Big Ten spring football practice has started at nine schools and is just around the corner for the other three. With the help of our reporter friends who cover the conference, here are the hot topics in 2011
(Note: We're giving you a double dose on league newcomer Nebraska):
Practice starts: Tuesday
Spring game: April 23
Fresh face: Make it faces, Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic. With Corey Lewis out because of a knee injury, the two redshirt freshmen will try to fill the spot opposite Jeff Allen. The rest of the offensive line is set. Besides Allen, Graham Pocic returns at center, Hugh Thornton at guard and Jack Cornell jumps in to fill the spot vacated by Randall Hunt. The Illini are counting on Lewis to be back in the fall, but Heitz and Cvijanovic can set themselves up for a lot of playing time with good performances in the spring.
Position battle: Troy Pollard vs. Bud Golden. You're going to be reading a lot about Mikel Leshoure in the next month as he nears the NFL draft. Losing the school's top single-season rusher means somebody is going to need to fill a hole beyond the starter. Sure, there are challengers coming in the fall (Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson), but Pollard and Golden have a chance to get way ahead of the newcomers. A couple of things to watch: ball security and comfort catching passes. Those are two priorities for Paul Petrino's offense.
Pressure's on: Jason Ford, though the coaches will do everything in their power to alleviate it. His teammates are excited about his potential, the linemen hoping Ford will break Leshoure's year-old rushing record. And Ford is changing the way he eats and shedding a few pounds to get ready for his final season. He's been productive during his career, scoring 19 touchdowns. With 1,362 yards in his career, he already ranks among the top 25 in school history and can move way into the top 10.
Bob Asmussen, The News-Gazette
Practice started: March 8
Spring game: April 16
Fresh face: I'll go with Chase Hoobler, a linebacker from Orrville, Ohio, who was impressive in preseason camp last season. At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, he has a body that's ready for the position. He recorded 163 tackles, 22 of them for loss in his senior year at Orrville. Other redshirt freshmen to watch would be running back Matt Perez, wide receiver Logan Young, tight end Leneil Himes, defensive end Harrison Scott and linebacker Matt Zakrzewski. If you're thinking true freshmen who arrive in the fall, there's Zack Shaw, a four-star linebacker from Coshocton, Ohio, who recorded 228 tackles in his junior season. Also expected to make an immediate impact are wide receivers Shane Wynn and Cody Latimer. Quarterback Tre Roberson, last year's Mr. Football, could earn a look.
Position battle: Dusty Kiel vs. Edward Wright-Baker for the starting quarterback job. They've been fighting for the backup position behind Ben Chappell since fall 2009 and went back and forth in that fight. Both have strong arms and speed, though Kiel is a little more accurate and Wright-Baker is a little shiftier.
Pressure's on: Kevin Wilson, not in the sense that he has to win immediately to stay in his new position, but it's important that he come through on his promise to win immediately. He obviously doesn't inherit a powerhouse program, but he doesn't take over a bare cupboard, either, and he'll have to win with the talent he has to prove he won't just be bringing more of the same to Bloomington.
Dustin Dopirak, Bloomington Herald-Times
Practice started: March 23
Spring game: April 16
Fresh face: Running back Marcus Coker. He's not totally fresh, but he will be for most of the Big Ten next fall. In seven games last season as a true freshman, the 6-foot, 230-pounder rushed for 622 yards, with 219 coming in an offensive MVP performance against Missouri in the Insight Bowl. He averaged 5.46 yards on 114 carries. He's a downhill runner who'll run through defenders, but showed burst with a 62-yard TD run in the Insight.
Position battle: DT Steve Bigach vs. DT Carl Davis. Iowa's D-line could be looked at as a bit deflated with the departures of Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug. There is a battled for one DT spot between Bigach, a junior who's bulked up from 220 his freshman year to 275 and Davis, a big 6-5, 295-pound redshirt freshman. Bigach probably holds the edge with experience, but Davis was kept in the mix last season in anticipation that he could help in 2011. If Davis kicks in, this could be one of the more closely watched battles in spring, which begins Wednesday.
