While Ron Turner gets ready for his eighth season as head coach at Illinois, it may be more like his first season.
No, Turner does not have three or four seasons to turn things around. But after going 1-11 last year and 0-8 in the Big Ten, Turner has to feel as if he's already passed one major test by holding on to his job.
The Illini have fallen on hard times the past two seasons after winning a share of the Big Ten title in 2001. How many coaches could have held on to their jobs under similar circumstances?
There is some good news. At the end of last season, fifth-year QB Jon Beutjer was on the bench with a back injury. The NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility, and Beutjer was in good form this spring. He was very strong in the spring game, completing 17 of 29 passes for 396 yards and three touchdowns. That performance had to make Turner feel good, but he had to take it with a grain of salt. After all, it came against an Illinois defense that was simply putrid last year.
In order to survive, Turner needed to bring in a new defensive coordinator, Mike Mallory. Illinois players simply never understood Mike Cassity's system. The new defensive coordinator is preaching an aggressive 4-3 system — one that is straightforward and easy to understand. However, the Illini have to find a way to play it well — not just understand it.
LB Matt Sinclair is the best of the returning defensive players. He had 129 tackles last year and he was solid in his ability to bring down opposing ball carriers.
Can Illinois turn it around? With the return of Beutjer and the new defensive coordinator, the mood, at least, is positive.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Ranked second in the Big Ten at QB by Athlon; RB E.B. Halsey selected second-team all-purpose Big Ten by Lindy's.
KEY GAMES: The Illini play UCLA on Sept. 11 and Western Michigan on Sept. 18. If they can win either of those games, they likely will go into the Big Ten season with a 2-1 record and, for them, a full head of steam.
THE MINDSET: The mindset of this team is as good as it can be — considering the team's 1-11 record last year. New defensive coordinator Mike Mallory should make this team much more aggressive than it was a year ago, however the talent level is not where it should be. Most observers expect the Illini to be at the bottom of the Big Ten, so the team may be in a position to surprise a few opponents.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: The Jacksonville Jaguars drafted OL Sean Bubin in the fifth round. Bubin gave the Illini size and strength on the offensive line. Head coach Ron Turner knows that senior Bucky Babcock can get the job done at right tackle, but he will have a difficult time matching Bubin's overall performance.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The thing that we stress is we might not be the biggest, we might not be the strongest nor the fastest ... but we take pride in our effort and our attitude. It doesn't matter who we play. It's about us. It's about us playing to the best of our ability, playing fast, playing hard and doing it every play, being consistent." — Defensive coordinator Mike Mallory
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: RB E.B. Halsey — With speed and quickness, the 5-11, 185-pound Halsey has the talent to become one of the best backs in the Big Ten. He ran for 525 yards and also caught 37 passes last year. Look for Halsey, a sophomore, to become an explosive player and the key to Illinois' offensive plans.
QB Jon Beutjer — He was granted a sixth year of eligibility (as a result of the circumstances surrounding his transfer from Iowa to Illinois) and that's a bonus for the Illini. Beutjer has a strong arm and a quick release. He has thrown 31 TD passes the last two seasons.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: LB Matt Sinclair — A very solid tackler — and that's a very rare commodity for the Illini. Sinclair can go sideline-to-sideline to make plays. He led the Illini with 129 tackles and also had four TFLs and four sacks last year.
CB Alan Ball — While he still has a long way to go, Ball had 44 tackles, four passes defensed and a forced fumble in five starts a year ago. Ball is 6-1 and 175 pounds and has excellent speed. Ball needs to step up in coverage in order for the Illini to make significant strides this year.
INJURY IMPACT: QB Jon Beutjer is recovered from the back injury that forced him to miss five games last season. ... RB E.B. Halsey suffered a knee injury last year vs. Michigan, but he is completely recovered and ready for a big season.
Optimism is never the order of the day in Bloomington — at least not as far as the football team is concerned. The Hoosiers are light years away from competing with the upper-echelon Big Ten teams ... but at least this should be the best Hoosier team in head coach Gerry DiNardo's three-year tenure.
Matt LoVecchio is the incumbent at quarterback, but he received a challenge in spring ball.
Backup QB Blake Powers, a redshirt freshman, was outstanding in the spring game. He completed 14 of 26 passes for 265 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He was clearly the outstanding player in the game. LoVecchio completed 8 of 15 passes for 66 yards with two TDs and an interception.
Powers came into spring football as the No. 3 quarterback behind LoVecchio and Graeme McFarland. However, McFarland had kidney problems and was not cleared to play. As a result, Powers had the opportunity to impress his teammates and his coaching staff.
"I think our quarterbacks are just going to continue to push each other and get better," senior tight end Aaron Halterman told the Indianapolis Star. "Matt is going to keep getting better, and Blake is going to keep getting better, and the coaches will make that decision and go with the best guy."
LoVecchio insists he's not worried and is "happy" about Powers' impressive showing, but DiNardo might have a decision to make in the fall.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: DL Jodie Clemons, first-team All-Big Ten by Lindy's.
