Big Ten Football: Every Big Ten Team's Biggest Worry Post-Spring Practice
This weekend will bring the official close to spring football, as Iowa and Minnesota are the only teams left with a spring game or scrimmage remaining. The last three weekends have brought 10 open practices or spring games with plenty of hoopla and not much substance.
However, the work these Big Ten teams put in during winter conditioning and spring drills are the foundation for competing for championships in October and November. It's a cliche, but conference champions usually earn the championship by working hard for the nine "offseason" months when the average fan doesn't pay any attention.
Even with 15 opportunities to develop players and work on weaknesses, each team still has problem areas as the long summer break approaches. Let's take a look at the top concerns across the Legends and Leaders (good riddance, division names).
Illinois: Will the Youth Infusion Work on Defense?
Although spring game scores are about as meaningful as a box of rocks, the 35-28 slugfest generated by Illinois two weeks ago is indicative of progress on offense and trouble on defense.
The Illini lost key contributors from a defense that struggled mightily against all the top competition in conference play in 2012.
However, what hurt last year was that junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase didn't live up to expectations, thus causing the offense to stall. This year, that offense won't be an issue if spring developments are an indication.
Of course, those positive steps also might be just an indication of how bad Illinois is on defense.
Top contributors SS Steve Hull (moved to receiver) and LB Jonathan Brown (shoulder injury) were not playing and that forced six and sometimes seven redshirt freshmen and sophomores on the field into starting roles.
There will be serious growing pains, but perhaps a youth infusion will pan out by mid-season. Don't expect much before then though, as this is a massive problem for Tim Beckman's staff to solve.
Indiana: Will the Secondary Stop Any Good Passing Game?
I could go with the snarky question of why would Kevin Wilson wear that atrocity, but we all remember Brady Quinn's sister doing one better during the Notre Dame vs. Ohio State Fiesta Bowl from a few years ago. Still, there's no need to be so politically correct you make a fool of yourself, Coach Wilson.
Moving beyond the wardrobe, Indiana's spring game looked a lot like the Illinois contest. Both Indiana quarterbacks Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld were highly efficient in picking apart their defensive counterparts (a combined 31 of 39 passing).
The Hoosiers do have several offensive weapons as proved during the many shootouts in Big Ten play last season. But there's still little signs of life in the secondary, a group that needs to get much better for Indiana to seriously compete for Big Ten titles. After all, Ohio State (and starting in 2016, Michigan) are not getting weaker.
The Hoosiers return 19 starters, including the entire secondary of Mark Murphy, Greg Heban, Brian Williams and Antonio Marshall. But if these guys cannot stop the Hoosier offense, then there likely will be struggles during the season.
Iowa: Will Defensive End Be a Big Problem?
Similar to Ohio State, the Hawkeyes took their practice show on the road and held an open practice in solid Iowa State Cyclone country—West Des Moines. That open practice was a little more than a week ago, but Iowa wraps up at home with a spring game this weekend. Still, much was learned from the Des Moines practice.
Iowa will clearly be a run-first team this season, as a new quarterback will have only a questionable set of receiving options. However, the running back position is loaded as long as the Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God does not strike for the fourth straight season. One thing that helped the running backs look good this spring was inexperience at defensive end.
Indeed, Iowa will need the defensive line to play well to disrupt opposing offenses enough to stay competitive in 2013. Defensive tackles appear to be solid, but the defensive end position has no dominant player as has Iowa has had in the past.
That means someone needs to step up, considering the defense generated only 13 sacks a season ago and loses starter Joe Gaglione from the 2012 squad. Look for Dominic Alvis to be a key player despite a lackluster spring.
Michigan: Will the Offensive Line Make Enough Space for Running?
Michigan took to the field a few weeks ago without much to speak of in the way of offensive depth. Starting running back Fitzgerald Toussaint and backup quarterback Russell Bellomy were out with injuries, which means the offense lacked serious star power.
With the exception of All-America candidate Taylor Lewan, the Wolverines are looking to fill gaps in most starting spots along the offensive line. Although one might assume that all the offensive line coaching gurus in Ann Arbor would be able to mold the new starters into top talents before September comes.
If the spring game is evidence of where the offensive line stands 15 practices in, this could be the biggest concern facing the Wolverines. If Lewan cannot get much help, then opposing defenses will rush away from him and give Devin Gardner fits. Michigan also needs the line to play well for Thomas Rawls to have a chance to make plays.
Michigan can't rely on Gardner to move the offense alone, so further development of the young offensive line will be a top priority heading into fall practices.
