Breaking down the Big East
West Virginia appears to be the team to beat, but will that translate into a national championship challenge for the Mountaineers? Is UConn a one-hit wonder, and will Pittsburgh live up to expectations? Take a look at what questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall in the Big East.
Spring answers1. One end to another: After losing both of their starting defensive ends from 2007, the Bearcats made it a priority this spring to find two more. Senior Connor Barwin, a former tight end, made the switch to defensive end, where he is now penciled in as a starter. Former quarterback Craig Carey finished the spring as the front-runner for the other end spot.
2. Contingency plan: Should Ben Mauk not win his appeal for another year of eligibility, the coaches have a newfound confidence in redshirt freshman Chazz Anderson -- a player whose name wasn't even on the pre-spring depth chart. Anderson will battle two-year starter Dustin Grutza this fall, edging out Notre Dame transfer Demetrius Jones and Tony Pike this spring.
3. Back replacement: Cincinnati lost three senior running backs who carried the ball the bulk of the time last year, opening a window for sophomore John Goebel. For the past two years, Goebel has been named the scout team's player of the year. This spring he appeared ready for more. Junior Jacob Ramsey has the edge on experience, though, with three starts.
Fall questions1. QB appeal: It will still be another few weeks before Mauk finds out whether or not his appeal to the NCAA for another year of eligibility has been granted. He has already been denied, but is working on setting up a conference call to start the appeal process. If the NCAA's decision is overturned, Mauk will again be the starting quarterback. If not, see No. 2 above.
2. New starting safeties: Cedric Tolbert is expected to fill one of the vacant safety positions, despite having never started before. Drew Frey, Scott Johnson and Brad Jones will still be fighting it out this fall for the other position. Corners Mickens and Smith are exceptional, but will they be able to repeat last season's outstanding total of 26 combined interceptions?
3. Top targets: Sophomore Marcus Barnett and junior Marshwan Gilyard both had big seasons last year as two of the younger and more inexperienced players on the team. Barnett had 862 receiving yards and Gilyard 536. Can they be as productive again, especially if Mauk's not the one throwing to them?
Spring answers1. Double time: The Huskies found another threat at wide receiver: starting corner Darius Butler, who played both ways during the spring. The staff plans to get him about 10 to 15 snaps per game on offense. Butler was in both position meetings this spring and caught a game-winning 27-yard touchdown pass in the spring game. He also made three tackles at corner.
2. Four deep: Running backs Donald Brown and Andre Dixon were proven coming into the spring, but now they've got some help. Two redshirt freshmen -- Robbie Frey and Kelmetrus "Meme" Wylie -- each had a promising spring and can open up possibilities at the position. Frey had 92 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries and Wylie had 83 yards on 14 carries in the spring game.
3. Deep D: There's plenty of holdover talent to compensate for the departure of leading tackler Danny Lansanah. Scott Lutrus moved from strongside linebacker to middle linebacker and will lead a group that includes Aaron Bryant and C.J. Marck, who is the front-runner to inherit Lansanah's spot. Former starting safety Dahna Deleston's move to strongside linebacker will also help.
Fall questions1. Pushing the place-kicker: Redshirt freshman Dave Teggart might be giving senior Tony Ciaravino the boot. And it's not like Ciaravino hasn't done his job. He set a school record with 22 field goals made last year. Teggart didn't play in one game last year, but redemption is still possible. The Huskies are also still searching for returners -- positions that could be filled by true freshmen not yet on campus.
2. Receiver help: Even with Butler lending a hand on offense, there is still an immediate need for more playmakers. The Huskies lost their starting slot receiver and their leading receiver. Former quarterback D.J. Hernandez and Brad Kanuch are the top two returning receivers, combining for 57 catches and 837 yards last year. Incoming freshmen are sure to get a look.
