Spring look around the Big Ten
With spring practices underway, our Big Ten notebook addresses the big questions for each team.
Will Indiana play 13? Will dropping some weight help Michigan's Kevin Grady perform better? Will Penn State use the 3-4 in 2006? Our Big Ten notebook addresses those questions and much more.
It sounds goofy for a team that went 2-9 overall and 0-8 in the Big Ten, but Illinois' biggest hole to fill this spring might be at punter. Steve Weatherford's graduation removes a four-year starter, team MVP and all-Big Ten performer from the depth chart. The job falls to true freshman Kyle Yelton, who enrolled early and is going through spring practice. Yelton averaged 42 yards per-punt as a high school senior.
Coach Terry Hoeppner wore a bracelet last season that read, "Play 13," a reference to his desire for IU's seniors to reach a bowl game. That didn't happen, but it hasn't moved Hoeppner off that goal for 2006. "Our goal is to play 13 [games]," he said. "That means we're in a bowl game." Indiana hasn't been part of the postseason since 1993.
Defensive end Kenny Iwebema is on the Lott Trophy Watch List for the nation's best defensive player. That's not bad for a guy who at this time last year had all of three tackles on his résumé. In his first season as a starter in 2005, Iwebema made first-team All-Big Ten thanks to 10 negative-yardage stops, including seven quarterback sacks, a forced fumble and two blocked kicks. Iowa won't have a spring game because of the $90-million renovation of Kinnick Stadium. Instead, the Hawkeyes will finish with a controlled scrimmage on April 15, which only players' families can attend. "As much as we'd like to stage a spring game for our fans, their safety is our primary concern," athletic director Bob Bowlsby said. "Having an event in the stadium would not be the right thing for the players, fans or workers on the project."
The Wolverines are hoping a lighter Kevin Grady means a better Kevin Grady. The sophomore tailback, who played last season at 227 pounds, is down to 218 during spring drills. He and a hopefully-healthy Mike Hart could be teamed in the same backfield this fall as Michigan tries to improve on a 7-5 season that ended with a loss to Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl. "I don't think there's anybody in this program that wants to go through that kind of season again," coach Lloyd Carr said. "I think they'll do everything they're asked to do to make sure it doesn't happen."
Coach John L. Smith is hoping quarterback Drew Stanton can reduce his interceptions from the 12 he threw last season. Smith blames some of those on Stanton's impatience with the Spartans' kicking game, which converted only 5-of-16 field goal attempts. "With the kicking woes last season, Drew forced the ball at times, trying to make things happen, and that led to some interceptions," Smith said. "He's matured a lot in the offense over the last two years, and now he has the patience to let the offense work for him." Neither Smith nor Stanton will get a look at MSU's field goal kicker, true freshman Brett Swenson, until the fall. He went 7-of-11 on field goals in his final season of high school football in Florida.
Glen Mason's contract extension went to the final hours before his 10th season with the Gophers was a certainty. That's the second time Mason has come close to alienating his fan base, following a public flirtation with his alma mater, Ohio State, in January of 2001. Even so, Mason is proudly banging the drum for an on-campus stadium, so Minnesota can cease playing in the sterile Metrodome. "We need to get it done," Mason said of the new stadium. "It's not a want; it's a need. There's a responsibility out there to recognize the need and then find out what you're going to do about it."
C.J. Bacher waited two years behind Brett Basanez to become Northwestern's starting quarterback, and he's still waiting. Bacher missed the first practice of the spring on Tuesday with an unspecified illness. He was back for Day 2 on Wednesday, but did not participate. That left the job to redshirt freshmen Andrew Brewer and Mike Kafka.
The Buckeyes start spring drills this week with one of their two returning defensive starters, defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock, out of the early workouts with an injury Ohio State won't disclose. Linebacker Larry Grant is OSU's first junior college recruit since Jim Tressel took over in 2001. Grant was headed to Florida until falling short of a math requirement needed for admission to all SEC schools. Grant later passed the class, but by then, Florida had given his scholarship to someone else.
Joe Paterno says the Nittany Lions will experiment with the 3-4 defense to perhaps soothe the graduation losses on the defensive line. One thing that will help Penn State's depth up front is the return of defensive lineman Ed Johnson, who missed 2005 because of a team rules violation. Justin King played both defense and offense last season, but his time at wide receiver could be over. The plan for King this spring is to play cornerback exclusively, with an eye toward keeping him there in the fall. That should take care of one spot in a Penn State secondary that lost all four starters.
Spring practice opens April 5 and Joe Tiller might not have a full coaching staff by then. He's lost five of nine assistants this offseason and has two spots still open. The five departures are the most under Tiller since four assistants had to be replaced between the 2002 and 2003 seasons. How acrimonious was safety Bernard Pollard's early departure for the NFL? When Purdue held its Pro Day on March 10, Pollard worked out for scouts at a high school in West Lafayette because he wasn't allowed to join his former teammates on campus. Those teammates included defensive end Ray Edwards, who, like Pollard, left Purdue with one season of eligibility remaining.
Bret Bielema might have found an under-the-radar method to keep his players off the police blotter, where too many have shown up recently. Bielema has scheduled several of Wisconsin's 15 spring practices at night, he says, to help players cope with their classwork. "This is just a way to have a clean practice during the spring," Bielema said. Junior Paul Hubbard is an interesting prospect to fill one of two vacancies at wide receiver. The 6-foot-4, 218-pound Hubbard was the Big Ten's long-jump champion last spring.
Bruce Hooley has covered the Big Ten for 18 years and now hosts a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.