During a meet-and-greet session with both regional and national media present, the forthright nature in which the coaches evaluated their teams was a refreshing change of pace.
Beginning with Ron Zook of Illinois, each man took about five minutes in the form of introduction, while the media members were permitted to ask questions on any number of topics. The following is a brief review of the goings-on of the three-hour media session.
Michigan State – John L. Smith was very brief in his opening remarks, but had plenty to say once the subject of his defense became the subject of conversation. "The key is to focus on the defensive side of the ball," Smith said. "We're not going to win in this league until we get good on the defensive side." He also talked about "growing up on that side of the ball."
He added that in order to get better defensively, the ability to do so would be dependant upon the secondary, more than anyplace else. "If we're going to be able to lock up, cover some guys, switch it up, play man, play man-free, a little bit of zone, we'll be able to do some things and cover up the front a little bit more, and play some games with the front." Smith said the secondary is the place they look forward to having the most improvement.
He acknowledged the offense was a good one, and that is was going to be fun. "It's going to be a circus," Smith said. "We're going to throw it around." But immediately after stating as much, he continued to harp on the defense, about how depth on that side was a big necessity, and that the unit had to step up and help. He added that end Brandon Long was going to be a "big play guy for us" and that he provided great athleticism and attitude.
He talked about the improvements Drew Stanton can make at quarterback. He said that the biggest thing the coaches worked on with him during spring ball is letting the offense come to him. "Cutting down on having to think that he has to throw the ball into that little window," Smith said. Too often, Smith admitted, Stanton felt as if he needed to make the big play. He said that Stanton sensed that if he didn't make the big play, others wouldn't.
Illinois – Zook's 2-9 record in his first season with the Illini was not a pretty way to begin his tenure in Champaign. That doesn't mean that the coach regrets taking the job. "When I got done meeting with our athletic director, there was no question in my mind the foresight that he had in the program, and where it was going. "
When a stadium renovation on the horizon, the school has every intention of getting back to the top of the Big Ten at some point. But the laws of gravity would suggest that every high must meet their low, and that low took place at the Penn State game, a turning point in their season as it turned out. Trailing 56-3 at the half, Zook informed his team that, "This is as bad as it's going to get; it's not going to get any worse."
Pointing out that sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can rise to the top, Zook added, "Since that day, we have steadily improved. Not just on the football field, but also off the field in recruiting. From that day on, and I really kind of look at that as a day that, as bad as it was, may have been the best thing that happened to us."
With ten starters returning on defense, Zook was asked how much improvement has been made on that side of the ball. "Hopefully an awful lot of improvement," he started. "We have some young guys coming in. We've added to the athleticism of our team, but in particular our defensive front." He added that they weren't going to be as big as you would want them to be, but that it meant they would be more of a defense that moves around.
Northwestern – When talking about the biggest challenge his team faced after the death of coach Randy Walker a month ago, Pat Fitzgerald pointed to the first game at Miami of Ohio as an obvious first step. "We're going to try and find a way to be prepared for August 31st, and the emotions that will go into that game, with Randy being a former Miami player, and being the all-time winningest coach in Miami history, and the legacy he has created here at Northwestern." He pointed out that the goal is to be focused by the time they get on the team bus for "our business trip to Oxford."
Fitzgerald talked about the expectations of the program. "We raised the expectations of the nation, and we turned around the attitudes of a nation, that you can win, not only with great academics and integrity, but you can also win championships with having both of those in line, being about the right things." He acknowledged that while their team's goal is to ultimately get back to the Rose Bowl, the main focus this season will be helping the players as they go through the grieving process. Fitzgerald also indicated that the team would continue to lift up the Walker family.
Fitzgerald, the youngest coach in Division 1-A, suggested that he is a very demanding coach, and that he believes in everything Randy Walker did. He added that he on occasion he has the ability to be intolerant, but that he is also a great teacher, one who is able to articulate his thoughts well. The '95 and '96 National Defensive Player of the Year, Fitzgerald got the first laugh of the afternoon when he was asked whether he could see himself coaching as long as Joe Paterno has. "Yes, I believe I can coach that long," Fitzgerald said. "I look forward to that challenge, and I hope it's at Northwestern."