Pressure's on: QB James Vandenberg. In 2009 as a redshirt freshman, Vandenberg burst on the scene with an eye-popping performance on a national stage at Ohio State. Ricky Stanzi suffered a high-ankle sprain the week before and the Hawkeyes were playing for a piece of the Big Ten title at the Horseshoe. Vandenberg threw two TD passes while the Hawkeyes pushed Ohio State to overtime before falling on a field goal. Then last season, Vandenberg threw eight passes. Iowa coaches are highly confident the 6-foot-2, 215-pound junior will be able to replace Stanzi, but he has proving to do after carrying a clipboard in 2010.
Marc Morehouse, Cedar Rapids Gazette
Practice started: March 19
Spring game: April 16
Fresh face: Placekicker Matt Wile. The freshman arrives after Michigan made only four field goals last year.
Position battle: Running back. As many as four players could compete for the starting position, plus a couple of freshman.
Pressure's on: Quarterback Denard Robinson, who shined in the spread offense utilized by former coach Rich Rodriguez. He needs to show he can handle the pro style under new coach Brady Hoke.
Mark Snyder, Detroit Free Press
Practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 30
Fresh face: Redshirt freshman Tony Lippett earned tons of buzz for his performance on the scout team in the fall, and the big question now is: On which side of the ball will he play? Lippett has the speed and moves to be an exciting receiver, but at this point his permanent destiny appears to be cornerback. Mark Dantonio expects to use him both ways, a la Chris Gamble when Dantonio was an assistant at Ohio State.
Position battle: Denicos Allen vs. Steve Gardiner, OLB. Chris Norman returns at one outside spot and Max Bullough is the heir apparent to Greg Jones at middle linebacker, leaving Allen and Gardiner to battle it out. Allen is much faster and more athletic, but Gardiner has more power and a better feel for the defense. This could go well into fall camp.
Pressure's on: A punter, of all things. Redshirt freshman Mike Sadler was a prominent 2010 recruit who now must step into the cleats of Aaron Bates — a standout at the position for four years and the first punter to be named a captain in the history of the school. One thing's for sure, Sadler will not be expected to excel on trick plays at Bates' level.
Joe Rexrode, Lansing State Journal
Practice started: March 24
Spring game: April 23
Fresh face: MarQueis Gray, the Gophers' second-best receiver last year, is finally moving to quarterback as promised. It leaves Minnesota perilously thin at wideout, but he's been patient during the Adam Weber years and he's almost certainly the team's best athlete. His running ability should transform the Gophers' problematic offense; fans being fans, he's being compared to Denard Robinson and Terrelle Pryor, though nobody has a clue whether he can pass. Still, any hope the Gophers have for a mildly successful season rests with Gray.
Position battle: Hmm, this is a tough one; the Gophers are so thin everywhere, anyone with legit talent is already assured of playing. OK, try this: Senior tailbacks DeLeon Eskridge and Duane Bennett both return, and they led Minnesota in rushing last year. But neither reached even 700 yards on the season (Esk had 698), and Minnesota was the Big Ten's worst rushing team. Now there are three redshirt freshmen eager to play — Donnell Kirkwood, who looked promising last year before injuring his hamstring four games in, Devon Wright and Lamonte Edwards. The seniors figure to have the advantage, but they didn't exactly seize the job last year. First-year coach Jerry Kill says he's going to spread out the carries, but I can't imagine he'll play all five, and the opportunity is there for anyone who can make an impact, a la Mikel Leshoure.
Pressure's on: Gray, who has long been regarded as the program's bright future. He looked good in a limited role during the Iowa game, but again, he threw only eight passes last year (two completions) and nobody knows whether he's really a QB. Since he would be a certain NFL prospect at WR, he's taking a real gamble by insisting that the Gophers live up to Tim Brewster's promise that he would eventually be the QB.
