Commentary

Breaking down the Big Ten

Originally Published: May 12, 2008
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

How's Rich Rodriguez faring in his first year at Michigan? Illinois returns Juice Williams, but who fills the running back void? Will anyone challenge Ohio State for the title? Take a look at what questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall.

Illinois Fighting Illini

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 @ Missouri
Sept. 6 Eastern Illinois
Sept. 13 Louisiana-Lafayette
Sept. 27 @ Penn State
Oct. 4 @ Michigan
Oct. 11 Minnesota
Oct. 18 Indiana
Oct. 25 @ Wisconsin
Nov. 1 Iowa
Nov. 8 @ Western Michigan
Nov. 15 Ohio State
Nov. 22 @ Northwestern


2007 overall record:
9-4

2007 conference record:
6-2

Returning starters
Offense: 7, defense: 6, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Juice Williams, WR Arrelious Benn, C Ryan McDonald, LT Xavier Fulton, CB Vontae Davis, LB Brit Miller, DE Will Davis
Key losses
RB Rashard Mendenhall, G Martin O'Donnell, LB J Leman, LB Antonio Steele, DT Chris Norwell, S Kevin Mitchell, PK Jason Reda
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Rashard Mendenhall (1,681 yds)
Passing: Juice Williams* (1,743 yds)
Receiving: Arrelious Benn* (676 yds)
Tackles: J Leman (132)
Sacks: Will Davis* (9.5)
Interceptions: Kevin Mitchell (5)

Spring answers

1. Foreboding foursome: The defensive line distinguished itself as arguably Illinois' strongest unit this spring. Despite the loss of standout tackle Chris Norwell, the front four dominated a depleted offensive line and a new set of running backs. Sacks leader Will Davis anchors the line along with fellow ends Doug Pilcher and Derek Walker. "The defensive front has got a chance to be as good as I've been around in 15 years," coach Ron Zook said. "The instant you take the ball, it's hard to gain a lot of yards."

2. Man in the middle: Illinois had no trouble tabbing a successor to All-American middle linebacker J Leman. In a move that surprised nobody, Brit Miller moved from strongside linebacker to middle linebacker before spring practice. A two-year starter, Miller recorded 62 tackles last year and has the outgoing personality that makes him a natural leader. He has practiced at middle linebacker since his freshman year and can mentor promising sophomore Martez Wilson. "He knows the defense probably better than any other linebacker because he has been around," linebackers coach Dan Disch said.

3. Juice flowing: No longer needing to be guided through coverages and plays, quarterback Juice Williams took the next step in his evolution this spring. Williams continued to improve in the passing game, which Illinois will rely on more without Rashard Mendenhall. The junior has improved his decision-making skills and, despite being an introvert, welcomed a greater leadership role.

Fall questions

1. Back problems: Life after Mendenhall got off to a shaky start this spring as Illinois struggled to find answers in the run game. Injuries on the offensive line and an improved defensive line didn't help matters, but the rushing attack was a clear disappointment. Illinois finished with minus-11 net rushing yards in the spring game, and no back gained more than 6 yards in an April 12 scrimmage. "That probably has been the biggest disappointment this spring," offensive coordinator Mike Locksley told reporters. Daniel Dufrene, the team's top reserve last season, will continue to compete with freshman Mikel LeShoure for the starting job. Troy Pollard and freshman Jason Ford join the mix this fall.

2. Receiver roulette: Illinois has a legitimate star in wideout Arrelious Benn, who won Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors despite a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. The next step is to find other reliable targets. Chris James returns following ACL surgery, and hopes are high for big-play threat Jeff Cumberland. Converted cornerback Chris Duvalt will be in the mix along with heralded incoming freshman Cordale Scott.

3. Safety first: Safety will continue to be spotlighted this summer as Illinois tries to replace starters Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison, who combined for 155 tackles, 24 passes defended and six interceptions last season. Sophomore Travon Bellamy is in good shape for a starting spot but must hold off Nate Bussey, Garrett Edwards and Bo Flowers. Donsay Hardeman, a highly regarded junior college prospect, joins the mix in training camp.

Indiana Hoosiers

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Western Kentucky
Sept. 6 Murray State
Sept. 20 Ball State
Sept. 27 Michigan State
Oct. 4 @ Minnesota
Oct. 11 Iowa
Oct. 18 @ Illinois
Oct. 25 Northwestern
Nov. 1 Central Michigan
Nov. 8 Wisconsin
Nov. 15 @ Penn State
Nov. 22 @ Purdue


2007 overall record:
7-6

2007 conference record:
3-5

Returning starters
Offense: 6, defense: 7, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Kellen Lewis (pending suspension), RB Marcus Thigpen, WR Ray Fisher, DE Greg Middleton, LB Will Patterson, SS Austin Thomas, PK Austin Starr
Key losses
WR James Hardy, RG John Sandberg, C Ben Wyss, CB Tracy Porter, CB Leslie Majors, LB Adam McClurg
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Kellen Lewis* (736 yds)
Passing: Kellen Lewis* (3,043 yds)
Receiving: James Hardy (1,125 yds)
Tackles: Austin Thomas* (112)
Sacks: Greg Middleton* (16)
Interceptions: Tracy Porter (6)

Spring answers

1. Receivers step up: Record-setting wide receiver James Hardy is gone, but several players seem poised to fill the gaping hole he leaves behind. With projected starters Andrew Means (baseball obligations) and Ray Fisher (hip injury) off the field, Matt Ernest and Collin Taylor stepped up. Ernest had seven receptions for 59 yards in the spring game, and Taylor caught the game-winning touchdown on the final play. Coach Bill Lynch also praised the play of senior Brandon Walker-Roby.

