Big Ten Football: 6 Starters on the Hot Seat in 2014 Spring Practice
Spring practice invariably leads to position battles, especially in today's climate of "win, and win now." Gone are the days of waiting for that young star to develop. Instead, players are expected to achieve great things almost from the day they set foot on campus. If they don't, they may soon find their name tumbling down the depth chart.
Coaches are always aware that a lack of success in any given season could result in a spot on the dreaded "hot seat." In order to avoid that fate, coaches seem more willing than ever before to place their own players on the hot seat—where losing a spot as a starter can often mean the end of a once-promising career.
With 2014 spring games right around the corner, we wondered which Big Ten players might find their names on a hot-seat list. Who is at risk of losing his coveted position as a starter? Which players are facing more than their fair share of pressure to up their games?
Paul James, RB, Rutgers
It's going to be very interesting to see how Rutgers adjusts to the Big Ten in 2014, especially considering the Scarlet Knights' position in the very tough East Division and lack of any solid running attack.
Last season, Paul James led the Scarlet Knights with 881 rushing yards and nine touchdowns as a junior. That's not good, even for the American Athletic Conference, where Rutgers finished 6-7 overall with a 3-5 conference mark.
Taking a massive step up in class from the AAC to the Big Ten will certainly be a challenge for Rutgers, even if there was a solid ground game in place.
James is sure to come up against some defenses, like the one in East Lansing, that he hasn't seen before, and it remains an open question whether or not he has what it takes to compete for 60 minutes against some of the nation's best defenders.
Rutgers may opt to shift toward the smaller but more agile Justin Goodwin for 2014. As a freshman last season, Goodwin averaged 4.7 yards per carry—not that far behind James' average of 5.6 yards per rush.
There are no easy answers for Rutgers in the short term, but if there's going to be any level of success in 2014, head coach Kyle Flood is going to have to do something unexpected.
Nate Sudfeld, QB, Indiana
Will Indiana ever find some consistency when it comes to the name at the top of the depth chart at quarterback? Head coach Kevin Wilson has been plagued with indecision at times when it comes to his signal-caller of choice, and despite a strong performance from Nate Sudfeld last season, we're not convinced Wilson will stick with him in 2014.
The problem for Sudfeld isn't a bad resume; 2,523 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 60.2 percent completion rate isn't bad for any conference, much less the run-loving Big Ten. But deposed starter Tre Roberson has been steadily making a case for his return to the top spot with some hot performances down the stretch last season. Roberson eventually finished the season averaging nearly a half-yard more per pass attempt than Sudfeld.
Roberson also added 423 rushing yards, third most on the team, and 457 yards more than Sudfeld was credited with on the ground.
If Wilson wants to find some consistency with his program when it comes to winning, he'll need to find some consistency at quarterback. Unless Sudfeld can show some massive improvements this spring, he may not be the choice Wilson makes come August.
Danny Etling, QB, Purdue
There is one thing that should scare the living daylights out of returning sophomore quarterback Danny Etling: Purdue can't get much worse, so there's little to lose by benching him in favor of fellow sophomore Austin Appleby.
Etling completed fewer than 56 percent of his passes and had seven passes picked off compared to just 10 touchdowns. Appleby, by comparison, didn't throw many passes—just six in two games' worth of late action—but completed all but one of them, including one for a touchdown.
Admittedly, there's far too little evidence to show that Appleby could somehow supplant Etling. But we'll mention it again: There's very little for Purdue to lose. Plus, we are talking about a guy who was a 3-star recruit good enough to attract the attention of Purdue.
Etling is just the latest quarterback at Purdue to attempt to restore the famous "cradle of quarterbacks" to its former glory, but the Boilermakers are still just a shadow of their former selves. Purdue's only win in 2013 was against FCS Indiana State—by six measly points.
But before you go thinking the Sycamores are some great FCS power, keep in mind that Indiana State finished 1-11 last season, with its lone win coming against Division II Quincy—which itself was 2-9 in one of the worst D-II conferences in the nation. The further you flesh this out, the worse it gets (Quincy's two wins were against an 0-11 team and a program in its second season, etc.).
With that kind of performance, maybe the whole of Purdue's starting roster could be placed on our "hot seat."
Kyle Kalis, G, Michigan
Michigan's offensive line was, somewhat shockingly, an utter disaster last season. The Wolverines were never able to establish a running game, and quarterback Devin Gardner was never given a great deal of cover from his linemen.
One positive takeaway—if you can call it that—is the fact that Michigan's line was so young last season that there's going to be plenty of experience moving forward. But a new addition, Mason Cole, a 4-star early enrollee at guard, is ready to challenge for playing time.
With the line's abilities already thrown into question over the performance in 2013 combined with the loss of Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, don't be surprised if someone like returning sophomore Kyle Kalis loses out to the likes of Cole.
Tommy Armstrong Jr., QB, Nebraska
Remember when Nebraska's Taylor Martinez was going to be the next great thing in the Big Ten? Remember when that didn't happen and everyone started looking to 2014 spring practices for the next great quarterback in Lincoln? Remember how it was supposed to be Tommy Armstrong?
We never thought we'd get such an early look at Armstrong, but Martinez's early exit due to injury after injury meant Armstrong's freshman season was spent on the field rather than in the film room. Unfortunately, Armstrong didn't really wow anyone, giving up eight interceptions while tossing just nine touchdowns.
Armstrong completed just 51.9 percent of his passes in 2013, threw for 966 yards (which laughably led the Huskers) and finished with a woeful average of just 107.3 passing yards per game. Despite seeing significant action in six games, Armstrong never broke 175 passing yards in 2013, which leaves Nebraska fans to wonder what's next for the Huskers offense.
With Stanton showing massive potential to develop into the next Tim Tebow/Johnny Manziel style of quarterback, Tommy Armstrong's days as Nebraska's starting quarterback may have already come and gone.
Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
Finally, we come to Michigan's Devin Gardner. Despite receiving the honor last season of wearing Michigan legend Tom Harmon's iconic No. 98, his play has been anything but Harmon-esque.
Despite finishing second in the Big Ten in passing yards per game last season (246.7), Gardner also threw multiple interceptions in four games. He also failed to complete 55 percent or more of his passes six times, including two games under 50 percent.
Gardner also wasn't particularly great at digging his offense out of a hole, either. He completed just 42.9 percent of his throws on third down and seven-or-longer in 2013.
But what might concern Michigan coaches and fans most is his inability to create with his feet when the passing lanes just aren't there. In stark contrast to his predecessor, Gardner averaged just 2.9 yards per carry in 2013, far below Denard Robinson's average of 7.2 a season earlier.
Michigan also saw some impressive beginnings from soon-to-be sophomore Shane Morris, who completed 61.7 percent of his passes in five appearances for the Wolverines. Even assuming Gardner is fully recovered from his broken foot suffered against Ohio State, we suspect head coach Brady Hoke and new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier will have Gardner on a short leash in 2014.
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