Phil Miller, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Practice started: March 12
Spring game: April 16
Fresh face: Daimion Stafford is a juco defensive back. Nebraska's secondary in 2010 was among the best in the nation, but Bo Pelini lost some difference makers. He'll need Stafford to step in. Pelini really likes versatile "hybrid" defenders, 210-pounders who can run and tackle. Stafford fits the profile.
Position battle: Guard. Nebraska must replace both guards on an offensive line that drew a lot of criticism late last year. Brent Qvale and Andrew Rodriguez are the front runners, but it's too early to know where Nebraska will go. It's a critical position considering the new offensive scheme and struggles last year.
Pressure's on: Quarterback Taylor Martinez. As a freshman, "T-Magic" took the nation by storm last September, even appearing on Heisman watch lists. But he's not a natural leader, and when the offense went south late in the year, much of the blame fell on Martinez. He was injured in the Missouri game and never recovered physically. Not even in the Holiday Bowl did Martinez appear 100 percent. He must prove he's the player who blitzed Kansas State and Oklahoma State, not the player who performed horribly against Oklahoma in the season's biggest game. A change in offensive scheme — Tim Beck is the new coordinator — should help Martinez. The West Coast passing game is out, replaced by a simpler spread system.
Dirk Chatelain, Omaha World-Herald
Fresh face: Ciante Evans, cornerback. With the departure of defensive backs Prince Amukamara, Eric Hagg and DeJon Gomes, no one will be counted on to pick up more responsibility than Evans. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Evans had some moments as a true freshman but is now be expected to replace future top-10 draft pick in Amukamara.
Position battle: Wide receivers Kenny Bell and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. Nebraska lost both Niles Paul and Mike McNeill, and both Bell and Jean-Baptiste are expected to compete for heavy playing time at wide receiver. Bell redshirted in 2010, but the staff nearly thought about pulling him out of it. Jean-Baptiste came from Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College as a four to play four prospect and spent most of 2010 getting used to the playbook. Look for them both to possibly play big roles in 2011.
Pressure's on: Tim Beck, offensive coordinator. Everybody knows Nebraska has a high-level defense, but the pressure will be on newly named offensive coordinator Tim Beck to get things clicking early and find a system that allows quarterback Taylor Martinez to flourish. Beck is expected to have a simplified offense, which should really help the young players on Nebraska's offense pick things up in a hurry.
Sean Callahan, HuskersIllustrated.com
Practice started: March 7
Spring game: April 16
Fresh face: If you're looking for somebody that hasn't played a college snap, then redshirt freshmen Paul Jorgensen (right guard) and Collin Ellis (outside linebacker) are your best bets. They're both fighting for jobs this spring and they represent their class on the team's Leadership Council. That's usually a good sign they'll be something someday. If you're looking for somebody lightly used, sophomore QB Kain Colter (who was on schedule to redshirt until Persa's injury) rushed for more than 100 yards and two TDs in the bowl. He's battling at QB this spring with Persa out, but he's willing to be an RB or WR or whatever else this fall once Persa returns.
Position battle: All three linebacker spots are up for grabs. MLB Nate Williams and SLB Quentin Davie graduated, while WLB Bryce McNaul keeps getting hurt. McNaul, if healthy, will pop up either at WLB or MLB. There's also junior MLB David Nwabuisi, senior OLB Ben Johnson, redshirt freshmen Collin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo, sophomores Damien Proby, Tim Riley and Roderick Goodlow. Even sophomore walk-on Timmy Vernon is in the mix. In short, there are a lot of guys battling.
Pressure's on: It's self-inflicted pressure, but senior QB Dan Persa has been pushing himself to return ASAP from the ruptured Achilles' tendon he suffered Nov. 13 against Iowa.
