6 Big Ten Football Players in Need of a Strong Fall Practice
Big Ten media days finally arrive this week, which is always a signal that the long offseason is almost over. With practice just a couple weeks away for most teams, football is so close we can taste it!
Fall practice brings a chance at redemption for many players, including those who needed to sit out spring practices or incoming freshmen who did not enroll early. For these players, getting up to speed and contending for playing time are the orders of the day throughout the month of August.
Although every player wants to have a great set of fall practices and hit the season with momentum, there are a few players who really need to shine during this time before the 2013 season. Let's take a look at the six players who need a good August more than anyone else in the Big Ten.
And who knows, perhaps there will be some redemption here for some players on units I deemed overrated last weekend...
Curtis Grant, Ohio State LB
Most people know that South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was the top overall recruit coming into college football, as ranked by Rivals two years ago, but few people would be able to name who was second on that same list. That would be Curtis Grant, a linebacker for Ohio State.
While Clowney has truly remained the best in the game, Grant has racked up 10 tackles in two full seasons in Columbus. That's not a typo, he really only has 10 tackles in his career. There's not living up to recruiting hype, and then there's disappearing off the face of the planet.
The good news is that Grant had a great spring, according to all accounts, capped by an eight-tackle performance in the spring game. The bad news is that Buckeyes fans heard that same story last year and then watched Grant play so poorly that he ended up benched three games into the season. He was so bad that Ohio State converted fullback Justin Boren to play the linebacker position instead of him.
With everyone but Ryan Shazier gone from the defensive front seven, Grant will get another opportunity to prove he deserves to be the leader of this defense in the middle linebacker position. To earn the trust of his teammates, he needs to come out swinging in fall practice.
Otherwise, the doubts will creep in once again about whether Grant will ever live up to his lofty ranking from 2011.
Christian Hackenberg, Penn State QB
The demise of the Penn State football program was widely reported heading into 2012, but most of the key upperclassmen decided to stay, and that made for a solid team and an 8-4 finish. One of the primary reasons for that success was the blossoming of senior quarterback Matthew McGloin.
Recruits immediately paid attention to this turnaround from McGloin and the pedigree of head coach Bill O'Brien, who mentored Tom Brady for many years before becoming a college coach. That led Christian Hackenberg, considered to be one of the top two or three quarterback recruits in this year's class, to join the Nittany Lions despite the burden of sanctions for the next three years.
Hackenberg did not enroll early, though, and that means he must come in and compete for a starting job for the first time this August. McGloin is gone, but a JUCO transfer sophomore, Tyler Ferguson, is also expected to compete for the job. Ferguson led the team during spring practices this year.
One thing that may help Hackenberg is that Ferguson is really the only legitimate competition for the starting position, and Ferguson has missed most of the last month of summer conditioning drills to spend time with his mother (battling breast cancer). Every little break could count in this close quarterback derby.
There may be some growing pains with a true freshman at the helm, but one only needs to look at division rival Ohio State to see the benefits of getting a next-level talent ready and in there right away (Braxton Miller was great as a sophomore thanks to all his playing time as a freshman).
Hackenberg needs to have a great set of fall practices to win the job and get his offense going heading into a relatively soft September schedule for the Nittany Lions.
Jonathan Brown, Illinois LB
Honestly, it feels like you could put the name of every Illinois football player on a dartboard and throw a dart to determine who needs to have a big fall practice. This entire team needs to step up if head coach Tim Beckman is going to right the ship as the Illini get ready to head to the West Division in 2014.
Before that move occurs, Illinois will have to contend with the likes of Penn State and Ohio State one last time as division foes. Coming off a 0-8 Big Ten campaign, even a couple of conference wins and moderate improvement across the board would be welcome in Champaign. Although, if you believe video game simulations, Illinois is poised for a huge year.
Beckman only has four returning starters on the defense, but a youth infusion may be just what is needed following the poor numbers from last season (388 yards per game allowed and 32.1 points compared to 286 yards and 19.6 points in 2011). One of the starters returning is senior linebacker Jonathan Brown, who followed up 108 tackles in 2011 with only 59 last season.