2. Huddle up, or not: Even with quarterback Kellen Lewis suspended for spring practice, Indiana's offense used the valuable time to operate in the no-huddle, which coaches installed after last season. Backup quarterback Ben Chappell was pleasantly surprised at how quickly players adjusted to the faster pace, which should be a major benefit if and when the speedy Lewis returns. The no-huddle also benefited Indiana's defense, which improved its conditioning level going against a faster system.

3. Corner men: Pass coverage became a chief concern after the Hoosiers lost starting cornerbacks Tracy Porter, a second-round NFL draft pick, and Leslie Majors. But Christopher Phillips eased anxiety this spring with a strong performance and put himself in position for a starting spot. Phillips, who had three interceptions last season, was one of three cornerbacks to record interceptions in the spring game.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback conundrum: All the signs point to standout quarterback Lewis returning from his suspension before training camp, but until it becomes official, there will be unease in Bloomington. Lewis was suspended for an undisclosed team rules violation March 6, and coach Bill Lynch said he will review the situation after the semester ends. If Lewis returns he must quickly absorb the no-huddle offense the rest of his teammates worked with this spring.

2. Running on empty: The spring didn't do much to ease lingering concerns about the ground game. Lewis led the team in rushing last season, and Indiana has yet to establish the run outside of the quarterback position. Marcus Thigpen, the team's returning starter at running back, missed spring ball to run track. Bryan Payton, who spent most of the spring as the starter, averaged just 2.9 yards per carry in the spring game, though he and two other backs (Trea Burgess and Zach Walker) found the end zone.

3. Line in limbo: A rash of injuries thinned Indiana's offensive line this spring, tabling unanswered questions until training camp. Projected starters Mike Stark and Pete Saxon missed spring ball after offseason surgeries, and left tackle Rodger Saffold struggled with a hamstring injury. Guard Cody Faulkner and center Alex Perry put themselves in positions for starting jobs, but nothing will be decided until the summer.

Iowa Hawkeyes

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Maine
Sept. 6 Florida International
Sept. 13 Iowa State
Sept. 20 @ Pittsburgh
Sept. 27 Northwestern
Oct. 4 @ Michigan State
Oct. 11 @ Indiana
Oct. 18 Wisconsin
Nov. 1 @ Illinois
Nov. 8 Penn State
Nov. 15 Purdue
Nov. 22 @ Minnesota


2007 overall record:
6-6

2007 conference record:
4-4

Returning starters
Offense: 8, defense: 5, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Jake Christensen, C Rafael Eubanks, WR Andy Brodell, TE Tony Moeaki, T Seth Olsen, DT Mitch King, DT Matt Kroul, P Ryan Donahue
Key losses
RB Albert Young, RB Damian Sims, DE Bryan Mattison, LB Mike Humpal, LB Mike Klinkenborg, CB Charles Godfrey, S Adam Shada
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Albert Young (968 yds)
Passing: Jake Christensen* (2,269 yds)
Receiving: Derrell Johnson-Koulianos* (482 yds)
Tackles: Mike Humpal (123)
Sacks: Bryan Mattison (9)
Interceptions: Charles Godfrey (5)

Spring answers

1. Target practice: The passing attack should be better this fall regardless of who wins the quarterback competition. After an injury wave last season claimed budding start like wideout Andy Brodell and tight end Tony Moeaki, the Hawkeyes have slowly restocked their offensive armory. Brodell returned this spring from a torn hamstring and caught five passes in the spring game. Moeaki also is on the mend, and Trey Stross made a strong push this spring. Stross had two long touchdown receptions in the spring game. He will join Brodell and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, last year's top receiver, in the rotation this fall. Moeaki and senior Brandon Myers form a strong tandem at tight end.

2. Anchors up front: There's little doubt about where Iowa's defensive leadership will come from this fall. After losing linebackers Mike Humpal and Mike Klinkenborg, end Bryan Mattison and cornerback Charles Godfrey, the Hawkeyes' defensive tackle tandem of Mitch King and Matt Kroul steps into the spotlight. Both players turned in strong spring performances and provide a strong base for a young defense. "It starts with them," coach Kirk Ferentz said. "They're proven players, they've got tremendous attitudes, they're practicing extremely well right now. We need those guys to give us good leadership."

3. Edds emerges: Linebacker AJ Edds assumed a greater role this spring as Iowa tried to fill two holes in its defensive midsection. Edds, who ranked second on the team in tackles last year (80), continued to provide stability at linebacker and looked ready to step up as a leader. "He's only going to be a second-year starter, but you almost feel like he's been playing a little bit longer," Ferentz said. "He's really an attentive guy and has really improved in all areas of his game."

