Spring look around the Big Ten
With spring practices winding down, our Big Ten notebook addresses the big questions for each team.
Will Penn State find some depth at QB? Will Minnesota find an answer at center? Will P.J. Hill win Wisconsin's tailback job? Our Big Ten notebook addresses those questions and much more.
Sophomore Will Davis is getting plenty of practice time as coach Ron Zook continues to search for defensive line help. Davis was recruited as a tight end, but he is playing defensive end in hopes of taking advantage of his speed off the edge. Junior college transfer Justin Sanders may provide some help at safety. He looked good Saturday in Illinois' scrimmage. Rashard Mendenhall was the star of the afternoon with 171 yards rushing on just 16 carries. He averaged more than 10 yards per carry, which shows how far the llini defense must progress to be competitive in the Big Ten.
The Hoosiers lost 82 percent of their rushing yardage to graduation, but coach Terry Hoeppner isn't worried. He moved Marcus Thigpen from wide receiver to tailback and cautions, "If he breaks it, watch out, because nobody is catching him." And if Thigpen, who runs a 4.29 in the 40, does get caught from behind, Hoeppner promises, "I'm buying." One thing's for sure, Hoeppner isn't selling any of his redshirt freshmen, Demetrius McCray, Bryan Payton or Justin Carrington. "We think we have some pretty good young talent there," Hoeppner said.
Jason Manson is not only Iowa's backup quarterback, he's also a receiver who figures routinely in the Hawkeyes' offense. Freshman wide receiver James Cleveland, who enrolled early to participate in spring practice, missed three workouts last week so he could attend his high school prom in Baytown, Texas. The Hawkeyes' remade secondary, which lost two four-year starters at cornerback, would include replacements Charles Godfrey and Adam Shada if the season started this week.
Antonio Bass, who Michigan planned to incorporate as a wide receiver on selected formations, could miss all of 2006 because of corrective knee surgery. Coach Lloyd Carr said it would be "late in the fall season," if Bass returns at all this year. Safety Ryan Mundy sat out last season with a nerve problem in his neck, but he's practicing this spring and looks ready to contribute. Former Wolverines All-American Braylon Edwards has endowed a scholarship for future Michigan football players.
Offensive tackle Tom Kaczmarek is awaiting a donation from a cadaver before he can have knee surgery. Kaczmarek saw some time last season when injuries opened a spot on the line. Sir Darean Adams has moved back in as the starter at bandit, a safety/linebacker position. Cole Corey, who had won the job, has missed practice recently tending to legal entanglements that date back to his high school career. Otis Wiley is now listed as a starter at safety with Adams going back to his former spot.
The Gophers continue to look for a replacement for All-American and Riminton Award-winner Greg Eslinger at center. The candidates are Tony Brinkhaus and Tyson Swaggert. Coach Glen Mason's dream of an on-campus stadium gained a boost from the Minnesota House of Representatives, which passed a bill that would provide state support for half of the cost of a $248 million open-air stadium. The university hopes to have the structure ready for play in 2009. The Senate still needs to pass a companion bill for the stadium deal to be finalized.
The Wildcats could use the 3-4 more on defense this season in hopes of reducing the 5.2 yards per rush opponents averaged in 2005. That move is rooted in the loss of both defensive tackles. Barry Cofield graduated and junior Trevor Schultz has been suspended for the upcoming season. Chris Malleo and Akeem Hunter continue to practice at new positions. Malleo, a former quarterback and H-back, is now playing linebacker. Hunter, a running back, is playing safety. Mike Kafka won the statistical battle among Northwestern's three quarterback candidates in a Saturday scrimmage. Kafka, a redshirt freshman, completed 7 of 15 passes for 60 yards and ran for 33 yards, including a TD.
Most Buckeyes fans are panning the new Ohio State home jersey. Why? Because coach Jim Tressel had the audacity to remove the gray stripes from the sleeves. Tressel, whose only previous fashion crime was his penchant for sweater vests, is shrugging off the controversy. "It looks like an Ohio State jersey to me," he said of protests that the new look makes the Buckeyes appear like clones of Indiana, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Quarterback Justin Zwick, who battled Troy Smith for the starting job as both a sophomore and junior, now faces a battle simply to hold onto the No. 2 job. Sophomore Todd Boeckman, who's been on campus since January 2004, is pressing hard to take over behind Smith in preparation for taking over next year.
Replacing defensive end Tambi Hali won't be easy, but Penn State likes what it's getting so far from senior Jim Shaw and sophomore Josh Gaines. The question is, can the Lions find some quality depth with backups Jed Hill and Mike Lucian? It's no contest for junior Anthony Morelli at quarterback. Neither Paul Cianciolo nor Kevin Suhey looked close to competing for the starting job in a Saturday scrimmage.
Junior college transfer Brandon Blackmon is making an immediate impact, but not where expected. Blackmon expected to compete for playing time at cornerback. Instead, he's listed as the starting free safety, a position he never played before. Blackmon hopped over incumbent Brandon Whittington, a sophomore, who was pressed into duty last season after moving over from wide receiver.
The Badgers' search for a tailback could settle on 5-foot-11, 235-pound P.J. Hill. He was impressive Saturday in an 80-play scrimmage at Camp Randall Stadium. Dion Foster and Dywon Rowan are still in the mix, however, and could make the position a committee endeavor. Wisconsin lost its top three wideouts from last season. One of the candidates to step in, Jeff Holzbauer, required five hours of surgery to reattach a hamstring that tore away from the ligament.
Bruce Hooley has covered the Big Ten for 18 years and now hosts a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.