KEY GAME: The Big Ten opener vs. Michigan State on Sept. 25 could be a huge game. The Hoosiers don't necessarily have to win that game, but they need to stay competitive for 60 minutes and show that they won't roll over in conference play.
THE MINDSET: The Hoosiers have been a lower-level Big Ten team for years, so they have to come into the 2004 season hoping they can win two or three conference games. That's not exactly reaching for the stars. If they can win a couple of non-conference games and an early Big Ten game, the mindset could improve dramatically in a short time.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: WR Glenn Johnson had been a mainstay for years with the Hoosiers. He caught 36 passes for 436 yards and two touchdowns last year and he will be missed. Courtney Roby returns and can clearly get the job done (45-504-0), but how will he do without his partner?
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Matt's our starter. Matt's a great player. Matt has taught me more than anybody. The team is going to rally behind him and so am I." — Backup QB Blake Powers, deflecting the suggestion that he has a chance to take Matt LoVecchio's starting job.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis — His name may seem more suitable for the New York Times social pages, but this sophomore has a chance to be outstanding. He ran for 938 yards and seven touchdowns and has the power to run inside.
WR Courtney Roby — He has been solid and steady as he enters his senior season. He has 1,714 career receiving yards and will become the school's all-time leading receiver if he can catch 647 more yards. Roby has made several acrobatic, highlight-film type catches over the years and has the guts to go over the middle.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: S Joe Gonzalez — He is very active and aware and one of the hardest hitters on the team. Gonzalez finished sixth in tackles last year with 44 stops (in just nine games). He was an honorable mention All-Big Ten player.
S Herana-Daze Jones — Switched from linebacker to safety last year and grew into the position. He has fine range and excellent instincts. Jones finished the season with 96 tackles, two interceptions and four forced fumbles. Jones also won honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.
INJURY IMPACT: QB Graeme McFarland could not participate in spring drills because of a kidney ailment. He'll need to be cleared by the team's medical staff before he is allowed to play this fall. ... RB Yamar Washington is fully recovered from the knee injury that forced him to miss the 2003 season.
It's probably wise to not underestimate the Hawkeyes this year.
Going into the 2003 season, the Hawkeyes got no respect in the Big Ten. Even though they had ripped through the conference the year before and had earned a spot in a BCS bowl, Big Ten media members thought last year's team would be no better than middle of the pack.
The joke was on them as Iowa went 10-3 and closed the season with a Outback Bowl win over Florida. Head coach Kirk Ferentz may be on the verge of having a juggernaut at his disposal — but the Hawkeyes still might not get much respect from the press.
The Hawkeyes will have a new starting quarterback for the fifth straight year. Brad Banks and Nathan Chandler were the starting quarterbacks the past two years and both exceeded expectations. Drew Tate is the likely quarterback this year. He is the only quarterback on the roster with any game experience.
Fred Russell was a dynamic runner for Iowa the past two years, but Jermelle Lewis has been waiting patiently for his chance and should be very explosive. Lewis has tremendous speed, and has gained 950 yards as Russell's backup in the past two seasons.
WRs Ed Hinkel and Calvin Davis take over for Mo Brown and Ramon Ochoa as the starters. Hinkel has excellent hands and will make the tough catches on third down, while Davis has a chance to a lot of damage as well. Davis caught 23 passes for 330 yards last year. Both have quite a bit of talent even though the receivers showed the tendency to drop the ball in spring practice.
The defense should be in a position to dominate once again. LBs Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge bring plenty of speed and nastiness to the table, while DT Jonathan Babineaux also plays with a nasty edge.
During spring practice, the Hawkeyes showed more speed than they have in recent memory. They will be a difficult team to beat once again and Ferentz is likely to be among the most honored coaches in the nation at the end of the season.
The Hawkeyes have a couple of holes to fill on their schedule in 2005 and 2006 after Missouri pulled out of its contract with the Hawkeyes. Missouri will compensate Iowa for the move, but athletic director Bob Bowlsby is now scrambling to find non-conference opponents.
Iowa and Missouri signed a contract to play four games in four years, starting Sept. 8, 2005, in Iowa City. The games scheduled for 2007 and 2008 are still on the schedule.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Ranked 18th by Lindy's; 11th by Street & Smith's; 17th by Athlon. DL Matt Roth, All-America 2nd team, Lindy's, 1st team, Street & Smith's, 2nd team, Athlon. LB Abdul Hodge, 3rd team Street & Smith's. LB unit ranked first nationally by Lindy's.
KEY GAME: The Hawkeyes have beaten Michigan each of the past two seasons and they go to Michigan Stadium for the Big Ten opener Sept. 25. That's a tough assignment, but one Iowa won't back down from. The game — even as early as it is — could go a long way toward sorting out the league race.