Fall questions

1. Rush to judgment: Few major-conference teams have as much uncertainty at running back as the Hawkeyes. Leading rushers Albert Young and Damian Sims are gone, and potential successor Jevon Pugh surprisingly left the team in early April. Walk-on Paki O'Meara finished the spring as the No. 1 back, but he will have to hold off Shonn Greene, who returns to the team after spending a year at a junior college to improve his academics. How Greene readjusts to Division I-A football will be critical. Iowa also could lean on incoming freshmen Jeff Brinson and Jewel Hampton.

2. Quarterback question: Incumbent Jake Christensen maintained a grip on the starting quarterback spot coming out of spring ball, but sophomore Ricky Stanzi is still in the mix. Ferentz acknowledged Christensen is in the lead, but both Stanzi and Marvin McNutt aren't out of the competition. Christensen has ample experience and lacks no confidence in his abilities. If he limits mistakes in training camp, he should secure the job.

3. Coverage plan: The spotlight will be on the offensive backfield this summer, but the competition at cornerback shouldn't go unnoticed. Iowa must replace NFL draft pick Godfrey and Adam Shada, who combined for 14 pass breakups last season. Junior Bradley Fletcher likely will claim Shada's spot, and help is on the way with four incoming recruits and former Iowa player Amari Spievey, who returns after earning junior college All-America honors last season.

Michigan Wolverines

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Utah
Sept. 6 Miami (Ohio)
Sept. 13 @ Notre Dame
Sept. 27 Wisconsin
Oct. 4 Illinois
Oct. 11 Toledo
Oct. 18 @ Penn State
Oct. 25 Michigan State
Nov. 1 @ Purdue
Nov. 8 @ Minnesota
Nov. 15 Northwestern
Nov. 22 @ Ohio State


2007 overall record:
9-4

2007 conference record:
6-2

Returning starters
Offense: 3, defense: 7, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
T Steve Schilling, WR Greg Mathews, RB Brandon Minor, LB Obi Ezeh, DE Tim Jamison, DE Brandon Graham, CB Donovan Warren, CB Morgan Trent
Key losses
QB Chad Henne, RB Mike Hart, LT Jake Long, WR Adrian Arrington, WR Mario Manningham, LG Adam Kraus, LB Shawn Crable, S Jamar Adams, LB Chris Graham
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Mike Hart (1,361 yds)
Passing: Chad Henne (1,938 yds)
Receiving: Mario Manningham (1,174 yds)
Tackles: Jamar Adams (92)
Sacks: Brandon Graham* (8.5)
Interceptions: Jamar Adams and Brandent Englemon (3)

Spring answers

1. Trick or Threet: The quarterback competition is far from over, but Steven Threet emerged as the man to beat after spring practice. Threet, a transfer from Georgia Tech, seemed to make the fewest mistakes as he tried to absorb a dramatically different offensive system. He worked with the first-team offense during the spring game and led scoring drives on the first two possessions. "Like everybody else, it's all new to him, so he's making his mistakes," offensive coordinator Calvin Magee told reporters, "but I think he's got some leadership qualities that are going to help us."

2. On the run: Whoever wins the quarterback battle will need a capable wingman in the offensive backfield, and Michigan seemed to find several this spring. Both Brandon Minor and Kevin Grady impressed coach Rich Rodriguez during spring ball and could be paired in the backfield together. Grady overcame some early injury troubles, and Minor recorded two touchdowns in the spring game.

3. Will power: Hopes are high for Michigan's defensive line, and tackle Will Johnson did nothing to lower them this spring. Johnson, a fifth-year senior who has 13 career starts, earned the Meyer Morton Award, which is given to the senior who displays the most progress in spring practice. Coming off a hamstring injury, Johnson solidified the interior line alongside John Ferrara and Terrance Taylor.

Fall questions

1. Uncertainty under center: One of the nation's top position battles resumes as Rodriguez tries to identify the man to lead his trademark offense. Threet holds a slight edge over Nick Sheridan after spring ball, but the race is far from over. David Cone worked with the third string this spring but will be in the mix along with incoming freshman Justin Feagin, arguably the best fit for the spread-option offense.

2. Line dance: Tackle Steve Schilling is the only returning starter on the offensive line, which lost Justin Boren in spring practice after Alex Mitchell and Jeremy Ciulla departed following the coaching change. The Wolverines must find answers up front this summer from an inexperienced group that showed promise in the spring game. Several players auditioned at multiple positions in spring ball, but Rodriguez will have to settle on a two-deep this summer.

3. Drama kings: From Rodriguez's seemingly never-ending clash with West Virginia to Boren sounding off on Michigan's eroding family values, spring practice had plenty of controversy. The Wolverines need no distractions in training camp as they try to master a new offense and replace 12 starters from last year.