3. Repeat?: These guys are the defending Big East champs and have 19 starters back, including a specialist, but can they do it again? Here's one advantage few if any other teams in the country have: The same coaching staff has been intact for three years now. Can Randy Edsall sustain the momentum from one of the winningest seasons in school history?
Spring answers1. Heir apparent: Senior Hunter Cantwell will be the quarterback. Cantwell played in two games last season in Brian Brohm's shadow, completing 8 of 14 passes for 79 yards with one interception. He was more productive in the spring game, completing 11 of 18 passes for 103 yards and one touchdown. Mel Kiper has Cantwell slated as the top-rated quarterback in the 2009 draft.
2. Offensive line patched up: Louisville had to replace two starters, but sophomore Mark Wetterer earned a guard position and Jeff Adams is now a starting tackle. Abdul Kuyateh is the other starting guard. Eric Wood will line up at center, and George Bussey at tackle.
3. Defensive progress: First-year defensive coordinator Ron English and an entirely new staff inherited one of the worst defenses in the country, but the players responded to them this spring. Still, the Cardinals must improve upon last year's average of 31.4 points allowed.
Fall questions1. Linebacker: Little got resolved at one position where all three starters left and not much is coming back -- or just hasn't arrived yet. Several junior college players are in the mix: James Bryant, a transfer from Miami, sat out last season and Butler transfer Chris Campa's picture and bio aren't even up yet on the team's Web site. John Dempsey and Antwan Canady aren't on campus yet.
2. Secondary depth: The starting corners are in place, but there is not much depth behind Turenne and Johnny Patrick. Junior Chaz Thompson and senior Marcus Folmar appeared to have the most productive springs.
3. Overall defense: How this team responds defensively during the fall -- with its new staff and three new linebackers, will go a long way in determining its success. With so many new players and junior college transfers who haven't arrived, there is still a long way to go before improving upon last year, when opposing teams racked up 416.5 yards per game.
Spring answers1. Starting QB: There was some uncertainty about whether once-starting quarterback Bill Stull would be able to completely recover from the thumb injury that forced him to miss all but one game last year. Stull came back strong, and showed no lingering effects, closing this spring as the front-runner for the job, according to coach Dave Wannstedt.
2. Offensive line shift: Junior John Malecki, who was a letterman on the defensive line each of past two years, moved to right guard at the beginning of spring and earned the starting job there. That move allowed last year's starting right guard -- Joe Thomas -- to move to right tackle to replace Mike McGlynn, a four-year starter and fourth-round draft pick.
3. Seeking an end: The two most notable departures were at defensive end. Greg Romeus, a reserve last year, locked up one of those spots with an exceptional spring, which wasn't really a surprise. As a redshirt freshman, he was second to Clermond in sacks (four) and tackles for loss (11.5), despite his role as a backup. The other end position is still up for grabs between Doug Fulmer and Jabaal Sheard.
Fall questions1. Depth at linebacker: What kind of depth will the Panthers have at middle linebacker? Everyone knows what Scott McKillop can do (first-team Big East last year, led the country in tackles), but who will give him a break? His chief backup is redshirt freshman Max Gruder, who has never played in a collegiate game. The Panthers still need to find somebody to spell McKillop.
2. QB experience: Even with Stull 100 percent healthy, he is still the least experienced quarterback Pitt has. Stull started one game last year (the season-opener against Eastern Michigan), and most of his playing time before that came in mop-up duty for former QB Tyler Palko. Last year, because of injuries, Pitt used a fundamental offensive scheme. Will they be able to develop some type of vertical passing game that will prevent defenses from locking down on LeSean McCoy?