THE MINDSET: The Hawkeyes should be ready to roll once again. Head coach Kirk Ferentz does not have to take a backseat to anyone in the Big Ten and he clearly excels at game-planning and preparing his players. They know how to respond after a tough game and can also exploit an opponent's weakness. This team has more than enough talent to remain a factor in the Big Ten race.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: RB Fred Russell was an All-Big Ten selection for the second straight year in 2003. He ran for 1,355 rushing yards and seven touchdowns last year, and hands over the rushing chores to speedy Jermelle Lewis. There's little doubt that Lewis has the physical talent to get the job done, but can he show the same toughness and intensity as Russell on a weekly basis?
There are other big shoes to fill on offense, namely those of LT Robert Gallery, the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft. Junior Lee Gray appears first up as the replacement.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's been a real underwhelming spring performance-wise at that position, and a lot of it is that we're not taking care of the ball the way we need to." — Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz on the play of the team's wide receivers in spring practice. Ferentz was particularly upset by dropped passes.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: RB Jermelle Lewis — He has the speed to become a big-play performer for the Hawkeyes. Lewis has had enough experience in the last two years behind Fred Russell to know exactly what it takes to succeed. He has the ability to become a dominant performer.
RT Pete McMahon — After starting 11 games last year at right guard, McMahon moves to right tackle. He has a powerful hand punch and should be a leader on this excellent unit.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: LB Abdul Hodge — He led the Hawkeyes last year with 141 tackles and was an All-Big Ten performer. He had nine tackles for loss and brings a ton of speed, athleticism and nastiness to the table.
LB Chad Greenway — Possibly even more athletic than Hodge. Either or both could be All-Americans this season. He has a very quick first step and also has the toughness to make the big hit. He had 132 tackles a year ago and 11 TFLs.
DE Matt Roth — Another candidate for All-America honors, Roth is coming off a junior season in which he had 12 sacks and four forced fumbles.
INJURY IMPACT: The Hawkeyes appear to be healthy as they prepare for the start of summer camp.
Chris Perry. Gone. John Navarre. Gone. Jeremy LeSueur. Gone. Tony Pape. Gone.
All of the above — and others, too — were staples of the Michigan team that won the Big Ten last season.
Such is life at Michigan. Last year's stars are this year's NFL rookies. There is no crying at Michigan. Lloyd Carr just calls in the troops and reloads.
This year the biggest question is at quarterback. Navarre ran the show each of the last three years and the Wolverines have to find a new leader. During spring practice Matt Gutierrez and Clayton Richard battled for the No. 1 job. Gutierrez stayed a step ahead.
"I think both of them competed extremely well," said Carr.
"I think they both have made significant improvement. I think the last week, Clayton Richard really made some strides. So, I think there's some wonderful competition there and I think that bodes well for us and them."
No final decision has been made at quarterback, but whoever wins the job — still likely Gutierrez — will be working with the nation's best group of receivers.
WR Braylon Edwards is a big, strong athletic player who starts the season No. 1 on the pro scouts' list at receiver. He caught 85 passes for 1,138 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. Jason Avant and Steve Breaston are gifted receivers as well.
Perry did a sensational job last year with 1,674 yards and 18 TDs. David Underwood is the heir apparent for the job. Underwood is a solid back, who, at 6-0 and 227 pounds, averaged 5.2 yards per carry on 52 carries last year. He has been a backup for the last three years.
Michigan returns six starters on defense, including Marlin Jackson, who is moving back from safety to cornerback, where he is expected to compete for All-America honors. Safety Ernest Shazor is big hitter with super size. LBs Lawrence Reid and LB Pierre Woods are all-conference timber, as is CB Markus Curry.
This unit will be physical and nasty. Carr was particularly impressed with Shazor during the spring.
"The thing I've seen with Ernest Shazor is that he has tremendous confidence right now because he knows what he's doing," Carr said. "He had a wonderful year and he had an outstanding spring. He's a big, physical guy who will hit you. When he hits you, you better hang on to the football."
As long as the quarterbacks don't fall on their faces, Michigan should be as good as ever and in line for another Big Ten title.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: The Wolverines are ranked fifth by Lindy's; eighth by Street & Smith's; seventh by Athlon. WR Braylon Edwards and OG David Baas are first-team All-Americans by Lindy's and Athlon. Michigan's wide receivers are ranked first by Lindy's, which also rates the UM offensive line sixth, its linebackers fifth and its defensive backs fourth.
KEY GAME: The big game for Michigan is always the last game of the season against Ohio State. However, if the Wolverines want that game to mean something other than bragging rights, they might need find a way to beat Iowa in the Big Ten opener. The Wolverines have lost two straight to Iowa and should be ready with their "A" game.