Michigan State Spartans

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 @ California
Sept. 6 Eastern Michigan
Sept. 13 Florida Atlantic
Sept. 20 Notre Dame
Sept. 27 @ Indiana
Oct. 4 Iowa
Oct. 11 @ Northwestern
Oct. 18 Ohio State
Oct. 25 @ Michigan
Nov. 1 Wisconsin
Nov. 8 Purdue
Nov. 22 @ Penn State


2007 overall record:
7-6

2007 conference record:
3-5

Returning starters
Offense: 6, defense: 6, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
RB Javon Ringer, QB Brian Hoyer, WR Deon Curry, RT Jesse Miller, FS Otis Wiley, LB Greg Jones, CB Kendell Davis-Clark
Key losses
WR Devin Thomas, TE Kellen Davis, LT Pete Clifford, RB Jehuu Caulcrick, DE Jonal Saint-Dic, DE Ervin Baldwin, LB Kaleb Thornhill
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Javon Ringer* (1,447 yds)
Passing: Brian Hoyer* (2,725 yds)
Receiving: Devin Thomas (1,260 yds)
Tackles: Greg Jones* (78)
Sacks: Jonal Saint-Dic (10)
Interceptions: Otis Wiley (4)

Spring answers

1. Rockin' Rocco: The Spartans needed a replacement for all-Big Ten left tackle Pete Clifford this spring and found one in junior Rocco Cironi. A strong pass blocker, Cironi played sparingly last season but stepped up his play as opportunities came open. After losing three-fifths of its starting offensive line from last year, Michigan State can go into the summer feeling good about protecting Brian Hoyer's blind side. "He's taken that next step, knowing that he needs to be the guy," coach Mark Dantonio said of Cironi. "He's got good athletic ability, so it's his time."

2. Walking tall: While projected starting wide receivers Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham didn't distinguish themselves until the Green-White game, walk-on Blair White impressed the coaches throughout spring ball. White, who had just three receptions last year, made a push to be in the receiver rotation. He had four receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown during the spring game. "A lot of people underestimate him," Dantonio said.

3. As good as advertised: Dantonio knew what he had in defensive end Trevor Anderson long before seeing him suit up in a Spartans uniform. Anderson had starred for Dantonio at Cincinnati and, after some initial difficulty, followed the coach to East Lansing. The former All-Big East selection turned in a strong spring as Michigan State rebuilds a defensive line that loses standout ends Jonal Saint-Dic and Ervin Baldwin. "Trevor is extremely strong and explosive," Dantonio said. "He'll certainly set the foundation for our defensive ends."

Fall questions

1. Playmaking presence: After losing a game-changer in Devin Thomas, the Spartans need to pick up the slack at both wide receiver and kickoff/punt returner. Dell and Cunningham performed well in the spring game, and Deon Curry will return from a back injury this summer. Dell is expected to become the team's top passing option, and Cunningham distinguished himself in practice last fall.

2. Rebuilding the rush: Anderson's arrival will certainly help matters, but the pass rush remains a concern after the departures of Saint-Dic and Baldwin, who combined for 18½ sacks and 33 tackles for loss last season. The Spartans need help from Brandon Long, who had two sacks last season, as well as freshman Tyler Hoover.

3. Ringer's health: Star running back Javon Ringer sat out spring drills with a shoulder injury, which isn't a major concern unless it lingers into the summer. Ringer has proven to be one of the league's most dynamic backs, but health has been a concern throughout his career. The Spartans need him at full strength and must find a capable complement after losing bruiser Jehuu Caulcrick. A.J. Jimmerson has experience and figures to become Michigan State's second option. Redshirt freshmen Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett are also in the mix.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Northern Illinois
Sept. 6 @ Bowling Green
Sept. 13 Montana State
Sept. 20 Florida Atlantic
Sept. 27 @ Ohio State
Oct. 4 Indiana
Oct. 11 @ Illinois
Oct. 25 @ Purdue
Nov. 1 Northwestern
Nov. 8 Michigan
Nov. 15 @ Wisconsin
Nov. 22 Iowa


2007 overall record:
1-11

2007 conference record:
0-8

Returning starters
Offense: 8, defense: 7, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Adam Weber, WR Eric Decker, RB Duane Bennett, LB Steve Davis, LB Deon Hightower, DE Willie Van DeSteeg, P Justin Kucek, Kyle Theret
Key losses
RB Amir Pinnix, WR Ernie Wheelwright, LT Steve Shidell, S Dominique Barber, LB Mike Sherels
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Adam Weber* (617 yds)
Passing: Adam Weber* (2,895 yds)
Receiving: Eric Decker* (909 yds)
Tackles: Dominique Barber (100)
Sacks: Mike Sherels (2½)
Interceptions: Kyle Theret* (3)

Spring answers

1. Brock blooms: The nation's worst defense last fall needs help wherever it can find some, and free safety Tramaine Brock came through this spring. A junior college All-American, Brock had the coaches salivating throughout the spring as he claimed the starting spot vacated by top tackler Dominique Barber. Brock boasts top-shelf speed and tremendous athleticism, giving him the versatility to play either safety or cornerback.