Lindsey Willhite, Arlington Heights Daily Herald
Practice starts: Thursday
Spring game: April 23
Fresh face: Normally I would have gone with someone like running back Rod Smith here. He is a redshirt freshman (that might not fit your criteria) running back, and players have told me he reminds them of Adrian Peterson with his abilities, but during his recruitment a lot of people saw a lot of Eddie George in his running style. It is a lot to compare a player to a Heisman winner or one of the best current backs in the NFL, but people really believe he is just that special. With Dan Herron now assured of missing five games, there will be a running back by committee, with players like Jordan Hall, Jaamal Berry and Carlos Hyde all in the mix, and only Hall saw any significant time at RB (and that was even limited to 37 carries ... Berry had 32, but it was all in garbage time). The field is open for Smith to have a big spring and fall camp, and if he can do that, there is no reason he can't be a significant ball carrier by the time the Buckeyes take the field minus five players and a head coach. But it is also hard not to focus on the quarterback situation with Pryor also being in the suspension mess, and that opens the door for true freshman quarterback Braxton Miller. Miller already has been anointed (by fans) as the future of Ohio State football, and the future could be now. Ohio State really has no player coming into 2011 with any significant time under center. Miller is more advanced than Pryor was as a passer coming out of high school, and though he might not be as adept of a runner, he is still the type of dual-threat quarterback that teams covet and opponents fear. The staff is going to have to make a decision, however, if it wants to bring Miller into the fire immediately. Joe Bauserman has been in the program for several years after quitting MLB (minor league journeyman), and there are a pair of kids in Kenny Guiton and redshirt freshman Taylor Graham. If Graham is able to step up and look as strong as he has during last year's scout team then the staff might not have to make a move on Miller. He is probably the "better" answer to this question, however, but not the safer one.
Position battle: I could make an argument for Taylor Graham vs. Braxton Miller at QB here ... and most of what I said would work fine. I also could make an argument of Rod Smith vs. the RB field. But if I had to go for a one-on-one battle, it would have to be Florida State transfer Dionte Allen versus redshirt sophomore and cornerback Corey Brown. The first CB spot will be locked down by Travis Howard, but with the departure of both corners (Chekwa and Torrence) the other spot is open as well. Dionte Allen sat out his transfer year and brings the experience to the position, while Corey Brown has had his licks in the Ohio State system, but an injury cut his run short. Players under Jim Tressel are not supposed to lose their spot due to injury, but Allen is a senior eligibilitywise and wouldn't have been brought in just to play the role of a backup. Ohio State still will be strong up front on defense, and the more vulnerable spot could be a secondary that loses three starters, and that could be one of the more intriguing battles to watch.
Pressure's on: I believe the pressure is on the coach because, let's face it, he has been accused and admitted to a pretty serious offense. While college players are going to be much more loyal to their coach than pro players, you have to worry about the message that it sends when the coach gets popped like this, even if it is for the perceived betterment of the team. Tressel is going to have (along with his assistants) to reassure his team but in the same vein keep tight reins over his team during this period and into the fall when he will not be on the sidelines for nearly half of the season.
Kevin Noon, BuckeyeGrove.com
Practice started: March 18
Spring game: April 16
Fresh face: Speedster Alex Kenney, a product of nearby State College Area High School, redshirted last season and has moved from receiver to defensive back. He should get on the field this season on defense and special teams, and perhaps on offense, too.
Position battle: Penn State's QB battle will be one of the most interesting of spring ball in the Big Ten. It's between Rob Bolden, Matt McGloin and Paul Jones. Bolden became the first true freshman QB ever to start a season opener for Joe Paterno last season and showed some promise starting eight games. He suffered a concussion at Minnesota and later lost the job to McGloin, who looked sharp against weaker defenses but threw a Penn State-record five INTs against Florida in the Outback Bowl. Bolden wanted to transfer after the bowl game, but JoePa declined to release him from his scholarship. So Bolden will take part in spring ball, although he has said several times his future is up in the air and he will decide after the spring if he will stay at Penn State or transfer. Jones redshirted as a freshman and, if Bolden leaves, is thought to be the long-term answer over McGloin. Really a bizarre situation.