THE MINDSET: The Wolverines no longer have QB John Navarre or RB Chris Perry. They have talented players ready to fill in, but a dropoff seems likely. Michigan needs to work out whatever kinks it has in the first three games against Miami (Ohio), Notre Dame and San Diego State. If that happens, Michigan will have the usual swagger.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: QB John Navarre was a solid performer who had a 24-10 TD-interception ratio last year and threw for 3,331 yards. Matt Gutierrez or Clayton Richard will have to be careful with the ball and not make big mistakes if Michigan is going to be a Big Ten powerhouse once again.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "When you get to the end of a season, you're working 16-18 hours a day. You're worn down and tired. It's a long season and it's a long season for the players too. So, I think the only thing I can say is that I have the greatest job in this country. It's not a job for me; it's something I love to do. I love the competition; I love everything I have to do with this job. I don't have any plans at all, I've got five years left on my contract and I have every intention that I'll finish that." — Head coach Lloyd Carr on his intention to stay on at Michigan.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: WR Braylon Edwards — He is a very talented receiver who has the toughness and intensity to make big plays in clutch situations. After catching 85 passes for 1,118 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, he should be one of the outstanding players in college football.
WR-PR Steve Breaston — Displayed breakaway speed as a punt returner and as a receiver last year. One of the fastest players in the Big Ten. A true home run hitter who returned two punts for scores last year.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: S Ernest Shazor — Smart, tough and hard hitting. Shazor made excellent progress last year and looked even better this spring. Head coach Lloyd Carr will depend on him to make big plays on a regular basis.
LB Lawrence Reid — He led the Wolverines in tackles last year with 82 and also had six tackles for loss and three passes defensed. He understands where the play is going and is always in the right place at the right time.
CB Marlin Jackson — His decision to return for his senior season was a big boost for the Wolverines. He looked right back at home at cornerback in the spring after a year at safety.
INJURY IMPACT: DE Jeremy Van Alstyne injured his knee in spring practice and will miss the 2004 season. Van Alstyne was expected to challenge for a starting spot on the defensive line.
The key to Michigan State's revival last season was the return of QB Jeff Smoker from a drug suspension. One year later, coach John L. Smith must find a replacement for him. That's still a work in progress.
Drew Stanton, a backup for Smoker last year, was poised to step into the role of starter, but he was injured in the bowl loss to Nebraska. Damon Dowdell and Stephen Reaves handled the Spartans' QB chores during spring practice and Smith said he was happy with both.
However, if Stanton can return from his knee injury with full health, then he should have the inside track on the No. 1 QB job.
Smith built a fast, hard-hitting defense a year ago and he was happy with what he saw from that unit this spring.
"I really like the way our defense runs to the football," Smith said. "We don't have to coax those guys any more because they know good things happen when they fly around the ball.
Smith knows that the offense is likely to struggle early in the season and that the defense is going to have to be at its best.
"The defense will have to carry the team over the first half of the season until the offense matures," Smith said. "We must come out of the blocks with a few wins."
FS Jason Harmon should be one of the key defensive players for the Spartans this season; he had a team-high 11 tackles in the spring game. LB Seth Mitchell added four tackles and also had two interceptions.
On the offensive end, Smith was very impressed with the play of the wide receivers.
"I'm pleased with the progress Kyle Brown, Matt Trannon and Jerramy Scott have made this spring," Smith said.
"Kyle needs to step up and assume a leadership role on offense because he does everything the right way, both on and off the field. Matt is a big target that has made strides as a pass catcher. Jerramy simply had a great spring, consistently making big plays."
But clearly the Spartans have much work to do on the offensive end if Year Two of the Smith regime is to be as successful as the first.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: KR DeAndra Cobb, 2nd team All-America by Athlon. P Brandon Fields, 3rd team All-America by Street & Smith's; 3rd team by Athlon.
KEY GAME: The Spartans played perhaps their best game of the year when they defeated Iowa 20-10 last season. Michigan State travels to Iowa City on Oct. 2. It will be a tough test, but a win (after a conference opener at Indiana) could propel MSU to a successful conference season.
THE MINDSET: A year ago this team was in disarray but John L. Smith managed to rebuild and put a fine product on the field. Even though QB Jeff Smoker has moved on to the St. Louis Rams, the Spartans are expected to put a competitive team on the field again. ... Smith is a long way from an average football coach. He takes unusual vacations in an effort to live up to a list of personal challenges he compiled in his youth. This year Smith and his family will attempt a six-day climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro. In the past, he has run with the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, sky dived with an elite crew of Army rangers, and flown in a jet fighter. Smith will turn his full attention to his team when he returns from his vacation July 23. Smith's exploits will undoubtedly have an effect on his outlook and demeanor and therefore rub off on his players.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: QB Jeff Smoker did a fine job last year of giving the Spartans a credible offense. However, he's off to the NFL and Smith must find a suitable replacement. If Drew Stanton can come back from his knee injury, the Spartans could have a very solid passer under center. If not, it will probably be Stephen Reaves next in line ahead of Damon Dowdell.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Seth Mitchell is a different player this year because he's finally healthy. Last year, Seth was a situational player because of his knee injury. We didn't ask him to drop back into pass coverage, so he played almost exclusively in running situations. He adds a great deal of toughness to the lineup." — Head coach John L. Smith on the play of LB Seth Mitchell during the spring.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: TE Eric Knott — He has size, strength and speed. He caught five passes for 62 yards in the spring game and will be a key part of the game plan all season. Knott caught 31 passes for 306 yards and two touchdowns last year.