2. Case closed: Quarterback Adam Weber reaffirmed himself as the clear-cut starter with a strong spring performance. Despite finishing as the team's top passer and rusher as a freshman, Weber entered the spring needing more refinement. He became a better vocal leader and seemed to display a better handle on the spread offense after throwing 19 interceptions last season. "If you are the starting quarterback, you don't have an age or a grade," coach Tim Brewster told reporters. "You are the quarterback. What do quarterbacks do? They lead. That's what I've tried to do with Adam. He's really stepped up this spring."

3. Fast learners: Though coordinator Ted Roof joined the staff just weeks before spring ball, he seemed to get good production from a unit that finished last nationally in 2007. The Gophers' defense dominated the spring game, forcing two fumbles and intercepting two passes. Walk-on cornerback Marcus Sherels, a converted wide receiver, recovered both fumbles, and linebacker Kevin Mannion had a 34-yard interception return. "Our kids are starting to play with an edge a little bit," Brewster said. "It was a pretty darn good impressive display of defense."

Fall questions

1. Running on empty: After a one-year hiatus, the Gophers hope to restore their tradition of turning out superstar running backs. Weber led the team in rushing last season and top back Amir Pinnix graduated, so there are opportunities for someone to step up. The spotlight will be on sophomore Duane Bennett, who had 107 carries last season, as well as junior Jay Thomas and three incoming backs.

2. Building the back half: Brock's emergence this spring encouraged the coaches, but the secondary remains a work in progress. Minnesota lost arguably its best defender in Barber, and a group of incoming players will be in contention to win starting jobs during training camp. After one of the worst defensive performances in NCAA history, the Gophers need depth and a speed upgrade throughout the secondary.

3. Receiving orders: Leading wideout Eric Decker is back, but there's not much behind him. The Gophers need strides from Ralph Spry and Tray Herndon, who combined for 25 receptions and four touchdowns last season. Decker is a budding star, but departed receiver Ernie Wheelwright proved just as valuable last fall, accentuating the need for depth.

Northwestern Wildcats

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Syracuse
Sept. 6 @ Duke
Sept. 13 Southern Illinois
Sept. 20 Ohio
Sept. 27 @ Iowa
Oct. 11 Michigan State
Oct. 18 Purdue
Oct. 25 @ Indiana
Nov. 1 @ Minnesota
Nov. 8 Ohio State
Nov. 15 @ Michigan
Nov. 22 Illinois


2007 overall record:
6-6

2007 conference record:
3-5

Returning starters
Offense: 8, defense: 7, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB C.J. Bacher, RB Tyrell Sutton, WR Eric Peterman, WR Ross Lane, DT John Gill, DE Corey Wootton, LB Malcolm Arrington, S Brendan Smith
Key losses
LT Dylan Thiry, C Trevor Rees, WR Kim Thompson, G Adam Crum, LB Adam Kadela, CB Deante Battle
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Tyrell Sutton* (522 yds)
Passing: C.J. Bacher* (3,656 yds)
Receiving: Eric Peterman* (744 yds)
Tackles: Adam Kadela (125)
Sacks: David Ngene (5)
Interceptions: Nine players (1)

Spring answers

1. Nothing but Netter: A new-look offensive line is the team's biggest question mark, but a big piece fell into place this spring. Redshirt freshman Al Netter put himself in position to start at left tackle, a spot vacated by mainstay Dylan Thiry. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said Netter nearly saw the field as a true freshman last season, and entered the spring as the front-runner to become a starter. He will continue to compete with Ramon Diaz but is projected to secure the job in training camp.

2. No-huddle returns: Eight years after helping Northwestern to a share of the Big Ten championship, the no-huddle offense is back in Evanston. First-year offensive coordinator Mick McCall brought back the no-huddle this spring in an effort to convert the team's steady yards production into points. The Wildcats finished second in the Big Ten in total offense last season but 10th in scoring. Quarterback C.J. Bacher gradually acclimated to the quicker pace and will have all of training camp to fine-tune things.

3. End game: The Wildcats return full-time or part-time starters at all four defensive line spots, but a lack of production last season created opportunities for others to step up. Redshirt freshman end Vince Browne capitalized this spring. Coming off a serious knee injury sustained in high school, Browne put himself in position to compete for a starting job with incumbent Kevin Mims. Browne had a sack and applied consistent pressure during the spring game. "We all just want to get on the field," Browne told the Daily Herald. "We didn't come here to sit on the bench. Last year was pretty frustrating for us not being able to play."

Fall questions

1. Form a line: With plenty of depth at the skill positions, the offense's success hinges on a line that loses three starters. Netter has the inside track to start at left tackle, but the Wildcats still need replacements at center and left guard. Joel Belding entered the spring as the projected starter at center but finished it listed at right guard, the position where he started last season. The competition at center features redshirt freshmen Ben Burkett and Doug Bartels, along with senior Alex Rucks, who moves over from guard. Keegan Kennedy, a transplant from the defensive line, will compete with senior Desmond Taylor for the starting left guard spot.

2. System status: Fitzgerald appeared to score a coup when he hired veteran defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, a castoff from Wisconsin. Hankwitz began installing his system this spring but needs a productive training camp to shape a unit that has struggled for the better part of the past decade. Known for his zone blitz packages, Hankwitz wants to be more aggressive up front but needs better play from a group that produced only 18 sacks last season.

