Spring look around the Big Ten
With spring practices getting started, our Big Ten notebook addresses the big questions facing each team.
Did football run Steve Alford out of town? What will Michigan State's offense look like under Mark Dantonio? And how will former baseball player Joe Baserman fit in at Ohio State? Our Big Ten notebook addresses those questions and much more.
Illinois Fighting Illini
The Illini's rushing offense was a huge surprise in 2006, averaging 188.8 yards per game to lead the Big Ten. Coach Ron Zook hopes his team can duplicate or better those numbers in 2007, given the return of tailback Rashard Mendenhall and quarterback Juice Williams. The Illini won't have its other tailback from last season, Pierre Thomas, who has graduated. Sophomore Dere Hicks is making an impression early in his move from defensive back to wide receiver.
Blake Powers once thought he was the Hoosiers' quarterback of the future. Instead, he might be their tight end of the present. Powers, who passed for 2,305 yards in 2005, then lost his job last season to Kellen Lewis, has moved to tight end to get on the field. He could start there for IU this fall. Two years ago, his 212 completions and 376 pass attempts were the second-best single-season numbers in IU history.
This won't hurt Kirk Ferentz's popularity any, but former Iowa basketball coach Steve Alford is blaming the school's preoccupation with football for chasing him out of town to New Mexico. "I was born and raised in Indiana where it's basketball crazy, and I was just really eager to get somewhere where they were that passionate about basketball," Alford told ESPN Radio. "I can talk for eight years all I want at Iowa about trying to get my own strength coach, my own weight room and own practice facility, but when that never happens and $100 million is being put into football complexes, recruits see that. I just needed to be in a situation where basketball was king and there was a tremendous passion for basketball." Iowa expects to sell all 28,000 tickets it has for a Sept. 1 opener against Northern Illinois at Soldier Field in Chicago. The game was moved from NIU's 28,000-seat stadium in DeKalb, Ill., so both schools could make more money.
Tight end Carson Butler and cornerback Chris Richards have been dismissed from the team after being accused of beating another student in a dormitory on St. Patrick's Day. Both players deny their involvement and have pleaded not guilty. Michigan held its first scrimmage last week without several headliners on whom it will depend this fall. Tailback Mike Hart (shoulder surgery), left tackle Jake Long, left guard Adam Kraus and receiver Mario Manningham all sat out. Michigan is being careful with Long, Kraus and Manningham, who have battled injuries in the past, because of their importance to the team this fall.
Michigan State Spartans
There will be fewer spots open at wide receiver this season, because MSU won't be sticking with John L. Smith's spread offense under his replacement, Mark Dantonio. That won't keep sophomore T.J. Williams from getting on the field. He caught 25 passes for 281 yards and three scores last season and looms as a sure starter at this point in spring practice. Dantonio hasn't released a depth chart, but Williams and senior Terry Love are getting most of the first-team reps.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Minnesota's second-half defensive collapse in the Insight Bowl hardly seems the trigger for the development of a positive attitude among Gophers' defensive players. New coach Tim Brewster, however, thinks he can build a swagger in the unit that blew a 38-7 third-quarter lead to Texas Tech in an eventual overtime loss that resulted in then-coach Glen Mason's firing. "I want to help those guys develop an attitude and an edge," Brewster said. "I really think that we are getting that. We use the term swagger -- that is a confidence about the way we do things, and I think you are seeing it and it is really fun." Minnesota might not win the Big Ten, but the Gophers will finish first at something. They wind up spring drills on April 7, well ahead of other league members, whose spring practice extends an additional two weeks or more.
Quarterback C.J. Bacher will miss the first half of spring practice because of surgery to repair a ligament in his toe that was torn during the next-to-last game of the season against Ohio State. Bacher became the starter in the second half of last season after sitting out early because of a stress fracture in his leg. Sophomore Mike Kafka and redshirt freshman Joe Mauro are running the team until Bacher returns. Andrew Brewer, who started three games at quarterback in 2005, has been moved to receiver and is listed as a starter. "I get to play, so you won't hear any complaining out of me," Brewer told the Chicago Tribune. "It's a great move. I have a lot of learning to do, but I'm up for the challenge."
Ohio State Buckeyes
The three candidates to succeed Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith at quarterback will have additional company in the fall when 21-year-old Joe Baserman joins the team. Bauserman, who spent three seasons playing professional baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirates' organization, has enrolled for summer quarter and apparently will be a walk-on thereafter. He originally committed to attend OSU in the fall of 2003 before signing with the Pirates. The 6-2, 220-pound Bauserman faces an uphill battle to get in front of junior Todd Boeckman, sophomore Rob Schoenhoft and redshirt freshman Antonio Henton.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Paul Posluszny's graduation creates an opening at middle linebacker, so Penn State is looking at former outside linebacker Dan Connor in that spot. "That's probably where he belongs," coach Joe Paterno said. "But, don't hold me to it. That's today. Two days from now, he may be playing quarterback." One thing Paterno is certain about is his return to the sidelines in 2007. He coached from the press box in the Outback Bowl victory over Tennessee to protect his surgically-repaired knee.
The Boilermakers put the pads on for the first time on Friday. Coach Joe Tiller is experimenting with his offense by adding formations which feature both a tailback and fullback. Typically, Purdue has worked exclusively out of one-back sets.
The Badgers are taking a 12-day break from spring practice for spring break. They wound up the first half of their workouts Thursday and will reconvene April 10, building toward an April 21 spring game. Kansas State transfer Allan Evridge is pushing senior quarterback Tyler Donovan, who started and won twice last season when John Stocco was hurt. The left-handed Evridge has a strong arm and can throw on the run. Wide receivers Jarmal Ruffin and Diondrae Jenkins, neither of whom was expected to compete for playing time this fall, have decided to leave the program.
Bruce Hooley has covered the Big Ten for 18 years and now hosts a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.