Spring wrap-up: Big Ten

Illinois: Illinois needs to show marked improvement in order for head coach Ron Zook to be able to return in 2011. The Fighting Illini will begin the post-Juice Williams era under center with athletic redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase, who won the starting quarterback competition with an impressive spring showing and will enter summer workouts as the leader on offense. With Jacob Charest deciding to leave the team, Illinois is left with three scholarship signal-callers — none with any game experience, as former backup Eddie McGee is now playing wide receiver. Will new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino push for a return back to quarterback for McGee? Meanwhile, new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning seemed to have a livelier group of players to work with this spring, and it looks as if the line may be the strength of the unit with Corey Liuget and Clay Nurse leading the way. A major question for this ‘D’ besides safety is whether linebacker Martez Wilson can remain healthy and play to the level that was expected of him when he arrived on campus. A brutal start to the schedule will make it difficult to win games, however, even if the team shows improvement on the field.

Indiana: Indiana possesses a nice aerial attack led by quarterback Ben Chappell that will give fans plenty of dramatic moments in the fall. The major question is whether the Hoosiers can stop anyone on the other side of the ball. They finished 10th in the league in points allowed (29.5 ppg) and yards allowed (401 ypg), and they lost three starters in the secondary, along with defensive end Jammie Kirlew. There is some newfound depth, however, with young recruits and JUCO transfers. They are switching to the 3-4 scheme, which could give the squad the necessary spark to turn things around on defense. While they don’t have to be great, they need to come up with big stops once in awhile in order to get to the postseason for just the second time since 1993.

Iowa: As always, Iowa’s success begins and ends with a strong defense and a solid rushing attack. The defensive line returns intact, led by disruptive end Adrian Clayborn, and the Hawkeyes once again will be set in the backfield because if history proves itself, a back always emerges in Iowa City in the face of adversity. So no matter who goes down with injury or however the Jewel Hampton situation plays out, the fact is that Iowa won’t miss a beat. There was a little bit of concern at linebacker with the losses of Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds, as well as on the offensive line with tackle Riley Reiff and guard Julian Vandervelde as the only two linemen returning with significant experience, but players stepped up this spring and displayed the team’s depth for head coach Kirk Ferentz. Expectations are at an all-time high under Ferentz after winning the Outback and Orange bowls the past two seasons.

Michigan: It’s pretty simple for head coach Rich Rodriguez: just win baby. And victories can only occur if the defense plays better than it did in ’09, when the team finished last in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense in Big Ten contests. Meanwhile, their best defenders, end Brandon Graham and cornerback Donovan Warren, are gone. And expectations were that a wave of youthful defenders like Cameron Gordon and J.T. Floyd could be relied upon to step up, but they didn’t make a big impact this spring. In addition, cornerback Demar Dorsey was ruled ineligible to enroll at the school. While a starter has yet to be named, the quarterback situation looks promising for Rodriguez, as Denard Robinson pushed Tate Forcier during the spring. The Wolverines should be able to put points on the board, but the defense will determine whether the team suffers through a third consecutive bowl-less season — and ultimately costs Rich Rod his job.

Michigan State: While all the talk of a coaching hot seat in Michigan centers on Rich Rod, Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio may be getting some heat sent his way if his Spartans don’t start playing up to their capabilities. With the fallout from the on-campus altercation at a residence hall in November still resonating, this is a big year for the program. With Kirk Cousins solidly entrenched as the starting quarterback and one of the strongest wide receiving units in the conference, the passing attack will be prolific. But what about the running game? Sophomores Larry Caper and Edwin Baker will be running behind an offensive line that must replace three fifth-year senior starters. The secondary lost five defenders, but the unit was atrocious last year. Can they eliminate the big play? The linebacker corps will be the strength of the defense, led by All-American and Big Ten co-defensive player of the year Greg Jones. Dantonio must get the focus back on the field — and win — to show the university that the program is making progress on his watch.