3. Secondary depth: Pass defense has plagued Northwestern for years, but the team boasts a good combination of experience and young talent this season. There will be competition at all four spots in training camp, as redshirt freshmen safeties Brian Peters and David Arnold push incumbents Brendan Smith and Brad Phillips. Cornerback Sherrick McManis returns from surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle. Both McManis and Justan Vaughn will have to hold off senior David Oredugba and promising redshirt freshmen Jordan Mabin and Mike Bolden. Both Arnold and Mabin likely would have played last fall if not for injuries.

Ohio State Buckeyes

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Youngstown State
Sept. 6 Ohio
Sept. 13 @ USC
Sept. 20 Troy
Sept. 27 Minnesota
Oct. 4 @ Wisconsin
Oct. 11 Purdue
Oct. 18 @ Michigan State
Oct. 25 Penn State
Nov. 8 @ Northwestern
Nov. 15 @ Illinois
Nov. 22 Michigan


2007 overall record:
11-2

2007 conference record:
7-1

Returning starters
Offense: 9, defense: 9, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Todd Boeckman, RB Chris Wells, WR Brian Robiskie, LT Alex Boone, LB James Laurinaitis, LB Marcus Freeman, CB Malcolm Jenkins, FS Anderson Russell
Key losses
RT Kirk Barton, DE Vernon Gholston, LB Larry Grant
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Chris Wells* (1,609 yds)
Passing: Todd Boeckman* (2,379 yds)
Receiving: Brian Robiskie* (935 yds)
Tackles: James Laurinaitis* (121)
Sacks: Vernon Gholston (14)
Interceptions: Malcolm Jenkins* (4)

Spring answers

1. Line locked up: The Buckeyes filled the only hole on their offensive line this spring with sophomore right tackle Bryant Browning. The 6-4, 312-pound Browning seamlessly transitioned to the first team as he replaces All-Big Ten selection Kirk Barton. Acclaimed freshman Mike Adams could push Browning this summer, but the front five looks fairly set heading into the season. "He's very dependable," coach Jim Tressel said of Browning. "He's got power. He does some things that we think are going to be very, very special, and he works like crazy."

2. Welcome return: Defensive end Lawrence Wilson returned to the field this spring determined to make up for lost time. Sidelined last season after breaking his leg in the opener, Wilson moves into a primary pass-rushing role as Ohio State replaces superstar Vernon Gholston (14 sacks last fall). Wilson readjusted well from the injury, recording a sack in the spring game and reaffirming his spot with the first-team defense.

3. Not so average Joe: The competition to back up quarterback Todd Boeckman will undoubtedly be impacted by a certain incoming freshman from Jeannette, Pa., but Joe Bauserman made a strong case in the spring game. Bauserman, a former minor league pitcher in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, threw a 51-yard touchdown pass and had a 63-yard scoring strike called back on a holding penalty. Antonio Henton entered the spring as Ohio State's primary backup, but the 22-year-old Bauserman will remain in the mix this summer along with that Pryor guy.

Fall questions

1. The Pryor Effect: Ohio State's integration of acclaimed quarterback Terrelle Pryor will be one of the nation's top preseason story lines. Boeckman's starting job is safe, but the Buckeyes likely won't keep a player of Pryor's caliber on the sidelines for long. Will they follow Florida's lead and use Pryor like Tim Tebow, with Boeckman playing the role of Chris Leak? Pryor has the athleticism to play right away, but his ability to grasp the offense and improve as a passer will determine how quickly he sees the field.

2. On the mend: Nine starters return on each side of the ball, but a rash of injuries during spring practice places a greater emphasis on training-camp performance. The offensive line was banged up throughout the spring and must re-establish chemistry before the season. Running back Chris Wells was held out of contact drills this spring as he recovered from wrist surgery. The health of both Wells and top wide receiver Brian Robiskie (knee surgery) is a minor concern entering training camp.

3. Trio in trouble: The status of defensive backs Donald Washington, Jamario O'Neal and Eugene Clifford remains in doubt heading into the summer. Tressel never revealed why the three players were held out of some spring workouts or whether suspensions would be forthcoming. All three will be under close surveillance until the season. Washington is projected to start opposite standout Malcolm Jenkins, and both O'Neal and Clifford are expected to see time behind starters Anderson Russell and Kurt Coleman.

Penn State Nittany Lions

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Coastal Carolina
Sept. 6 Oregon State
Sept. 13 @ Syracuse
Sept. 20 Temple
Sept. 27 Illinois
Oct. 4 @ Purdue
Oct. 11 @ Wisconsin
Oct. 18 Michigan
Oct. 25 @ Ohio State
Nov. 8 @ Iowa
Nov. 15 Indiana
Nov. 22 Michigan State


2007 overall record:
9-4

2007 conference record:
4-4

Returning starters
Offense: 8, defense: 6, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
WR Deon Butler, WR Derrick Williams, LT Gerald Cadogan, C A.Q. Shipley, G Rich Ohrnberger, DE Maurice Evans, DE Josh Gaines, S Anthony Scirrotto
Key losses
RB Rodney Kinlaw, QB Anthony Morelli, LB Dan Connor, CB Justin King
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Rodney Kinlaw (1,329 yds)
Passing: Anthony Morelli (2,651 yds)
Receiving: Deon Butler* (633 yds)
Tackles: Dan Connor (145)
Sacks: Maurice Evans* (12½)
Interceptions: Anthony Scirrotto* (3)

Spring answers

1. Seeing Green: He hasn't even touched the ball in a college game, but running back Stephfon Green continues to generate buzz with his electrifying speed. The redshirt freshman turned in an impressive spring highlighted by several dizzying dashes. Though Evan Royster will enter the season as the No. 1 back, Green provides an excellent changeup option and should see significant time this fall.