Brown was hampered by an ankle injury early in the season, and it eventually cost him the last three games of the season. Assuming Brown stays healthy and works hard to keep up with new star linebacker Mason Monheim, then Illinois will actually be able to have one of the best linebacker crews in the conference.
A high level of play will be required from this unit as the defensive front and backfield learn how to stop opposing offenses once again. Without Brown having a great fall practice and a good season, Illinois will be doomed to a similar fate as last year.
Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan RB
Hopes were high for a dynamic Michigan offense a season ago with Denard Robinson at quarterback and Fitzgerald Toussaint at running back, both of whom had eclipsed 1,000 yards in previous seasons. But neither of these players could stay healthy through 2012, and Toussaint had his season cut short with a broken leg (only 555 yards last season).
The Michigan coaches have insisted that Toussaint has been fully healthy since spring practices, but they held him out of contact drills for safety reasons. That will not be the case this fall, and now Toussaint will also have to compete with Derrick Green, one of the top running back recruits in the country.
Green has a bit more power and speed, while Toussaint has made a living from quickness and good moves. Especially with a less mobile quarterback in 2013 compared to Denard Robinson, Toussaint will need to carry a much bigger load like other great Michigan running backs before him.
Of course, he must win the starting job first, and that is no guarantee with Green's talent. All signs point to this being a critical fall for Toussaint, perhaps the biggest of his career if he wants to keep succeeding and make a play at the NFL in a couple years.
There's plenty of motivation out there, including the desire to avoid never winning a Legends Division title. Hopefully Toussaint is up to the task.
Andrew Maxwell, Michigan State QB
When a team coming off two straight 11-win seasons loses a school recordholder passing quarterback like Kirk Cousins (9,131 career passing yards) but insists that the next guy up is just as talented, that belief is either impressive or full of hubris.
If the 2012 season is any indication, Michigan State should have lower expectations for 2013. Andrew Maxwell struggled throughout the season a year ago, ending up with a weak 13 touchdown-to-nine interception ratio. Maxwell also lost his position a couple of times during critical last-minute drives to backup Connor Cook.
Of course, Cook delivered in those situations, including leading a drive for the game-winning field goal against TCU in the bowl game. That increases the pressure for Maxwell to play well this fall and earn back his starting job with authority as a senior. If he has half as much talent as Cousins did, this should not be a problem.
One item that will definitely help is having four returning lineman as well as four of the top five receivers from 2012. Still, trust and confidence need to be built with these experienced receivers in fall practice to hopefully avoid the drop-fest that killed Maxwell's numbers at times in 2012.
Cousins had a very good offense around him during his tenure, and Maxwell will receive one season with similar levels of good offensive talent. Especially with a new running back being broken in, the time is now for Maxwell to seize the starting position definitively and help the Spartans get rolling quickly in 2013.
Derrick Engel, Minnesota WR
For our final selection, the list goes a bit off the beaten path to the receiver corps in Minneapolis. Last season, Minnesota struggled to do much with the passing game, as starting quarterback MarQueis Gray was more of a runner and backup Philip Nelson was an inexperienced freshman taking over after Gray's injury.
However, that leads to 2013, where Minnesota returns an impressive 10 starters on offense. One of the missing starters is top receiver AJ Barker, and that leaves senior Derrick Engel as the leader of this unit. Considering nobody caught more than 400 yards' worth of passes last season, Engel needs to bring good statistics and good leadership for the other players on the offense.
More specifically, Engel needs to get on the same page with Nelson during fall practice so that these two make a big threat for defenses to worry about in 2013. That would open up more running room for Donnell Kirkwood, who was the primary focus of the offense a season ago.
On a team trying to stay bowl eligible for another season and continuing to improve under a good head coach in Jerry Kill, the offense must be better than it was in 2012. The results all start now in fall practice, and Engel will be key to that success.
Thanks for reading! Please give me your thoughts on other players needing a big fall practice in the comments below, and feel free to follow me on Twitter @DA_Fitzgerald. See you next week!