Spring look around the Big Ten
As spring practices start, our Big Ten notebook addresses the big questions for each team.
Will Jim Tressel catch heat for reinstating kicker Jonathan Skeete? Will a former college standout coach Drew Stanton to a title? Is Iowa the team to beat -- or will new head coach Bret Bielema will Wisconsin to the Big Ten championship? Our Big Ten notebook addresses those questions and much more.
Head coach Jim Tressel has reinstated kicker Jonathan Skeete to the roster, despite a conviction for felony drug trafficking. Skeete, who was suspended from school in May after his arrest for selling marijuana to undercover police, reapplied to OSU when his suspension expired and was readmitted. Tressel said because Skeete was allowed to enroll at Ohio State, "he should get every right of every other student." Three members of OSU's incoming recruiting class will participate in spring practice: linebacker Ross Homan, running back Chris Wells and defensive back Kurt Coleman. Ohio State paid to get out of a contract for a return game at Washington State in order to add a future home game, most likely with Division I-AA Youngstown State, where Tressel coached before coming to Columbus. Athletic director Gene Smith has said an agreement with YSU will be forthcoming.
New coordinators on offense and defense will add some spice to the start of spring practice Saturday. Ron English replaces Jim Herrmann on defense and Mike DeBord takes over for Terry Malone on offense in the wake of Michigan's disappointing 7-5 finish in 2005. That was the Wolverines' worst record since 1984, so few fans are mourning the departures of Herrmann and Malone. English's defensive staff will feature two newcomers in Steve Szabo (linebackers) and Ron Lee (defensive backs).
Drew Stanton's position coach won't have trouble identifying with the pressures of being the Spartans' quarterback. That's because the new man on John L. Smith's staff is Dan Enos, who led MSU to its last Big Ten title in 1990. Enos was 16-7-1 in two years as MSU's starter. He replaces Doug Nussmeier, who was hired away by the St. Louis Rams. "He's somebody who's been in my shoes before," Stanton said. "He's been in this caliber of program and has been in games of this caliber. It's going to help because the strengths of his game and my game are very similar.''
Ron Zook knows his program is an afterthought compared to basketball in Champaign, so he knew where to recruit fans over the past few months. Zook held several "student watch parties" during Illinois road basketball games, plying students with free admission, food, beverages and door prizes. The catch? The students also had to listen to Zook talk Illini football and watch a highlight video of the team's incoming recruiting class.
Mike Yeager moves up from graduate assistant to safeties coach amid an assortment of staff shuffling prior to the March 20 start of spring practice. Co-defensive coordinator Joe Palcic moves from safeties to cornerbacks coach. Gerald Brown (running backs) and George Ricumstrict (linebackers) will share the role of special teams coordinator.
Kirk Ferentz is seven years into his career as Iowa's head coach with a contract that runs through 2012, but his return for this season was anything but a certainty when as many as eight NFL head coaching jobs were vacant after the bowl season. Ferentz, who's rumored every year to be headed for the pros, is back for the start of spring practice March 22 with a team that could contend for the Big Ten title. Three of the four teams to defeat Iowa in the 2005 regular season must play at Kinnick Stadium this season.
The odds that Glen Mason would return for a 10th season looked long when he and Minnesota's administration entered a stare-down on a contract extension that went to the final minute before Mason re-upped through the 2010 season. The deal is laden with incentives, which makes clear the university's desire to move into a higher-tier bowl than the Music City Bowl, which the Gophers played in three times over the past four seasons.
The Wildcats' biggest loss from 2005 will be four-year starting quarterback Brett Basanez, but losing offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar ranks close behind. Dunbar, who departed for the same job at California, collaborated with head coach Randy Walker last season on just the second offense in Big Ten history to average 500 or more yards per game. The first was Penn State's in 1994. Garrick McGee, who coached the Wildcats' wide receivers the past two seasons, assumes Dunbar's former role.
When Penn State's offense struggled in 2004, fans clamored for Joe Paterno to dump Michael Robinson and insert true freshman Anthony Morelli. Now that Robinson is gone and Morelli's time has arrived, he's no longer the fans' flavor of the month. That role falls to incoming freshman Pat Devlin, who decommitted from his verbal to Miami when Larry Coker made wholesale staff changes.
New offensive coordinator Bill Legg will lean on the guys he knows best -- three returning linemen who earned some sort of All-Big Ten mention in 2005 -- when he takes over for Jim Chaney, who left to coach the offensive line of the St. Louis Rams. Legg will remain the Boilermakers' offensive line coach, the job he's held since 2003, and hopes to give Purdue an offense which ranks among the top 20 for the seventh time in Joe Tiller's 10 seasons.
Expect the Cheeseheads to take over Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sept. 2. That's where head coach Bret Bielema will make his debut against Bowling Green. Wisconsin agreed to play the MAC opponent in a return road game, only if the game was moved to Cleveland for recruiting purposes. The Badgers scored big in that area with former wide receivers Chris Chambers and Lee Evans and currently have four Cleveland-area players on scholarship for 2006.
Bruce Hooley has covered the Big Ten for 18 years and now hosts a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.