2. End game: With projected starter Andrew Quarless suspended indefinitely, tight end Andrew Szczerba made a strong push for the top job this spring. Szczerba had a game-high five catches for 65 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. The 6-6, 252-pound junior creates matchup problems for both linebackers and safeties, providing Penn State's new starting quarterback another weapon in the passing game. "Everybody has an opportunity, you know," he told reporters. "Like Coach [Joe] Paterno says, nobody has a lock on a No. 1 job."

3. Moving up: The offensive line returned all five starters from last year, but it will welcome a new face when the curtain lifts this fall. Sophomore Stefen Wisniewski leapfrogged incumbent Mike Lucian on the depth chart for the starting spot at right guard. Wisniewski, who started a game last fall when Lucian sustained a concussion, will begin the season with the first-team offense. Lucian was moved to backup center.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback quandary: Junior quarterback Daryll Clark appeared to come out of spring practice with a slight lead over Pat Devlin, but the competition will push forward into the summer. Clark might be a better fit to run an offense that will incorporate more spread elements this fall, but Devlin boasts a strong arm. "Clark doesn't have the job yet, and there's no need to make a decision now," Paterno said.

2. Loss of Lee: The season-ending ACL injury to linebacker Sean Lee leaves a major void in both production and leadership. Sophomore Bani Gbadyu played every game last season and will compete for time with Chris Colasanti and Josh Hull. Colasanti capped a strong spring with a forced fumble in the Blue-White game. He could step in for Lee, who will serve as an honorary captain this season.

3. Suspension saga: Five players suspended for spring practice were permitted to rejoin the team for workouts at the end of April, but their playing status remains unchanged. How the saga plays out will impact both sides of the ball. Quarless was a projected starter before the suspension, and linebacker Navorro Bowman could help account for the loss of Lee. Defensive tackles Chris Baker and Phil Taylor will contend for playing time if they're reinstated.

Purdue Boilermakers

2008 Schedule

Sept. 6 Northern Colorado
Sept. 13 Oregon
Sept. 20 Central Michigan
Sept. 27 @ Notre Dame
Oct. 4 Penn State
Oct. 11 @ Ohio State
Oct. 18 @ Northwestern
Oct. 25 Minnesota
Nov. 1 Michigan
Nov. 8 @ Michigan State
Nov. 15 @ Iowa
Nov. 22 Indiana


2007 overall record:
8-5

2007 conference record:
3-5

Returning starters
Offense: 6, defense: 6, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Curtis Painter, RB Kory Sheets, RB Jaycen Taylor, LT Sean Sester, WR Greg Orton, LB Anthony Heygood, DT Alex Magee
Key losses
WR Dorien Bryant, TE Dustin Keller, RG Jordan Grimes, DE Cliff Avril, CB Terrell Vinson, SS Justin Scott
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Kory Sheets* (859 yds)
Passing: Curtis Painter* (3,846 yds)
Receiving: Dorien Bryant (936 yds)
Tackles: Terrell Vinson (84)
Sacks: Cliff Avril (6½)
Interceptions: Terrell Vinson (5)

Spring answers

1. Werner impresses: Purdue finished spring ball with a strong 1-2 punch at linebacker as Jason Werner emerged as a strong complement to Anthony Heygood. Werner, who underwent back surgery in December 2006, carried over a strong finish to last season in spring practice. With Heygood the only returning starter at linebacker, Werner locked up a starting job, collecting five tackles and two pass breakups in the spring game. "He's our best linebacker," coach Joe Tiller said.

2. Next in line: A dropoff at tight end is inevitable after the loss of superstar Dustin Keller, but it might not be as extreme as some envisioned. Though Keller was a major matchup problem, the Boilermakers have high hopes for Kyle Adams, Jerry Wasikowski, Colton McKey and Jeff Lindsay. Adams, who has only 14 receptions the last two seasons, boasts excellent size and performed well this spring. He enters preseason camp as the starter but will be pushed by the others.

3. Backup plan: As the league's most experienced quarterback, Curtis Painter has no concern about job security. But if Painter needs a replacement this fall, the Boilermakers seem to have a capable one in Joey Elliott. The junior reserve shared the most improved award for his performance in spring ball. He completed 21 of 27 passes for 195 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in the spring game.