RB DeAndra Cobb — If the Spartans are going to have any credible offense this season, Cobb and the running game needs to be productive. Michigan State's running game was ordinary last year and Cobb could give it a big lift. Cobb had nine carries for 77 yards and a TD in the spring game.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: LB Seth Mitchell — He played well last year and should take on a major role this year. Mitchell had two interceptions in the spring game. He was the No. 2 tackler on the team last year with 103 stops.
S Jason Harmon — Knows how to dissect opposing offenses with his knowledge and hard hitting play. The Spartans will rely on him for big plays all season. Harmon led the team with 108 tackles last year and also had three interceptions.
INJURY IMPACT: QB Drew Stanton injured his knee in the Alamo Bowl last season. If he can make a full recovery this summer, he should be the starting quarterback for the Spartans this year.
The Wildcats are coming off a surprising season in which they went to the Motor City Bowl and nearly beat a favored Toledo team before falling in the fourth quarter. That success should continue in 2004.
The Wildcats have plenty of power on the offensive line. They return all five starters from last year's team and that means Randy Walker should be able to count on a very strong ground game once again. RT Zach Strief is the anchor of this unit and is a very solid run blocker. LT Trai Essex is nearly as good as Strief and both should be honors candidates this season.
The key to the Wildcats' offensive success is likely to be the ground game. Do-it-all RB Jason Wright has moved on, but Noah Herron has the skills to take advantage of the first-rate blocking he should receive.
Herron ran for 739 yards and averaged 6.2 yards per attempt last season. Herron is big, strong and powerful and excels at running over tacklers. And when he gets into the open field, he can run away from defenders.
Head coach Randy Walker knows his team needs better QB play. That falls on the shoulders of Brett Basanez, who had a 4-12 TD-interception ratio last season.
Walker has gone out of his way to say that Basanez has grown from the experience and will be a much stronger quarterback this year. There's little doubt that Basanez has the toughness, intelligence and desire to get the job done. Questions remain about his ability to put the ball on the money.
One the defensive side, Northwestern has a lot of strength on the defensive line. DT Loren Howard had 68 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and eight sacks last year. Walker expects him to continue on that pace this season.
"Loren is our playmaker and he will make even more big plays this year," Walker said. "We are counting on him."
They are also counting on Colby Clark and Luis Castillo. Clark had 55 tackles last year, while Castillo had 70 stops and 6.5 sacks. If the defensive line can provide the expected pressure and the linebackers and defensive backs can step up, the Wildcats have a shot at returning to a bowl game.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: OL Zach Strief and DL Loren Howard were selected first-team All-Big Ten by Athlon; Strief earned the same honor from Street & Smith's. Howard rated No. 14 nationally by Lindy's at defensive end.
KEY GAME: After a very tough non-conference schedule that includes TCU, Arizona State and Kansas, the Wildcats open the Big Ten season at Minnesota. The Wildcats were hammered by Minnesota last year and Randy Walker needs his team to respond with a solid effort. If the Wildcats get blown out again, it could be a long year in the Big Ten.
THE MINDSET: The Wildcats believe they can go to a bowl game for the second year in a row and for the fifth time in 10 seasons. They have strength on both sides of the line of scrimmage and should be able to hold their own in the trenches. If they can get some decent production from QB Brett Basanez and the lines hold up physically, it should be a fine year for Northwestern
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Jason Wright had an amazing 3,884 all-purpose yards in two years at Northwestern, and Noah Herron will have to step up to come close to matching what Wright accomplished. Herron did a solid job as Wright's backup last season, running for 739 yards and five TDs.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The best thing about Brett Basanez is the way he responds to pressure. He has taken full leadership and responsibility and has done everything he needed to do in the offseason." — Head coach Randy Walker on the preparation of Basanez as he gets ready for his junior season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: OT Zach Strief — Big, strong and powerful, Strief is the best blocker on a solid offensive line. When the Wildcats need key yards on the ground this season, they will run behind their powerful right tackle more often than not.
RB Noah Herron — He will try to fill in for the super-productive Jason Wright, and it will not be easy. Herron ran for 739 yards and five touchdowns a year ago and got better as the season went along. Look for him to run for at least 1,000 yards in 2004.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: DE Loren Howard — Very solid against the run or rushing the passer. Howard has the athletic ability to chase down plays from the backside and cause havoc in all aspects of the game. Ideal size at 6-4 and 280 pounds.
CB Marvin Ward — A big hitter with excellent coverage skills. He had 84 tackles last year and has had 188 in his first three years. Ward intercepted four passes last year, including one that he took 69 yards for a touchdown against Illinois.
INJURY IMPACT: FS Herschel Henderson returns after missing the 2003 season with a knee injury.
