Each Big Ten Football Coach's Biggest Project During Fall Camp

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistAugust 6, 2013

Each Big Ten Football Coach's Biggest Project During Fall Camp

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    Each fall camp's primary function is to prepare its team for the upcoming season. It's about working through rotations, declaring winners of position battles and game-planning for the season's first week.

    But on a different level, each camp—even those of prospective BCS National Champions like Ohio State—is also about the future. It's about identifying and developing prospects who might contribute well past the 2013 season.

    Every team has a few "projects" to work on this fall, some who might make an impact this coming year and others who might end up taking a redshirt.

    And of those few on every roster, one usually sticks out above the rest.

Tim Beckman, Illinois: Aaron Bailey, QB

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    Aaron Bailey could be a jolt of life for one of last year's worst teams—not just in the Big Ten or the power conferences, but rather in all of the FBS.

    He's a big, strong, athletically gifted quarterback, not dissimilar to former Illini QB Juice Williams. But, much like Williams before him, Bailey needs to be reigned in and taught the nuances of passing mechanics before he's ready to make a big impact.

    Even if Nathan Scheelhaase retains the starting gig all season, the work Beekman and his staff do with Bailey will define a big part of the program's future. If football is, indeed, a quarterback-driven sport, Illinois could soon have itself one of the best.

Kirk Ferentz, Iowa: Faith Ekakitie, DE

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    Faith Ekakitie is a 'tweener on the defensive line, versatile enough to play both tackle and end for the Hawkeyes. He was listed as a strongside defensive end in 247Sports' Class of 2012 rankings, where he also received a consensus 4-star grade. 

    Nagging injuries to starting DE Stephen Ott forced Ekakitie back to the position this spring, after working previously at backup defensive tackle. He's slated to be an oft-used backup at each spot, but with a little help from the coaches this fall, he has the physical potential to be so much more.

    Even if the depth chart stays inert, though, Ekakitie is an important project. The Big Ten is a win-in-the-trenches league—doing so cannot be done without depth. Ekakitie needs to find a position, stick to it and master it.

    If he does, the Hawkeyes' defense might improve on last year's numbers, which weren't nearly as bad as a 4-8 record usually indicates.

Kevin Wilson, Indiana: Antonio Allen, S

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    There's good news and bad news in Indiana's secondary.

    The Good News: All four starters are back from last year's unit, ensuring continuity.

    The Bad News: All four starters are back from last year's unit, ensuring continuity.

    The Hoosiers finished 110th in Football Outsiders' defensive F/+ rankings last year, better than just 14 teams in all of the FBS. Those are awfully bad results, especially when considering their conference, the Big Ten, is hardly revered for its offenses.

    But there's actually more good news in Bloomington: Ole Miss de-commit Antonio Allen has signed on to join the secondary, and he could be the most explosive run-stopper IU has had in years.

    If Kevin Wilson & Co. can groom him into quick shape this fall, he could (and should) make an immediate impact this season.

Brady Hoke, Michigan: Shane Morris, QB

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    Shane Morris isn't necessarily a "project," at least in the sense that he's a fairly polished passer. Of the elite QBs from the class of 2013, his arm was among the furthest along in development.

    But that doesn't mean he's ready for game action. Not by a long shot. And after second-string QB Russell Bellomy tore his ACL in April, Morris moved one step closer to being forced into it.

    If things go according to plan, Morris won't see important playing time until Devin Gardner graduates. But plans don't always work that way. Gardner, much to Brady Hoke's chagrin, likes to get out of the pocket, which exposes himself to injuries.

    Morris is locked in a battle with Brian Cleary for primary backup duties. To develop a contingency should Gardner get hurt, it will be imperative for Michigan to get Morris up to game-speed this fall.

    He struggled with accuracy, at times, in high school and can't afford for that to translate into college.

Mark Dantonio, Michigan State: Damion Terry, QB

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    Mark Dantonio is about as old school as they come. His starting QBs at Michigan State have all been "quarterbacks," not "athletes." But Damion Terry could change that tradition—and soon.

    Terry might not start to begin this year, or at all this year, but he's the undeniable quarterback of Michigan State's future. His development this season, even if it comes solely through practice reps, is of vital importance to how Sparty will fare in 2014 and beyond.

    New offensive coordinator Jim Bollman, though specializing in offensive-line work, helped turn guys like Troy Smith and Terrelle Pryor into weapons at Ohio State. He might not aid much in Terry's development, but if Dantonio and his staff can succeed in that capacity, Bollman will know how to best employ him.

Jerry Kill, Minnesota: Drew Wolitarsky, WR

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    Words like "project" and "potential" and "upside" are often reserved for quicker, smaller players, especially at wide receiver. Guys with elite physical gifts, the ones who can score from anywhere on the field at any time, are the ones lauded as future stars.

    But Drew Wolitarsky is a different type of prospect, a player whose ceiling and upside are different but no less impressive. He's a possession-receiving prospect who could become a legitimate Big Ten force.

    Wolitarsky is big (6'3'') and strong in the slot, possessed of already-starting-caliber hands. He might not project as a home run threat on the outside, but he's a guy who could eventually lead the Gophers in receptions. And he might do so sooner rather than later.

