Spring look around the Big Ten
With spring practices getting started, our Big Ten notebook addresses the big questions facing each team.
Has Iowa found its starting quarterback? Is Todd Boeckman on track to be the heir to Troy Smith at Ohio State? What does P.J. Hill have in store for Wisconsin's opponents this season? Our Big Ten notebook addresses those questions and much more.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Don't read much into the performances of backup quarterback Eddie McGee and starter Juice Williams from a scrimmage last week in Chicago. Williams remains the Illini's No. 1 man despite going 5-of-16 for 50 yards, with the day's only interception. McGee went 7-for-10 for 84 yards and rushed for one of the scrimmage's three touchdowns. Williams blamed his struggles on being tight in his return to his hometown. He'll get another chance Saturday when Illinois ends spring practice with its spring game in Memorial Stadium.
The Hoosiers are done with spring drills and believe their passing game is solid entering the fall. Both starter Kellen Lewis and backup Ben Chappell had good passing numbers in the Cream & Crimson game. Lewis completed 13 of 26 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns, a 46-yarder to James Hardy and a 67-yarder to Ray Fisher. That's the kind of production IU expects from the sophomore-to-be who passed for more than 2,200 yards and 14 touchdowns, while rushing for 441 yards and five scores, last season. "Kellen obviously is an electric player," quarterbacks coach Matt Canada said. "He's a quarterback who is a great athlete. He makes throws, he's smart, and he gets us in the right plays. He can do it all.'' How things shake out in the future at QB will be interesting, since Chappell, a freshman from Bloomington South, was 16-of-26 for 253 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.
The competition to succeed Drew Tate at quarterback has sophomore Jake Christensen in the lead upon the conclusion of spring practice. The sophomore was 11-of-20 for 148 yards and one touchdown, without a turnover, in a performance that pleased head coach Kirk Ferentz. "I think he's been making good decisions, he's been protecting the ball in the pocket and he's been good on the center exchanges," Ferentz said. "That's all important. The younger guys, I can't quite say that. The ball's been on the ground more than it needs to be.'' Even so, freshman Arvell Nelson might be worth watching. He played at the same high school as Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith and brings some of the same look to the backfield. Nelson went 8-of-9 for 77 passing yards.
Carlos Brown won't be a cornerback in the fall, despite spending the first half of spring practice at the position. Instead, he'll be back at tailback to spell Mike Hart now that Kevin Grady is out of the picture -- for a while, at least -- because of a torn ACL suffered in the spring. Brown came to Michigan as a heralded tailback, but received only 16 carries last season, hence his momentary desire to move to defense. Michigan figures to have one of the best left sides up front with tackle Jake Long and guard Adam Kraus. As for who will play center, that looks like it will be sophomore Justin Boren. He's been very impressive in the spring.
Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans' spring game is Saturday and they're bringing back former head coach George Perles and his defensive coordinator, Hank Bullough, as honorary coaches. Both should like what they see from Michigan State's running back rotation of Javon Ringer, Jehuu Caulcrick and A.J. Jimmerson. Those three wore out the defense in a Saturday scrimmage and figure to be where head coach Mark Dantonio places the emphasis this fall. Ringer is wearing a brace to protect the right knee in which he tore ligaments as a high school senior and which was injured again midway through last season. He plans not to wear the brace in the fall. Sir Darean Adams played the flashily named "Bandit" spot in MSU's defense last year, which was nothing more than a hybrid safety/linebacker role. Now he's a full-time linebacker and has impressed Dantonio this spring.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
The Gophers haven't decided between Tony Mortensen and Adam Weber at quarterback. Both played reasonably well in the spring game, and whoever wins the competition in the fall will have another target Minnesota wasn't counting on. Eric Decker's four catches for 80 yards, including a 48-yard touchdown from Mortensen, show he could be a guy who takes the pressure off senior Ernie Wheelwright in the fall. "He has great hands, focus, concentration and toughness," coach Tim Brewster said of Decker. "Eric is going to have to be that kind of player for us to do the things we want to do offensively. I am really pleased with him."
Quarterback C.J. Bacher rejoined workouts this week after sitting out the first three weeks of spring practice because of offseason toe surgery. He returns in time to play in the spring game Saturday at Ryan Field. Northwestern's nonconference game against Eastern Michigan, originally scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 20, has been moved to Friday, Oct. 19, at Detroit's Ford Field.
Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes conclude spring practice Saturday with the Scarlet & Gray game and it figures to be longer on gray, at least when it comes to offense. Tailback Chris Wells won't play because of an ankle sprain, which leaves Maurice Wells as the only other scholarship tailback. True freshman Brandon Saine, Ohio's Mr. Football, could push Maurice Wells aside in the fall and make the junior-to-be wish he had followed up on his talk earlier in the year of transferring. Junior Todd Boeckman hasn't disappointed in the quarterback competition with Rob Schoenhoft and Antonio Henton. It will take an injury to keep Boeckman from being the heir to Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith.
Penn State Nittany Lions
The Lions will stage their Blue-White Game on Saturday, but that might not be the final workout of the spring. A canceled practice from April 4 could be held on April 25 and still fall within the time alloted by the NCAA for Penn State to conclude spring drills. One of the holes Penn State is trying to fill this spring is the linebacker spot vacated by Paul Posluszny. It apparently won't be filled -- not even down the road -- by another Posluszny. That's because Posluszny's younger brother, David, has given a verbal commitment to attend Notre Dame with the Class of 2008. The 6-2, 200-pounder chose Notre Dame over Pittsburgh, Louisville, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
The news doesn't get better off the field for Purdue, which was already reeling from the suspension of strong safety Torri Williams after he was charged with driving while intoxicated and from the stabbing of wide receiver Selwyn Lymon, who is recovering and could rejoin the team in the fall. Now linebacker Jeff Lindsay has also been suspended after being charged with public intoxication and resisting arrest. Purdue concludes spring practice Saturday with its Black & Gold game at Ross-Ade Stadium.
Opponents would no doubt like to see less of punishing tailback P.J. Hill this fall, and they will, but not how they'd prefer. Rather than scale back his workload dramatically from last season, when he led the Big Ten in rushing (1,569 yards) and touchdowns (15), Hill plans to be better conditioned for fourth quarters by losing 15 pounds to get down to around 220. "I think I'm going to be faster, stronger," said Hill, who is sitting out spring practice while rehabilitating from shoulder surgery. "Since I've got this time off [from practice], I can work on my upper body. I couldn't [last year] because my shoulders were so bad. So, basically, you're going to see things put together." Wisconsin resumed workouts this week after a 10-day spring break interruption and will conclude spring drills Saturday.
Bruce Hooley has covered the Big Ten for 18 years and now hosts a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.
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