Spring look around the Big Ten
With spring practices getting started, our Big Ten notebook addresses the big questions facing each team.
What should Illini fans expect from the Juice Williams-to-Arrelious Benn connection? Which top recruit signed with Iowa? And why was a Thursday in April a "great day for Michigan football"? Our Big Ten notebook answers these questions and many more.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Wide receiver Arrelious Benn was recruited to give the Illini a big-play weapon in the passing game for quarterback Juice Williams. Consider that mission accomplished even before Benn plays his first game. The early-entry recruit accounted for 187 yards and one touchdown in Illinois' spring game. He caught five passes for 145 yards and rushed five times for 42 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown run. "What you saw with Juice and Rejus, we kind of expect them to do," coach Ron Zook said. "Sometimes it is hard to remember this is Juice's first spring ball and Rejus should still be walking the halls in high school. They're going to get better as they mature."
Sophomore wide receiver Andrew Means is proving he's quite a hitter -- in baseball. Means, a center fielder, leads off for IU's baseball team and has a team-best .359 average. He started last season for IU's football team, too, and caught 20 passes for 263 yards and one touchdown. Coach Terry Hoeppner followed through on doctors' wishes and stayed away from spring ball after his second brain surgery, which occurred last season. Assistant coach Bill Lynch ran the team during spring drills and took Hoeppner practice tapes every day. Hoeppner is expected back in the fall.
This looks like an inside job, one of the few allowed in recruiting by the NCAA. James Ferentz, a 6-foot-2, 258-pound offensive lineman, has committed to play for his father, Kirk, the Iowa coach. James, one of Iowa's top in-state prospects in the Class of 2008, will follow in the footsteps of his brother, Brian, who also played at Iowa. The Hawkeyes' Sept. 8 home game against Syracuse will start at 8 p.m. Iowa is 0-2 in prime-time home kickoffs, having lost to Miami in 1992 and Ohio State last season.
In this era of keeping up with the Joneses in college football, what prompted coach Lloyd Carr to proclaim April 19 "a great day for Michigan football?" A fantastic spring game by early-enrollee freshman QB Ryan Mallett? The emergence of several defensive playmakers to replace Leon Hall, LaMarr Woodley and David Harris? Good guesses, but wrong. It was the approval given by Michigan's board of regents to spend $26.1 million on a new indoor facility. Michigan already had such a facility, but it was deemed inadequate because of low ceilings and only 10 feet of space between the sideline and the wall. Somehow, the Wolverines have managed to maintain their postseason bowl streak that extends to 1975 despite the facility limitations.
Michigan State Spartans
Is it a red flag or just a casualty of the intrasquad nature of spring games? No one knows until fall, but it can't help new coach Mark Dantonio sleep well this summer knowing No. 1 quarterback Brian Hoyer led his team to only eight points in a 21-8 loss in the spring game. Dantonio spent the spring emphasizing toughness and accountability, so he couldn't have been too pleased when a spate of personal foul penalties arose in the spring game. Such errors hurt MSU in the John L. Smith era. "Coach Dantonio has instilled a whole new attitude, and everyone has embraced it," Hoyer said. "It's all about people doing the right things. We're focusing on all the little things. When mistakes are made, the coaches let you know it. That was something that was missing last year."
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Here's one way to drive up interest in Gophers football: The university has banned the continuation of "Brew's Crew" T-shirts, which the football booster club had been selling as a tribute to new coach Tim Brewster. The club had 2,500 such shirts available for sale when the university nixed the idea because the slogan could be construed as sanctioning alcohol use. Predictably, online sales of the shirts spiked after the ban.
One of the known commodities for the Wildcats is no longer a certainty in the wake of center Trevor Rees' arrest. He has a May 21 court date after being cited for DUI, speeding and improper lane usage the night after Northwestern's April 21 spring game. Rees didn't play because of an ankle injury. Coach Pat Fitzgerald suspended Rees from the team. Rees missed all of 2005 because of academic ineligibility but returned last year to start for a third year.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis gets most of the accolades, and that's understandable given his team-best 115 tackles last season. But the linebacker who was most impressive during OSU's spring game was senior JC transfer Larry Grant. He forced two fumbles with quarterback sacks, returning one 80 yards for a touchdown. Tyler Moeller, signed as a linebacker, has been moved to safety in hopes of giving OSU a physical presence in the spot vacated by Brandon Mitchell's graduation.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Joe Paterno bought himself considerable cachet with Penn State fans when he stuck by Rashard Casey in 2000 when the quarterback was being investigated for the beating of an off-duty police officer that summer in New Jersey. Paterno took considerable heat for allowing Casey to play but was vindicated when Casey was not indicted by a grand jury. That's instructive now that six of Paterno's players -- including headline defensive backs Anthony Scirrotto and Justin King -- could face felony charges after a break-in at an apartment near campus and the beating of several men involved in a dispute with Scirrotto. Paterno issued a statement saying he "will determine the appropriate consequence for each player's status on the team when due process has transpired."
The Boilermakers should be lethal on offense this fall -- if they can patch the holes on the left side of their offensive line. Quarterback Curtis Painter was sacked only 20 times in 14 games last year, so it's crucial he have confidence in whoever replaces tackle Mike Otto and guard Uche Nwaneri. Garret Miller and Jonathan Patton were the leading candidates, but Miller is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and Patton had shoulder surgery this spring. Dan Zaleski and Eric Hedstrom took their spots, but whether they'll hold on to those positions when Miller and Patton return in the fall won't be sorted out until closer to the season opener.
Former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez was rumored to be on Notre Dame's short list of candidates when it had a coaching vacancy. Well, Badgers' fans need not worry about Bret Bielema attracting longing glances from South Bend. Bielema, still steamed Wisconsin was left out of the BCS bowl rotation despite an 11-1 record, minces no words when it comes to what he believes is a bias toward Notre Dame in the at-large selection process. "I understand why certain teams get exemptions. I don't understand why Notre Dame does," Bielema said. "If they want to play by conference rules, join a conference. They don't take, maybe, into consideration past bowl history. Notre Dame hasn't won in the last nine bowl appearances, or whatever it is. And to me, we've proven over time that we deserve the opportunity."
Bruce Hooley has covered the Big Ten for 18 years and hosts a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.
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