Oho State had a record 14 players selected in a seven-round NFL draft, so, clearly, the Buckeyes will have a different look on the field this season. They also have some issues off the field.
The latest incident in the Jim Tressel era was the arrest of sophomores Louis Irizarry and Ira Guliford on robbery charges. Those second-degree felonies were met with immediate suspensions from the team. Both players pleaded not guilty June 7, the same day Irizarry was charged with trespassing after he was pulled over by campus police. He was not allowed on campus unless he had received special permission from the university.
Irizarry had been on probation for assaulting three Ohio State students last October.
Since Tressel was hired on Jan. 18, 2001, 14 Ohio State players have been arrested in 15 incidents. Critics are starting to question the direction of the program, but Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger defends his coach by saying that football players are merely a part of the university community.
"I don't know how to have players integrated into the life of the university and not integrate them into the life of the university," Geiger told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
"Some college students drink. I don't know what you want me to do about that. To compare an open container violation to an assault and say they are the same thing is ridiculous."
However, Ohio State president Dr. Karen Holbrook said the university would not tolerate violent behavior, and former Ohio State star Chris Spielman said the repeat incidents need to treated more decisively.
"I understand that mistakes are made," Spielman said. "Second chances are given. However, if nothing is learned from the second chances and the mistakes of others, the discipline needs to be stronger."
While Ohio State is dealing with its image problem, Tressel is trying to put another elite team on the field. He needs to find a solid quarterback to replace Craig Krenzel, and it looks as if Justin Zwick will get the call.
Zwick completed 16 of 26 for 165 yards in the spring game and has an edge over sophomore Troy Smith. Zwick has a strong arm and a quick release, but without Maurice Clarett, the Buckeyes still need to find a running game.
Clarett continues to fight to get into the NFL. Despite a ruling against him by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Clarett's attorney, Allan C. Milstein, said he would continue his legal battle to get his client an opportunity to play in the NFL.
Clarett was suspended during the 2003 season by Ohio State. After he was initially successful in his attempt to challenge the NFL's rule that a player needed to be out of high school for three years before he was eligible for the league's draft, subsequent court rulings have gone against him.
Meanwhile, the OSU program is a money machine. The Ohio State athletic department has the largest budget of any school in the country — $83.6 million — and it operated at a profit last year. Much of the profit comes from the football team that averaged 105,000 fans per game and brought in a profit of $22.6 million. According to a USA Today survey, Ohio State is one of 40 Division I institutions that operates without assistance from the rest of the university.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Ranked ninth by Lindy's; 12th by Street & Smith's; 10th by Athlon. PK Mike Nugent, 2nd team All-American by Lindy's; 3rd team by Street & Smith's. LB A.J. Hawk, 1st team All-American by Lindy's and Street & Smith's. Linebacker unit ranked second nationally by Lindy's, fifth by Athlon.
KEY GAME: The Buckeyes will always point to Michigan in the last game of the regular season. However, road games against Iowa and Purdue will show whether the Buckeyes have a dominant team or just a solid one. Head coach Jim Tressel has a 2-1 record against Michigan and needs to make sure the pendulum doesn't swing too far back to the Big Blue side.
THE MINDSET: Ohio State was still very good last season, but lost some of the buzz around its program because the offense was dreadful for a large part of the year. There have been myriad off-field issues and now there are a lot of key starters to replace, but, more than any team in the country, the Buckeyes excel in the close games and likely still will be tough to knock out.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: The NFL drafted a record 14 Ohio State players in April and that means young players will have to step up. The most important may be QB Justin Zwick, who has to do the job in place of Craig Krenzel. Zwick is a physically gifted player who probably will throw the ball better than Krenzel, but he needs to demonstrate similar consistency and leadership ability.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I was pleased with our quarterbacks. If the season started today, Justin (Zwick) would probably start and (backup) Troy (Smith) would also play." — Jim Tressel's comment on his quarterbacks following the completion of spring football.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: RB Lydell Ross — No, he doesn't compare with the long-departed Maurice Clarett, but Ross was productive in the second half of the 2003 season. He gained 826 yards on 193 carries and scored 10 TDs. He should be able to exceed the 1,000-yard mark in 2004.
WR Santonio Holmes — On a team that has seen its share of great receivers over the years, Holmes does not have to take a back seat to any of them. He has game-breaking speed and caught 32 passes for 549 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Look for huge numbers this year.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: LB A.J. Hawk — He led the Buckeyes in tackles last year with 106 — including 13 tackles for loss and four sacks. He is extremely hard hitting and very aware. Hawk had 10 tackles and won the defensive MVP award in the Fiesta Bowl win over Kansas State.
CB Dustin Fox — Should be starting for the third straight year. He had 77 tackles and three interceptions a year ago.
LB Anthony Schlegel — The transfer from Air Force was impressive in the spring and claimed a starting spot in the middle.
INJURY IMPACT: TE Louis Irizarry and DB Ira Guliford have been suspended from the team as a result of robbery charges.