    Though uber-productive in high school, Wolitarsky's competition at Canyons (Ca.) left a lot to be desired. Kill's biggest task this fall will be introducing him to the rigors of Big Ten play—of creating space against FBS defensive backs; players who earned scholarships, not varsity letters, for their ability to stop him from getting open.

    If Wolitarsky can do that, there's no telling how good he might be.

Bo Pelini, Nebraska: David Knevel, OT

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    David Knevel is about as raw as they come, but if Pelini and his staff make developing him a priority, the eventual returns could be huge.

    The Canadian tackle prospect stands 6'9'' and, at times, has flashed the ability to punish people in pass protection. He is a raw-but-good athlete, one who could eventually turn his massive frame into similarly massive production for the Huskers.

    That won't happen this year, and it will be tempting for the Nebraska coaches to ignore Knevel during camp. They have more pressing, immediate, 2013-centric concerns.

    But Knevel needs all the work he can get if he's to ever reach his considerable potential. So Nebraska, even if/when it gives him a redshirt, better be willing to give him that attention.

Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern: Ifeadi Odenigo, DE

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    Expectations are high for Ifeado Odenigo, perhaps unfairly so. He was a bona fide 4-star recruit in high school and received a 96.8-out-of-100 on 247Sports' composite. 

    Those are the type of players Alabama recruits, en masse, every season. Sometimes they work out and sometimes they don't—that's the nature of the business. But at Alabama, when one flames out, another five are waiting to take his place.

    Odenigo doesn't have the same buffer. He is not the type of recruit Northwestern is used to landing, and his expectations are altered accordingly. If he doesn't pan out the way he's projected, somebody's job will be on the line.

    Fitzgerald, a former Northwestern All-American himself, should work closely with Odenigo this fall, preparing him for a starting role opposite Tyler Scott on the Wildcats' defensive line. If he can mold Odenigo's pass-rushing potential, great things might await Northwestern this season.

Urban Meyer, Ohio State: Jalen Marshall, WR

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    Take one look at Marshall's high school tape, and you known he can be special; take one look at Percy Harvin's tape from Florida, and you know Urban Meyer can take full advantage of the skills of such a player.

    But that doesn't mean it will be easy. Every prospect is his own, unique case, and even if Marshall has a lot of Harvin's physical abilities, that doesn't mean he will automatically enjoy Harvin's success.

    Marshall played a lot of Wildcat QB in high school, but he will make the transition to wide receiver in Columbus. Meyer needs to teach him the ropes of full-time duty at that position, the nuances of succeeding against FBS defensive backs—guys who won't fall for his patented spin move, no matter how impressive, every time he needs to break a tackle.

    If he learns, Marshall could be a future All-American. But if he doesn't, he could be just another boom-or-bust weapon, a player who never makes a real, consistent, week-to-week impact. 

Bill O'Brien, Penn State: Nyeem Wartman, LB

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    Nyeem Wartman played the first two games of 2012 as a true freshman, but after spraining his knee against Virginia Tech, Penn State opted to play it safe and give him a redshirt.

    Still, the potential Bill O'Brien & Co. saw in practice was there; and it was there once again in practices this spring. Wartman has a chance to be the next great linebacker at a place called Linebacker U. That's pretty rarified air. 

    The Nitany Lions must get him up to speed quick, though. He will not have time to ease into the rotation this fall. After losing All-American Michael Mauti and All-Big Ten Gerald Hodges from last year's team, they are desperate for an immediate impact at linebacker.

    Wartman is a good bet to fill that role, but he still has some work left to do.

Darrell Hazell, Purdue: Danny Etling, QB

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    Danny Etling was a 4-star recruit on 247Sports' composite, the only member of Purdue's incoming class to earn that distinction. And he might not have to wait long before making an impact.

    He's been splitting even reps with senior Rob Henry in practice, which, given Henry's superior experience, likely signals that Etling has the more impressive skill. Otherwise, the safer option—the guy who has thrown 200 career passes—would probably be given preference.

    But if Etling is, indeed, a serious threat to start the season under center, Hazell has his work cut out for him. He needs to get Etling up to speed in a hurry, preparing him for the increased speed of college football and savage physicality of Big Ten play.

    No matter how lively Etling's arm has been, that part will require some intricate coaching.

Gary Andersen, Wisconsin: Tanner McEvoy, QB

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    Junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy is such a project at quarterback that even now, two years removed from high school, ESPN's recruiting staff still thinks, as it did in 2011, that he shouldn't be playing the position. Per their scouting report:

    We said it when McEvoy was coming out of high school and we still feel he is playing the wrong position if he wants to maximize his upside. He is a great athlete with terrific height and a frame that can still be developed. He is reminiscent of former Villanova and Atlanta Falcons WR Brian Finneran and McEvoy could be a big, long-armed wideout who could make a ton of plays if he were used as a WR/slot/H-back.

    That won't stop Wisconsin from trying him out at QB, though, and perhaps with the proper coaching, ESPN's assessment will be proven wrong. McEvoy certainly has the tools to make it so.

    As competent as Joe Stave was as a freshman last season, he hardly lit the world on fire and doesn't quite fit Gary Andersen's scheme—one that doesn't necessarily require athleticism under center, but thrived when Chuckie Keeton offered it at Utah State.

    McEvoy, if properly groomed this fall, would open a whole new world of options for Wisconsin's offense.