Wisconsin – New coach Bret Bielema has the luxury of having Barry Alvarez a phone call away, but said the former coach prefers to keep his nose out of the new guy's business. "He's really had a hands-off approach," Bielema said. "He has allowed me to do whatever I needed to do to have success. He's been emphatic with me, very much, to make sure I stay on that course."
With their top three receivers all graduated, Beilema admitted that the position is "the biggest question mark on our team." He claims the defensive line is very good, and that the linebackers bring plenty of speed to the defensive side of the ball. He added that is was "very important" having a senior quarterback like John Stocco with so many young wide receivers getting their feet wet.
While the experience at running back is quite limited, Bielema said he was excited that the three freshman runners that came in last season were able to watch Brian Calhoun do his thing. "You learn more as a young player watching the older guys do it," Bielema said. At 36, he is the second youngest coach in the nation behind Fitzgerald. He pointed out that the timing of the Alvarez announcement was made to "let players get to know me as a defensive coordinator, but then to see me step into the head coaching role."
Ohio State – Jim Tressel was asked about the expectations of a club many foresee competing for the national championship. "It's encouraging that people feel that highly about Ohio State," he said. "It's always nice to be mentioned." While the losses on defense were severe (nine starters), Tressel chose to look at the positive. "Where there is experience up front, a lot of times if you're solid up front, it helps the people in the linebacking corps, and in the back end." He says they will continue to be a zone blitz defense that prides itself on pressure and speed.
When comparing the 2002 national championship year to this team, Tressel suggested that the roles have been flipped. In 2002, his coaching staff was less sure about the offense, while more confident in a pretty good defense. In 2006, Tressel said the question marks are now with the defensive side of the ball, while the offensive end looks to be in good hands.
Tressel addressed the criticism that Ted Ginn, Jr. doesn't have good hands, and that he is not a great route receiver. "He's got fabulous hands," Tressel said. "Route running, he's gotten better at, and now you'd have to characterize him as an excellent route runner, if you studied the film." He added that he "does it with his energy," and that he is a "'fun-loving guy."
Purdue – Joe Tiller answered questions on his team's potential, and the reasoning behind having two offensive coordinators. "The key to our season is that if we get off to a respectable start, we have the type of team this year that can improve as the season moves along." He indicated that this isn't always the case in college football.
On having two coordinators on offense, Tiller said, "These two guys are good because they've worked together in the past (Marshall). Both have been coordinators, both are mature football coaches, and both have good people skills." Bill Legg is the one coordinator who will be having a little more control, Tiller pointed out, while Ed Zaunbrecher comes back to a place where he coached from 1977-79.
Minnesota – Glen Mason was up front about the fact that his running back position isn't as strong as it has been in the past. "We're going to have to creative at that position," he said. He mentioned that there would be a different offense in Minnesota than in previous years. He said in seasons past they have been 60-40 in terms of run-pass, but that the ratio would more likely be "50-50 this year, maybe even 60-40 in favor of the pass."
Mason conveyed that his team was going to be young on defense, but said, "I think we will be better." He mentioned the fact that they will return all their linebackers, and that they will have more depth in the secondary. Offensively, Mason talked about how they lost a good deal on the offensive line, but that they should be okay in that area.
The Minnesota coach readily admitted that, if there was one thing to be critical of concerning his teams in the past, is that they didn't pass the ball enough. "If the other team couldn't stop the run, we kept running," Mason said. He pointed out that defenses that focused so much on the run left themselves open to the pass, yet the Golden Gophers didn't take advantage of that. "That wasn't a problem with (quarterback Bryan) Cupito," Mason confessed. "That was a problem with me."
Penn State – Joe Pa discussed his new quarterback, Anthony Morelli, and how that position is going to change this year in terms of what they do on offense. "The one (quarterback) we have now isn't quite the rookie that we've had in the past," Paterno said. "I think we have a good quarterback, and I think the league has a lot of outstanding quarterbacks." Paterno mentioned that they need to have some patience with Morelli, but that the coaches are more than comfortable with what his potential is.