Michigan State: Will the New Quarterback Have Any Receiving Targets?
Michigan State was defined in 2012 by a tough defense and a hapless offense that could not score enough points. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell didn't have much luck, as wide receivers would drop balls constantly.
The list of candidates for starting receiver spots is lengthy: Keith Mumphrey, Tony Lippett, Aaron Burbridge, Bennie Fowler and others are fighting to be the lead receiver. The problem is that the drops continue to happen in large quantities, nobody being immune to the issue.
Maxwell and Connor Cook each had mediocre numbers during the spring game, but the receivers did not help on some easy catches that ended up being drops. Mark Dantonio has to be beside himself watching two decent quarterbacks continually get burned by the talent on the edges of the offense.
One would expect at least one of these players to step up and play well this season. Spartans fans hope so or else it will be even more difficult than a season ago, considering Le'Veon Bell is no longer there to carry the offense.
Minnesota: Will the Defense Collapse Without Leadership at Linebacker?
It's always difficult to say that injuries help a team in the long run, but Minnesota had to learn to live without MarQueis Gray in 2012 and that produced serious playing time for Philip Nelson.
Nelson should hit the ground running as the only new starter other than at fullback on the Minnesota offense in 2013. This means the offense most certainly improves in this upcoming season.
However, the defense that was so strong took a big hit in lost players, most notably at linebacker. With five scholarship players gone to graduation, Jerry Kill recruited JUCO linebackers to fill the immediate void in the middle of the defense.
Unfortunately, reports thus far have been mixed on how the new starters are working out at linebacker. James Manuel, Aaron Hill and Damien Wilson are all having trouble at times, although the coaching staff remains cautiously optimistic in interviews during spring football.
Cautiously optimistic is a long way from confident, and it might take a full round of fall drills for this unit to learn who will be the new leader(s). If the Golden Gophers collapse on defense, this team will go back in the pack rather than make another bowl game.
For Jerry Kill's sake, this cannot happen.
Nebraska: Will Revamping the Defense Make a Difference Against Top Competition?
Oddly, Nebraska fans do not seem terribly concerned about replacing most of the front seven on defense, including all of the linebackers.
This confidence could come from having Taylor Martinez and nearly everyone else but Rex Burkhead back on offense—especially when considering how good the Cornhuskers were on offense in 2012.
But more than likely, Cornhusker fans are probably just happy to put the blackshirt disappointments of the last two seasons behind them.
Surrendering more than 60 points to Ohio State and 70 to Wisconsin in the biggest games of the year away from Lincoln has Bo Pelini on the hot seat, as defensive guru coaches do not let their teams perform that way multiple times in a season.
Pelini will effectively have his second full batch of recruits stepping into starting roles in 2013, including at both defensive tackle positions and all three linebackers. Not surprisingly, the unit struggled to contain Martinez and King Frazier, who might not even win the third-string job when fall practices come.
Similar to the offensive explosions in Illinois and Indiana, the Nebraska defense has a tall order containing a much more experienced and better offense. That being said, there will be no excuses when teams such as Michigan come calling.
The time is now, and the five new starters in the defensive front still have a long way to go to become Big Ten championship caliber.
Northwestern: Can the Gaps Be Filled on Offensive Line?
The most interesting and fun question for Northwestern in 2013 is the same one that kept recurring throughout the spring and fall of 2012: How will the Wildcats manage the two-quarterback system with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian?
At times, especially late in the year, the system worked well. At other times, swapping quarterbacks out killed momentum and kept games closer than necessary.
Now that Northwestern has won a bowl game and come tantalizingly close to knocking off Nebraska and Michigan in the same season, the Wildcats need to focus on maintaining that success.
The key to that success will not be the quarterbacks, but instead, the men protecting those quarterbacks.
Without a good offensive line, Colter will not be able to make running lanes be exploited, and Siemian will not be able to work his reads to the open receiver. Northwestern has to replace three starters on the offensive line, and there have been struggles to find players to grab those spots.
Geoff Mogus, Matt Frazier and Anthony Depietro likely will get a look at guard while Shane Mertz is competing with Jack Konopka and Paul Jorgenson for the open tackle slot. If the group does not force one another to get better, then Northwestern will not be as potent on offense.
Knowing the usual blunders on the Wildcat defense, that would be fatal to a Big Ten title run.
Ohio State: Who Fills the Crucial Empty Tackle Spot on the Offensive Line?
Heading into spring practice, everybody wanted to see what would happen with the defensive line and linebacking positions.