Minnesota: After changing directions and switching from the spread to a more traditional pro offense last fall, Minnesota suffered tremendously on the scoreboard — twice getting shut out in conference play en route to finishing last in scoring (20.9 ppg), rushing (99.5 ypg) and total offense (306.5 ypg). Quarterback Adam Weber should benefit from a modified system that will be easier to grasp under new coordinator Jeff Horton, but the rushing attack is still a concern — although the offensive line should be steady. The Golden Gophers will face a difficult schedule this season, however, with home contests against USC, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State and Iowa. Brutal, even for being home dates.

Northwestern: Under the direction of Pat Fitzgerald, who has grown into his role as head coach since replacing the late Randy Walker, Northwestern football is on the upswing. Junior Dan Persa is the new signal-caller in Evanston, replacing Mike Kafka, who led the conference in passing yards with 3,430 and total offense at 286.5 yards per game. Persa can run the ball effectively out of NU’s offense, but he needs to become a more polished passer. The staff believes, though, that the dual-threat QB will be a natural fit for coordinator Mick McCall’s spread offense. After all, Persa was the first Pennsylvania high school player to amass 2,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a single season. The ground game in Evanston, however, hasn’t exactly been productive the last few seasons, ranking eighth in the conference in ‘09. The ‘Cats return all five starters on their offensive line, so the continuity up front will help. But can a backfield led by sophomore Arby Fields and featuring Scott Concannon, Jacob Schmidt and Stephen Simmons be productive? Fitzgerald is excited about his group of linebackers — a unit that is deep and talented and will likely be the strength of the defense as new linemen and the defensive backfield take time to gel. The Wildcats may take a step back this year, but Fitzgerald is quietly building an emerging upper-tier Big Ten team.

Ohio State: After his beautiful performance in the Rose Bowl, will Terrelle Pryor get to run a more advanced offense this fall in Columbus? Buckeyes fans yearning for head coach Jim Tressel to be less conservative will see a more wide-open offense, but this is still Ohio State. With DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher, along with Taurian Washington, the Buckeyes have wideouts that can make plays. Tight end Jake Stoneburner also will be a nice piece for the passing game. Brandon Saine and Dan Herron lead a loaded backfield, while Etienne Sabino locked down the third linebacker spot to join All-Big Ten performers Ross Homan and Brian Rolle. The Buckey es have won or shared five consecutive Big Ten championships, and it looks like that streak may not end this season.

Penn State: While everyone expected Kevin Newsome to run with the starting quarterback job this spring, Penn State received an unexpected surprise in the great play of early enrollee Paul Jones. Jones was the Nittany Lions’ best quarterback in the Blue-White Game spring game, hooking up with Shawney Kersey for two scores. Can Newsome and Matt McGloin bounce back in fall camp? I don’t see Jones starting the season because of head coach Joe Paterno’s reluctance to play youngsters, but he won’t be kept off the field for long. Replacing three starters at linebacker usually would be cause for concern, but not at Linebacker U. Nate Stupar, Mike Yancich, Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti will all play significant downs, while Ollie Ogbu and Devon Still lead a defensive line that is deep. The chief concern is offensive line, where the Nittany Lions experienced with different combinations this spring. Can it protect the quarterback and open enough holes for the running backs this fall?

Purdue: Miami (FL) transfer Robert Marve is ready to lead the Boilermakers under center, as he exhibited a sense of maturity this spring not seen during his days with the Hurricanes. He has a big arm and will have talented skill players to work with this fall. Running back is a major concern, however, after starter Ralph Bolden suffered a torn ACL in his right knee. Bolden could come back at some point this season, but sophomore Al-Terek McBurse really needs to step up in his absence. The Boilers also must replace all four starters in the secondary, and no cornerbacks really stood out this spring. Still, I like what head coach Danny Hope is building, as a solid foundation was set with a 4-4 mark in conference play last year.

Wisconsin: The Badgers will have a Big Ten-best 18 returning starters in the fall, led by quarterback Scott Tolzien. Despite finishing No. 1 in the Big Ten in passing efficiency and completing 64.3 percent of his passes, Tolzien struggled mightily in losses to Ohio State and Iowa last season. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst pushed him in spring practice, and he will benefit from having a healthy John Clay in the backfield. Nick Toon seems primed to emerge as an All-Big Ten receiver, and defensive line coach Charlie Partridge should have his unit ready to produce once again despite the loss of end O'Brien Schofield and three of the top four defensive tackles.

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