisconsin gets the nod here as the third team looking forward the most to spring practices. Ever since Bret Bielema decided to bolt for the SEC following the season, Wisconsin has been in a surreal state for a program. The Badgers won a second consecutive Big Ten championship game, lost a third straight Rose Bowl under legendary former head coach Barry Alvarez, and have hired a coach in Gary Andersen who almost wrecked the Badgers' season in Madison early in 2012.
That means there is a whole lot to figure out this spring for the Badgers football program. Andersen will likely not change the Wisconsin philosophy much, but look for subtle tweaks to put certain players in better positions than they may have been in under the Bielema regime.
Add to that the ridiculous quarterback battle between four players having seemingly equal chances to win the position (three of which have starting experience), and you have a writer's dream in Madison this March and April.
Will the veteran players stick together and bond with the new coach? Will a quarterback emerge from the pack finally? Will this team come together more quickly than the unit that struggled significantly throughout the first half of 2012? Can this team compete with Ohio State anymore in the Leaders Division? Answers will begin to develop by the time the calendar turns to May.
Other Team Spring Practice Schedules
Here are the current schedules for all of the other Big Ten teams this spring (per information from the Big Ten Network):
Illinois: spring practices begin March 5, spring game April 12.
Indiana: spring practices begin March 2, spring game April 13.
Iowa: spring practices begin March 27, spring game April 27.
Michigan: spring practices begin March 16, spring game April 13.
Michigan State: spring practices begin March 19, spring game April 20.
Minnesota: spring practices begin March 26, spring game April 27.
Northwestern: spring practices begin February 27, spring game April 13.
Penn State: spring practices begin March 18, spring game April 20.
Purdue: spring practices begin March 19, spring game April 13.
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