Joe Paterno is eager to get things moving in the right direction after last year's painfully disappointing 3-9 record. But he won't have to complete the turnaround all in one year.
The 77-year-old legend was set to enter the 2004 season in the last year of his contract, but Penn State extended his contract four more seasons, through 2008.
Penn State has had losing seasons in three of the last four years and went 1-7 in Big Ten competition last year. Paterno believes his team is not that far away from turning the situation around.
"I appreciate this extension and show of confidence in me and our football program," Paterno said in a statement. "I still enjoy coaching and I'm excited about the upcoming season and the incoming recruiting class."
Athletic director Tim Curley said Paterno's past success overwhelmed his recent difficulties.
"We certainly looked overall and very much felt that we wanted him to continue," Curley said. "We're really excited about the current squad members and the incoming group that we've got coming in. We don't think we're that far away."
Much might depend on quarterback Zack Mills can bounce back with a solid senior year.
Mills was one of the sharpest quarterbacks in the country as a sophomore in 2002. While Larry Johnson was the featured performer of that offense, Mills used his athleticism to buy time and made all the throws that were required. He appeared to lose some of his effectiveness late in that season and was inconsistent last year, but Paterno thinks Mills can regain his form.
The other option is athletic Michael Robinson, who started a few games for an injured Mills last season, and also saw starts at tailback. He likely will be in a backup quarterback/wide receiver role this season.
He needs to be somewhere, because he is one of the few proven playmakers on offense. Penn State had very little punch last year in averaging 19.4 ppg.
Austin Scott could be an answer at running back. Scott has good size (6-0 and 214 pounds) and has the ability to set up his blocks before accelerating into the secondary. Scott was slowed by mononucleosis last year but looked solid when he was in the lineup with 436 yards and five touchdowns.
Paterno hired former Florida head coach Galen Hall to give his offense a boost. Paterno has tried to defend former offensive coordinator Fran Ganter — who has moved to the administrative end of things — but Hall's presence likely will make for a more aggressive approach.
"Galen has a tremendous background," Paterno said.
"He has been around winners. People do not realize he was the head coach at Florida the first time that Florida ever won the Southeastern Conference championship. He was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma when Oklahoma had two national championships. He has a tremendous football mind."
Paterno was embarrassed by his team's play last year and blamed himself for the team's performance. "I did not do as good a job as I wanted to do last year," Paterno said. "I hope I am going to do a better job."
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Defensive backs ranked 10th nationally by Lindy's; Alan Zemaitis ranked No. 20 nationally at cornerback by Lindy's.
KEY GAME: The Nittany Lions open the Big Ten season at Wisconsin. The Badgers have plenty of talent, but don't always play with a lot of consistency and haven't played especially well at home in recent seasons. It has the makings of an upset special for a Penn State team that might be underrated this season.
THE MINDSET: Among the things that Joe Paterno did not like last year was the team's lack of toughness. He ran a more demanding spring practice this year than he did in 2003, so look for the team to develop a nastier attitude this season. It all begins with the offensive line and Paterno thinks his unit can dole out some punishment.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Gino Capone was the Nittany Lions' leading tackler last year with 100 stops. He was able to run sideline to sideline and was a major force for the defense. He has moved on and his spot will likely be taken by fifth-year senior Andy Ryland, who had 25 tackles a year ago. He'll have to go a long way to make up for Capone's absence.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Austin Scott is going to be a good football player. I don't think there is any question that he has a lot of ability. He has to be more consistent." — Joe Paterno on what his running back has to do to get better.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: PK Robbie Gould — It probably speaks volumes that the place-kicker is one of the top offensive players for the Nittany Lions. Gould was 9 of 16 on his FG attempts last year, but he was much sharper in 2002 when he made 17 of 22 field goals.
QB/WR Michael Robinson — While he is not likely to be in the starting lineup, Robinson has a chance to make a major contribution once again from his "slash" role. Robinson has speed, quickness, agility and arm strength. He has the ability to change the pace of a game when he goes on to the field.
Projected freshman DB Adam DiMichelle informed Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley that he would not enroll at Penn State because he was pursuing a college career as a baseball player. "I always thought in the back of my mind that baseball was my first love," he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I know it's hard to pass up a scholarship to Penn State because Penn State is top-notch. I respect their coaching staff and I respect everything Coach Bradley did for me.
"He's the greatest guy, and this is hard to do. I feel bad. I don't know what kind of person wouldn't feel bad. But I have to do what's best for myself."
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: CB Alan Zemaitis — He was a second-team All-Big Ten defensive back last season. Zemaitis is a sure tackler and can handle one-on-one coverage responsibilities. He had four interceptions last year, including a 90-yard return against Purdue. He leads a secondary that is the strength of the defense.
INJURY IMPACT: RB Austin Scott was slowed by mononucleosis last year but is 100 percent recovered and should be ready for a big season. ... Zack Mills was slowed by a knee injury last year but he should be fine this season. ... Penn State WR Maurice Humphrey was sentenced to three to 12 months in prison for assaulting his girlfriend and her friend. Team officials said Humphrey will miss the 2004 season and won't be allowed to return until 2005, at the earliest.