Pressure's on: QB coach Jay Paterno. The pressure is always on JoePa's son, who is not respected much by many Penn State fans. How Jay handles the QB controversy will be closely watched and widely discussed. He's almost in a no-win situation because giving in to Bolden shows weakness, but if he tries a hard-line approach he risks another talented QB transferring, just as Pat Devlin did to Delaware after the 2009 regular season.
Cory Giger, Altoona Mirror
Practice started: March 1
Spring game: April 9
Fresh face: Junior college running back Akeem Shavers was a mid-year graduate and has joined the Boilermakers for the spring semester. He's impressed during spring drills and is expected to figure in the depth chart. Shavers has the same kind of burst Purdue fans grew accustomed to seeing from Ralph Bolden, who is limited this spring after undergoing his second ACL surgery a year ago. With Dan Dierking and Keith Carlos having exhausted their eligibility and with Bolden's effectiveness for the fall in question, the running back position is pretty much wide open. If Shavers doesn't start, he'll definitely be in the rotation and get his share of carries.
Position battle: Quarterbacks Rob Henry vs. Robert Marve. Henry burst on the scene last season after Marve suffered a season-ending knee injury. Henry, a redshirt freshman in 2010, played in 11 of Purdue's 12 games and led the team in rushing and passing. He seems to have a good grasp of the offense, and his athleticism makes him a good fit for coordinator Gary Nord's offense. It's hard imagining Marve not starting once he gets green-lighted to practice, which will be to start fall camp in August. Marve, a transfer from Miami, didn't come to Purdue to be a reserve. He's limited to pretty much just throwing the ball this spring, not participating in any contact after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery last fall — the second such surgery on the same knee in less than two years.
Pressure's on: Coach Danny Hope. Since taking over for the most successful football coach in Boilermakers history — Joe Tiller — Hope's Boilermakers have endured back-to-back losing seasons. He and everybody associated with Purdue football admit the time has come to win now. Tiller led the program to 10 bowl appearances in his 12 seasons in West Lafayette, so another non-bowl season will be tough to swallow and may cost Hope his job. Pressure's also on the front four on defense. Ryan Kerrigan, a soon-to-be first-round draft pick in the NFL and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season, leaves an enormous void at defensive end. Purdue won't replace him and will greatly miss his knack for pressuring quarterbacks. The Boilermakers will try to fill the void the consensus All-American leaves with Robert Maci in that spot, but Gerald Gooden, the other starting defensive end, must produce, and defensive tackles Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston — one of the strengths of the defense — must disrupt things inside.
Doug Griffiths, GoldandBlack.com
Practice started: March 22
Spring game: April 23
Fresh face: QB Jon Budmayr. With senior quarterback Scott Tolzien graduated and expected No. 2 quarterback Curt Phillips recovering from his second ACL injury, eyes will be on Budmayr. Although only 6 feet, Budmayr has a solid throwing arm that has gotten better over time working with offensive coordinator Paul Chryst on his mechanics. He's also grown mentally with the playbook, as this spring will be Budmayr's third in a Wisconsin uniform.
Position battle: Shelton Johnson vs. Dezmen Southward. Johnson and Southward helped save Wisconsin's season with their special teams hustle against Arizona State, chasing down Sun Devils kick returner Kyle Middlebrooks and bringing him down 1 yard before the end zone with time expiring in the first half. Wisconsin won by one point thanks to Jay Valai blocking an extra point late in the game. Now, both of those players will battle for Valai's starting spot. Both are fast, talented players, but unproven from a defensive standpoint as of now.
Pressure's on: Wisconsin. Coach Bret Bielema's Badgers finally broke through and won their first conference championship since 1999. Now with the conference splitting into two divisions and Ohio State missing key personnel for the first five games of the season, many are expecting that Wisconsin will represent the Leaders Division in Indianapolis. Wisconsin has voids at some positions but returns a lot of key players who played in last season's Rose Bowl.
Benjamin Worgull, Badger Nation publisher