Fall questions

1. On the lookout: A powerful passing game is usually a given at Purdue, but there are some questions entering the summer after the team lost four of its top five receivers. Greg Orton, expected to step in as the team's new top target, missed the final two weeks of spring practice with a groin injury. Both Orton and Desmond Tardy, who missed all of spring ball following shoulder surgery, are expected to be back healthy for preseason camp. The Boilermakers need production from both of them; they also need younger wideouts like Aaron Valentin and Keith Smith to emerge.

2. Line in limbo: Guard Zach Reckman and tackles Sean Sester and Zach Jones all missed spring practice with injuries, leaving Purdue without any of its returning starters up front. The team needs all three healthy for preseason camp and must build depth around them. Reserve tackle Garret Miller comes off knee surgery and Ryan Prater hurt both his ACL and MCL in an April 12 scrimmage. The Boilermakers need continued improvement from Cory Benton, who can play both center and guard, as well as Ken Plue and Rick Schmeig.

3. Rebuilding the rush: The pass rush becomes a top priority this summer as Purdue tries to replace ends Cliff Avril (6½ sacks, 15 TFLs) and Eugene Bright (5 sacks). Keyon Brown performed well this spring and must continue to make strides in preseason camp. Coaches also will be watching Ryan Kerrigan, who had 18 tackles last season, as well as redshirt freshman Gerald Gooden.

Wisconsin Badgers

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Akron
Sept. 6 Marshall
Sept. 13 @ Fresno State
Sept. 27 @ Michigan
Oct. 4 Ohio State
Oct. 11 Penn State
Oct. 18 @ Iowa
Oct. 25 Illinois
Nov. 1 @ Michigan State
Nov. 8 @ Indiana
Nov. 15 Minnesota
Nov. 22 Cal Poly


2007 overall record:
9-4

2007 conference record:
5-3

Returning starters
Offense: 8, defense: 9, kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
RB P.J. Hill, TE Travis Beckum, RB Zach Brown, G Kraig Urbik, DE Matt Shaughnessy, FS Shane Carter, LB Jonathan Casillas, LB Deandre Levy
Key losses
QB Tyler Donovan, WR Luke Swan, C Marcus Coleman, DT Nick Hayden, CB Jack Ikegwuonu, PK Taylor Mehlhaff, P Ken DeBauche
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: P.J. Hill* (1,212 yds)
Passing: Tyler Donovan (2,607 yds)
Receiving: Travis Beckum* (982 yds)
Tackles: Jonathan Casillas* (96)
Sacks: Kirk DeCremer* (5½)
Interceptions: Shane Carter* (7)

Spring answers

1. What a rush: As other teams try to mold a featured running back, Wisconsin is rich with options. The Badgers emerged from the spring with four legitimate ball carriers: returning starter P.J. Hill, part-time starter Zach Brown, redeemed junior Lance Smith and promising redshirt freshman John Clay. Hill was finally healthy for spring ball and showed continued progress, while both Smith and Clay performed well in the spring game. "We've been able to get good work for all four of them," offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. "They all are a little bit different. That's what I think is kind of nice."

2. Secondary sorted out: Though both projected starting cornerbacks were sidelined with injuries, the secondary finished spring ball with several bright spots. Sophomore Jay Valai seemed to lock up the starting strong safety spot with a solid spring, and Chris Maragos, who moved to safety after Kim Royston transferred, had an electrifying interception in the spring game. "Chris Maragos never played a snap at safety in his life and looked like a guy that belongs out there," coach Bret Bielema said. "Right now, he'd be a guy we'd start in our sub package. Anything that we can do to get him on the field, we will."

3. Receiving orders: Standout tight end Travis Beckum missed spring ball with a minor injury, so the door opened for players to step up in the passing game. David Gilreath capitalized with a solid spring, proving he has value beyond as a kickoff/punt returner. Gilreath finished the spring with three receptions for 79 yards in the spring game, putting himself in good shape for the summer. Isaac Anderson also made strides, and Nick Toon showed big-play potential before sustaining a hamstring injury early in practice.

Fall questions

1. Uncertainty under center: The distance separating quarterback candidates Allan Evridge and Dustin Sherer remained negligible at the end of spring ball, nudging the competition into the summer. Evridge, a transfer from Kansas State, spent more of the spring with the first-team offense, but he couldn't separate himself from Sherer. "You're always hoping for someone to separate and yet expectation-wise, because you do know the guys fairly well, I wouldn't say I'm surprised," Chryst said.

2. Health watch: The sick bay overflowed this spring, as Wisconsin had 26 players miss time because of injuries. Defensive end Matt Shaughnessy could return for training camp after breaking his right fibula toward the end of spring practice. The defensive line also welcomes back tackles Mike Newkirk (shoulder) and Jason Chapman (knee), as well as reserve end Kirk DeCremer (back). The secondary will begin training camp with bated breath as cornerbacks Allen Langford and Aaron Henry return from ACL injuries.

3. Special assistance: Wisconsin is still looking for clarity after losing the Big Ten's best specialist tandem in kicker Taylor Mehlhaff and punter Ken DeBauche. Phillip Welch and Matt Fischer paced each other throughout the spring ball and will continue to compete in preseason camp. Brad DeBauche handled most of the punting duties throughout the spring but will be pushed this summer by incoming freshman Brad Nortman.

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com

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