3. Momentum:The Panthers were an afterthought as a 5-7 team last year. But they start the 2008 season as a dark horse, in large part because of their national-impact Dec. 1 win at West Virginia. Can Pitt continue that momentum? Sure, 17 starters are back, but a home game against Iowa, and road trips to South Florida, Notre Dame, Cincinnati and UConn will make a true turnaround tough.
|Rutgers Scarlet Knights|
Spring answers1. Survive without Rice: Mason Robinson separated himself this spring from a group of backs looking to compensate for the loss of Ray Rice. Of course, it will take more than one person to do that. Robinson and Kordell Young -- who hurt his knee in the third game last year and has been out -- will team up with Jourdan Brooks and Joe Martinek, New Jersey's all-time high school leading rusher.
2. Screwed up: Middle linebacker Ryan D'Imperio, who broke his leg last spring and missed the first three games before returning with screws in his leg, is back. This time, without the screws. It was clear they had an effect on him and now he's back to his old self. As a whole, the size and strength of the linebackers got an upgrade this spring.
3. Fight for third: With two outstanding receivers returning, the question was who No. 3 would be. Junior Dennis Campbell answered that one. He had just one reception last season and saw more time on special teams, but showed similar promise to what he showed in 2006, when he was a starter. He was given the Mark Mills Second Effort Award, which is given to the most improved offensive player.
Fall questions1. Offensive line: With three new starters and none of them named yet, can the offensive line protect Mike Teel and keep him healthy? If so, he could have a breakout year. The passing game really clicked this spring, especially with the return of two receivers who each racked up over 1,000 yards last year. Two years ago, the line allowed only eight sacks. Last year it was 10. Can they keep up the tradition?
2. Running back rotation: Now that there's more than one option, how will Greg Schiano use his plethora of backs? Rice was a bulldozer, but Young and Robinson are breakaway threats and Brooks is faster than Rice (he took off for a 65-yard touchdown this spring, running the last 50 of it with one shoe). Had Young been healthy last year, he would've played more and Rice likely wouldn't have carried 30 times a game.
3. Making a move: Defensive end Jamaal Westerman, who led the team in sacks last season, was moved inside to tackle early this spring. Whether or not he stays there remains to be seen. There is depth at defensive end, but tackle is less certain. True freshman Scott Vallone, a 6-foot-3, 260-pound tackle from St. Anthony's prep school on Long Island, could come in and contribute immediately.
|South Florida Bulls|
Spring answers1. Finding his place: Sampson Genus, who earned time last year as a true freshman in a backup role on the offensive line, switched to defensive tackle, where he showed a lot of potential this spring. At 6-foot-1, 308 pounds, Genus can be a space eater and should regularly rotate into the game. He finished the spring as the No. 2 nose tackle on the depth chart.
2. Back on track: Sophomore running back Mike Ford used the spring to solidify the lead role instead of sharing it like he did last year with Jamar Taylor and Ben Williams. After a career that was derailed by prep school and slowed by his subpar physique, Ford has now gained 10 pounds of muscle and should be a strong 235-pound back.
3. Experience: With 18 starters returning, the Bulls are confident they can continue last season's success and improve upon it. USF could get inside the 20-yard line last year, but wasn't always capable of scoring. With Ford's improvement, Grothe is no longer the only running option. In goal-line situations he won't have to find as much space and should be able to rely more on Ford.
Fall questions1. In the middle: Tyrone McKenzie, the nation's leading returning tackler (he had 250 in the past two seasons), is the top candidate to fill in at middle linebacker, but he has made a name for himself at weakside linebacker. Brouce Mompremier might move from strongside linebacker and junior college transfer Kion Wilson could be another option, but he injured his ankle and was limited this spring.
2. Little line depth: The Bulls return four of five starters on the offensive line, but their backups remain uncertain. Sophomore Jake Simms, a former walk-on, could fill the hole left by tackle Walt Walker. Right tackle is still a competition between Thomas Edenfield and Chaz Hine. Depth is important here to protect Grothe and help pave the way for Ford.
3. Cornerback: Quinton Washington and Tyson Butler are both pushing upperclassmen Jerome Murphy and Tyller Roberts. Their younger teammates impressed the coaching staff this spring enough to be considered to replace two starters who were drafted. Roberts, a senior, earned significant playing time last season as a backup, but Murphy was the top option at nickel last year and is among the fastest players on the roster.
