Big Ten Football: Top 10 Spring Practice Storylines
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Spring football has now started on all campuses around the Big Ten, and spring games will begin as the calendar turns to April in a little over a week. As a result, about half of spring football is already over with despite the winter-like weather in Big Ten country right now.
But we are here to warm the hearts and look forward to a summer and early autumn filled with great talent and high expectations in 2013. Most of the teams in the league have one or two burning questions still remaining to be addressed, preferably during spring ball.
Here are some of the major questions facing most teams as spring practices continue.
Minnesota: Will the New Linebackers Be Able to Keep the Defense Tough?
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Minnesota is replacing five linebackers who were on scholarship in 2013, which means that the backups will need to step up during spring drills. In addition to juniors James Manuel and Aaron Hill, JUCO transfer Damien Wilson will be a key contributor for the Golden Gophers in the center of the defense.
Remember that this unit was the strength of the team last year, especially with the offensive struggles brought on by using three quarterbacks and three centers. The defense successfully recovered from losing seven defensive backs in 2012 and turned out to be tough against most Big Ten passing attacks.
If the same can be said this fall about the young linebackers, then Minnesota may be ready to compete seriously in the tough Legends Division.
Purdue: Just Who Will Be Quarterbacking This Boilermaker Offense in 2013?
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Last season the Boilermakers had three quarterbacks who split significant time, and we saw how well that worked out. With the exception of a brilliant game in a loss at Notre Dame and the closing winning streak against the dregs of Illinois, Indiana and Iowa, quarterback was a huge liability in 2012.
However, Purdue comes into spring camp with Rob Henry taking a full quantity of snaps at the position once again. Henry could be like Devin Gardner, relegated to a receiver or running back role before finally earning the starting job.
Another athletic freshman competing for the job is Bilal Marshall, although he is also competing with two other more pocket-passer freshmen in Danny Etling and Austin Appleby.
Until the leading man is known in the Boilermaker offense, it will be difficult for Darrell Hazell to establish an identity for this team in his first season as head coach. Expect a starter to be named by the end of spring drills.
Wisconsin: Can a 3-4 Defense Thrive in the Big Ten?
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Gary Andersen came to Madison from Utah State following the surprising departure from Bret Bielema, and the biggest change he will bring with him is on the defensive side. While the Badgers will continue to be a power rushing offense, the defense will switch from the 4-3 (that every other Big Ten team plays) to a 3-4 base with some 5-2 looks.
This could lead to some advantages if Wisconsin's defense figures out the new scheme quicker than opposing offenses adjust to it, as Wisconsin will once again be difficult to scheme against. It will be interesting to see a team so focused on great defensive linemen in the past move to this new system, as the emphasis will fall on previous defense ends who now play linebacker to be the stars.
Wisconsin is loaded with 25 seniors and tons of underclassmen talent, so a fourth consecutive Rose Bowl is not out of the question. Ohio State will be tough, but Wisconsin has the guns to compete with the Buckeyes if the defense scheme change works.
Michigan: How Will the Wolverines Replace Jake Ryan on Defense?
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Until spring practices began, the offseason was going well for Michigan. Taylor Lewan decided to return to lead the offensive line and Devin Gardner was granted another year of eligibility (two remaining), which made the offense look even more formidable for 2013 and the future.
But then spring drills started and star strong-side linebacker Jake Ryan tore his ACL. The Wolverines were already moving Desmond Morgan from weak-side linebacker to middle linebacker to open up a spot for James Ross to start, but the Wolverines lack a real dominant presence behind Ryan who can step in at the strong side.
Senior Cam Gordon will likely get the first look at the strong side position, but he needs to prove he can be an impact player or risk losing his job to a younger underclassman. Michigan will not be the same on defense without Ryan in 2013, but the damage can be limited if someone steps up and grabs this starting spot in spring drills.
Ohio State: Why Is a Kicker Thirsty from Stretching?
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Take a look at this amazing video of Buckeye assistant coach and fireball Kerry Coombs laying into a kicker during a stretching routine from a couple weeks ago. With coaches like this, who wouldn't want to run through a wall in the quest for another undefeated season? And more importantly, why would a kicker turn down a natural kicking stretch for water?
In all seriousness, the main issues facing the Buckeyes are complacency, which coaches like Coombs and Urban Meyer will nip in the bud, and replacing all four starting defensive linemen. With players like John Simon and Johnathan Hankins off to the NFL draft, players with some experience like Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington need to step into leadership roles quickly as sophomores and keep the good play going.
Mike Vrabel coaches this unit, and the 2013 defensive line will be a huge test of whether he is more than a good face on the recruiting trail. A good defensive line will be key if Ohio State wants to compete for a Big Ten and national championship, and Vrabel needs to prove he is worth his salary.