When talking about last season's success, and whether or not he personally needed that reprieve after two down years, Paterno downplayed the significance. "I had made up my mind that we were a couple players away from being a pretty good football team the last couple of years." He elaborated, saying, "I thought we had added a couple of young players that could give us a dimension we hadn't had."
The old coach was asked about the transformation from a shotgun offense, to what is expected to be a more traditional Penn State manner of attack "This will be a different football team," Paterno said. "How much different will depend on a lot of things." He points out that a good deal of the team's success rides on a couple of young guys they brought in, and on how diligent some of the members of last year's team carry on.
Iowa – Kirk Ferentz addressed the issue of not having a bye week, and if he was going to draw on his NFL experience in preparing his team for that dilemma. "I think in a perfect world, I really hope to see the bye week be put back in our schedule," Ferentz said. "I think that it is something that is important, and gives everybody an opportunity to get away from the season a little." He added, "You have to do a good job of keeping a pulse of where your football team is both physically, but also mentally."
The Ohio State game this season will be under the lights in Iowa City. It will be only the second time in school history that the Hawkeyes will play a night game. Ferentz addressed the problems they may have logistically, as far as parking and things of the like. He predicted, though, that the fans would be up for a game that appears will hold some significance to it.
In terms of the stadium renovation for his football team and the university, Ferentz complimented the entire project, saying, "It was fantastic, very impressive." He said that everyone involved did an outstanding job. Ferentz didn't want to address whether or not the upgrades were needed in order to stay competitive in the Big Ten. He did give the stadium a nice endorsement, saying, "We have a very modern stadium, yet a very historic stadium."
Indiana - One of Terry Hoeppner's opening statements was a declaration that "we'll be a faster football team, and we'll be a young football team." Admired by many for his enthusiasm, and his absolute passion to revive the once-proud Hooiser program, the head coach talked candidly about his young group of men. In regards to the tailback situation, he stated that it was a very talented group that had been redshirted the previous year. "It was hard for us to do (redshirting) as we had two good senior running backs. It's an impressive young group."
Hoeppner suggested that he has always thought that running back was a talent position that "you could play early on." He's determined to give his youngsters their fair share of carries. He said the hardest part about being a running back is learning to pass protect. "It will be a challenge for them, but we feel that we have some talent there for sure."
Hoeppner brought up an interesting point when he said that athletes who play more than one sport attract his attention. He feels as though it demonstrates their athleticism, and mentioned that it is one of the first questions he asks prospective recruits. The Indiana coach said there was one thing in particular that his team needed in order to be competitive in the conference. "We need quality depth at IU so we can compete against Big Ten teams," Hoeppner said.
Michigan – Lloyd Carr spoke of the strong point for Michigan's team when he talked about the men up front defensively. "I think the strength of our team will be the front four," Carr said. "With LaMaar Woodley and Alan Branch, we have two of the finest defensive lineman we've had at Michigan." He added that sophomore Terrance Taylor is an excellent noseguard who gained some experience last year.
The biggest problem that Michigan had last year was an inability to make the opposing quarterbacks feel the least bit uncomfortable. Carr complimented the reserves, saying, "Tim Jamison, Rondell Biggs, and Will Johnson give us six big, strong, physical guys that will hopefully allow us to get pressure with a four-man rush." He confessed that it was something they were not able to do that much of a year ago.
Carr likes the running back position, and who wouldn't? He described running back Mike Hart as a great leader, and said that he has "no weaknesses." He likes his ability to run the football, pass catch, and says that his pass protection is solid. "When healthy, he brings something special to the table," Carr said.
When many players came to spring camp in better shape than they were last season, Carr and his coaching staff were impressed. "That fact that we had a lot of guys who were willing to do things that we asked them to do, as coaches, in terms of becoming a leaner, quicker team, speaks to their commitment."