Spring answers1. No. 1 reserve: Senior Ben Maljovec, a linebacker for the past two seasons after starting his career as a free safety, moved to tight end, where he proved to be a solid backup for Mike Owen. In addition, Maljovec earned himself the backup fullback role.
2. Strong receivers: Athletic officials at Syracuse believe Mike Williams' nine-game streak with at least one touchdown catch is the longest active streak. He has also caught a ball in 20 straight games. He continued that this spring with a 50-yard touchdown reception in the final scrimmage.
3. Proving grounds: Sophomore corner Mike Holmes showed flashes of potential when he earned a starting role in the second half of last season, but this spring he solidified that role. Holmes was one of nine true freshmen to play last year and showed marked improvement this spring.
Fall questions1. Starting running back: Junior Delone Carter, who had a productive freshman season in 2006, but dislocated his hip the following spring, returned without full contact this spring. So did Curtis Brinkley, the former starter who broke his leg against Buffalo. While they were out, sophomore Doug Hogue crept up the depth chart and got significant reps. All three enter the fall with a chance to be starter.
2. Safety: Two seniors have to be replaced, so both strong safety and free safety will be determined this fall. A.J. Brown, Kevin Scott and Randy McKinnon are the top candidates at strong safety, and Bruce Williams, Paul Tiara and Matt Suter are in the running at free safety.
3. Strongside linebacker: This is another position that remains up for grabs and is being competed for by two redshirt sophomores: Parker Cantey and Derrell Smith, a former running back who made the move prior to 2007 spring practice. Cantey started two games last season and is a natural at the position. Coming out of South Shore High School in Brooklyn, Cantey was ranked the No. 28 outside linebacker in the country by ESPN.com.
|West Virginia Mountaineers|
Spring answers1. In motion: First-year offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen added motion to the spread offense (not that anyone saw much of it in the spring game) and added some new wrinkles to the playbook to get the receivers more involved in the run game. The players have adjusted to both the new coaching staff and its offense this spring.
2. Sturdy line: West Virginia's offensive line has been good and will be good again. All five starters returned from last year, and there are four more guys with starting experience. All-American Ryan Stanchek, a three-year starter at left tackle, and Greg Isdaner, an all-Big East selection, are the veterans of the group. Stephen Maw, who started in the Fiesta Bowl, Eric Jobe and Don Barclay are among those who showed they'll add depth.
3. Legit linebackers: With two of three starters back and three more athletes who have seen significant playing time, this group was solid this spring. Reed Williams and Mortty Ivy will offset the loss of Marc Magro, the team's third-leading tackler a year ago. J.T. Thomas, Pat Lazear and Anthony Leonard will also rotate in.
Fall questions1. Defensive line: This is still an area of concern, because defensive tackle Scooter Berry is the lone returning starter. By the end of spring, Chris Neild, a redshirt sophomore, earned the job at nose tackle, and Zac Cooper moved from linebacker to defensive end, where he is now a projected starter. That could all change, though, with the arrival of junior college transfer Tevita Finau.
2. Defensive backs: WVU lost all but one starter, and experience is limited. Ellis Lankster and Kent Richardson are projected first-time starters at corner. Boogie Allen earned the free safety job, and Nate Sowers, who moved from wide receiver to strong safety, rose to the top of the depth chart. Quinton Andrews and Charles Pugh both have experience to offer at safety.
3. Fullback: The departure of bruiser Owen Schmitt left a vacancy at the hybrid tight end/fullback position and Will Johnson might be their man. Johnson, a receiver last year, can play up on the line, in the slot or as a traditional fullback. Thor Merrow, a converted nose tackle, is another option. Fullback Max Anderson missed about half the season with a knee injury and was limited this spring. He should be ready by fall.
Heather Dinich is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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