Iowa: Who Will Contribute on Offense to Make the Hawkeyes Relevant Again?
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Over two years ago, Iowa fans felt like the future was bright despite missing an opportunity to knock off Ohio State two years in a row for a share of the conference championship. After all, when new quarterback James Vandenberg had seen action in Columbus with the Rose Bowl on the line, he pushed the Buckeyes to overtime before the game was lost.
But then Vandenberg regressed as a starting quarterback over two years and the running back plague hit Iowa with gale force.
That left an offense totally incompetent and only ranking above Illinois in most statistical categories. The quarterback battle goes on to replace Vandenberg this spring, with Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol and C.J. Beathard all competing for the starting gig.
Assuming the running back curse lets up a bit, the only other big holes on offense will be at receiver, where only Kevonte Martin-Manley is a significant returning starter. Whoever the new quarterback is, he will need some help from rapidly developing starters on the edges to improve Iowa and make the Hawkeyes competitive again.
Penn State: How Will the Nittany Lions Reload in Year 2 of the O'Brien Era?
Only one of these men returns in 2013
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
The reports of Penn State's death may have been premature, but the real scholarship limits are now beginning to hit as the program gets downs to 65 total scholarships instead of the normal 85 starting in 2014. The big senior class that departed in 2012 leaves a lot a leadership and production roles to fill in 2013, and the spring is when those holes must be filled.
Looking at the offense, the only massive question mark is at the most critical position of quarterback after Matthew McGloin graduated in 2012.
Dual-threat Steven Bench and JUCO transfer Tyler Ferguson could become the leaders in the clubhouse this spring, but highly regarded freshman Christian Hackenberg could also come in next fall and contribute right away. Penn State must figure out this position as soon as possible.
On the defense, eight starters return. But the heart of the unit is gone, with Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges both leaving to the pros. If Penn State wants to keep knocking off teams like Wisconsin, then the middle of the defense must find some new leaders this spring.
That may become more and more difficult with fewer players on hand over time.
Illinois: Will Nathan Scheelhaase Recover Under the Schemes of OC Bill Cubit?
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Last week Scheelhaase was named to the list of players most likely to underachieve in the Big Ten this season. However, that listing does not mean this talented quarterback is completely doomed in his senior season in 2013.
Scheelhaase may have a breakout season if Cubit can get him acclimated to the new system brought over from his days at Western Michigan. Scheelhaase is learning to make a decision on where to get rid of the ball in about two seconds, which is must faster than the reads he had in 2012.
As long as he makes good reads, Scheelhaase could drastically improve his numbers and make the most of his potential.
Illinois will need a couple more years to get back to competitive in this conference, but the building blocks of that new foundation must start with the senior quarterback leader on his way out. Scheelhaase still has time to cement a good legacy in the minds of Illini fans, if he gets off to a good start this spring.
Northwestern: Can the Wildcats Continue to Surge as a Power Rushing Team?
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Despite having a clear leader in Dan Persa over much of the past five years, the Wildcats have played at least two quarterbacks regularly nearly every season since 2008.
Last year was no exception, with Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter each taking a significant number of snaps behind center.
That system seemed to work out well when Northwestern learned how to really be a dynamic threat on offense. The spread option rushing attack with running back Venric Mark and Colter kept defenses honest enough for Siemian, who has a better arm than Colter, to pick apart defensive coverages. Both players return to push the same attack in 2013.
What will be interesting is to see whether the full-house package with Mark and Colter at running back and Siemian at quarterback develops into the primary offensive set for the Wildcats. If Siemian can also begin to contribute some in the running game, then defensive coordinators will have serious trouble stopping the purple power this season.
Michigan State: Will More Drills for the Quarterbacks Cause a Leader to Emerge?
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During spring practices, Mark Dantonio has taken the reins off his three competing quarterbacks looking for the starting position in 2013. Andrew Maxwell held the job last year, but he did not do anything to hold onto that job long term. His competition includes sophomore Connor Cook and freshman Tyler O'Connor, both of whom are seeing reps this spring.
All of these quarterbacks are seeing some live action, especially against the top defenders Michigan State has left following the exodus of three underclassmen to the NFL. Though this does risk a potential injury, the benefits of identifying the quarterback appear to outweigh the risks of a possible injury knocking one of them out for fall.
Michigan State also needs to continue to develop the talent around the quarterback. If Maxwell or one of the youngsters has nobody to throw to, then this team will be all defense once again in 2013.
Without Le'Veon Bell and some great defenders to fall back on, that could lead to a losing season. The drive back toward a division championship must start now.
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