If the spring game in Cincinnati is any indication, Ohio State fans will continue to see the development of outstanding talents as top recruits Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington dominated the offensive line.
That's even more impressive, considering the offensive line returns four starters from a highly efficient unit in 2012.
Of course, Spence and Washington were not always going against starters in this split-squad affair, but the answers are coming to the biggest questions for the Buckeyes. That also goes for Curtis Grant, who might finally be ready to hold onto his starting job after looking good without Ryan Shazier on the field.
That leaves the opening at right tackle, which is the position that was dominated regularly by Spence and Washington in Cincinnati. Taylor Decker and Chase Ferris were supposed to push each other for this position, but neither has earned the trust of Urban Meyer and Braxton Miller.
So shocking as it seems to say, Ohio State's biggest question coming out of spring practice is shoring up the one big hole on the offensive line. Without closing that gap, the offense could struggle, which would be a huge surprise with all the returning talent.
Penn State: Who Will Be the Next Tom Brady, Ahem, Quarterback?
The recruiting world took huge notice when standout quarterback recruit Christian Hackenberg opted to join the Nittany Lions in the fall of 2013 despite the sanctions and controversy surrounding the program.
That just goes to show what an outstanding quarterback coach can do for a team on the recruiting trail. Hackenberg also knew he would get a shot to play right away, with Matthew McGloin off to graduation following 2012.
However, Bill O'Brien was cautious and seemed to urge Nittany Lions fans to put the brakes on the expectations for Hackenberg, especially considering he was not enrolling early to participate in spring drills.
That gives Tyler Ferguson and Steven Bench a huge leg up on the competition for being the starting quarterback in September.
Or at least that is what O'Brien would have had you believe. It is hard to tell if either of these players separated himself in practice because reports are unclear. However, the equally mediocre performances put on by both in the spring game raises serious questions about whether either can grab the job away from Hackenberg if he comes in hot.
Many overthrows and slow reads dominated the day on offense for the red-jersey-wearing quarterbacks. That is not a good sign as O'Brien needs a strong field leader to help him survive a roster that becomes more depleted as far as scholarships go every year.
Purdue: Can the Boilermakers Stop Turning the Ball Over?
Purdue will likely begin with defense under Darrell Hazell, and one of his early mottos for the team is to avoid turnovers. He even carries around a sign at spring practices to emphasize the point of how critical winning the turnover margin can be.
The Boilermakers should know this from experience, following an up-and-down 6-7 season.
Purdue ranked just inside the bottom half of college football in 2012 in turnover margin, forcing 25 turnovers while yielding 27. That turns out to be about two turnovers a game for the offense and the defense. This would work just fine on defense, if the offense could cut down on its mistakes.
The spring game did not give much hope of that, however, as the Black and Gold teams combined for a whopping six turnovers. Granted, the defense does get credit for forcing turnovers as well, but six is simply too many.
That said, starting QB Rob Henry (for now, anyway) and RB Akeem Hunt avoided the turnover bug, which is a good sign if these two want to remain in the starting roles. If ball security continues to be an issue, then Purdue will likely take a huge step back from bowl eligibility in Hazell's first season.
Hence, his emphasis on the statistic is a valid point. And a clear message about what needs to be the focus.
Wisconsin: Can Joel Stave Stay Healthy?
What could be discerned from Wisconsin's spring game was not much, thanks to the holdouts of standout players such as Jared Abbrederis and Melvin Gordon on offense, as well as seemingly half the starting defense.
In addition, the funky offense versus defense scoring scale that Gary Andersen chooses to employ is borderline useless for fans.
For the record, the defense won and apparently looked really good after the first quarter. The new 3-4 defensive scheme at least was capable of making Curt Phillips and Danny O'Brien look silly. Of course, there are a lot of Big Ten defenses that made O'Brien look silly, so that's not saying much. The real winner coming out of spring practices is Joel Stave, who apparently has eclipsed Phillips for the starting job again.
Granted, this is still a fluid situation with three competitors all having significant playing time in 2012, but Stave only lost his job because of a broken clavicle. Unfortunately, he had been prone to breaking that particular bone multiple times, meaning a lack of protection for him from the offensive line could lead to another break fairly easily.
If what was seen on Saturday is any indication, that type of injury would be devastating because Wisconsin likely would become one dimensional again, just as in the six losses from a season ago.
With Ohio State back off the NCAA naughty list, Wisconsin is the biggest challenger to what is widely considered a done race for the Leaders Division title. But Stave's health will be the biggest concern going forward.
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