Going into his eighth season at Purdue, Joe Tiller has clearly established the Boilermakers as one of the strongest programs in the conference.
When he came to West Lafayette from Wyoming in 1997, Tiller had the reputation of an offensive innovator who was happier winning a game by a 42-39 score than he was 17-14. The Boilermakers loved to throw the ball all over the lot and light up the scoreboard.
As the years rolled by and Tiller picked up the recruiting level on both sides of the ball, defense became emphasized more each season. By the 2003 season, opponents feared the Boilermakers more on the defensive side of the ball than they did on the offense.
As the Boilermakers improved on defense, Tiller widely played to his strengths, becoming more conservative on offense, abandoning the "basketball on grass" approach. With a defense that could win a game on its own, the Boilermaker brain trust did not want to make life more difficult for that unit to get it done.
That was the 2003 season.
Don't expect the same kind of approach in 2004.
With an offense that includes returning QB Kyle Orton, RB Jerod Void, WRs Taylor Stubblefield, Ray Williams and Kyle Ingraham, look for the Boilermakers to let it fly on offense.
Orton, a senior, is the only returning starting quarterback among the teams in the top half of the league. He has size, arm strength and an accurate delivery. While he is not overly athletic, he knows how to dance out of trouble and buy time with his feet.
Void got the starting RB job last August when Joey Harris could not meet academic requirements. Void has speed, quickness and the ability to accelerate into the open. Stubblefield is extremely dependable and has outstanding hands. He was a second-team All-Big Ten player last year when he had 86 catches for 835 yards and three TDs.
On the other hand, the defense lost DE Shaun Phillips, DT Craig Terrill and LBs Niko Koutouvides and Landon Johnson, among others. While there is still plenty of athleticism, the offense must carry the team through the first half of the season while the defense gains experience.
Should be fun to watch.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Ranked 24th by Lindy's; 23rd by Street & Smith's. WR Taylor Stubblefield, 3rd team All-America by Street & Smith's. Receiving corps ranked as fifth-best in the nation by Lindy's.
KEY GAME: The Boilermakers were on track to win the Big Ten title when they went into Michigan on Oct. 25. Purdue was spanked, 31-3. This year, the game is at Ross-Ade Stadium on Oct. 23, and the Boilers aren't likely to be held in check the same way again.
THE MINDSET: Some Big Ten teams have risen to the top of the league, only to fall back down. Not so with Purdue. The Boilers seem to be at such a level where they expect to contend for the title each year. Joe Tiller has shown the ability to adapt his game plans to his personnel, another reason for the team's continued success.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Niko Koutouvides had 296 tackles throughout his career and now the Boilers will have to get along without him. Sophomore George Hall is expected to fill in; he had nine tackles a year ago.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It was a great game today because we got through it without anyone being injured." — Head coach Joe Tiller on Purdue's spring football game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: QB Kyle Orton — He has the size and strength to shake off a hit in the pocket and then deliver the ball on the money. Orton threw for 2,885 yards and 15 TDs last year. He should have at least 25 TD passes this year as Purdue renews its passing emphasis.
RB Jerod Void — A solid running back who takes advantage of a strong offensive line. He waits for his blocks to develop before he accelerates into the open. Void ran for 952 yards and 13 TDs last year.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: DT Brent Grover — Big, strong and athletic, Grover knows how to do a good job against the run. He also can penetrate and cause havoc in the backfield. He had five sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss in 2003.
CB Antwaun Rogers — He will be a leader in the secondary. Rogers had 61 tackles a year ago and has had 21 passes defensed in the past two seasons. Rogers can handle one-on-one coverage and should be one of the best at his position in the Big Ten.
INJURY IMPACT: Joe Tiller reports the Boilermakers are healthy entering the summer.
After winning back-to-back Rose Bowls following the 1998 and 1999 seasons, the Badgers have gone 8-4, 5-7, 7-6 and 7-6 in the past four seasons. Barry Alvarez has seen his team go from one of the elite teams in the nation to a team that is just four games over .500 in the last four seasons.
The quality of play has varied from game-to-game, from quarter-to-quarter. During the halcyon days of the late 1990s, that was never the case. Whether the Badgers played well or not, they always came at full force and were ready to trade punches. That has not always been true in recent seasons.
One of the themes that the Badgers tried to re-establish this spring was a physical presence. The proof will come in the fall, but there is ability to match the willpower as every starter on both lines returns.
One of the other big jobs is finding the right quarterback now that Jim Sorgi has completed eligibility. John Stocco completed 12 of 18 passes in the spring game for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Alvarez was impressed.
"He threw the ball very well," said Alvarez. "He had some tough throws, a nice rhythm and put the ball where it had to be. He had good command of what was going on."
Stocco won the job in the spring over Matt Schabert, who announced in late June he was transferring to I-AA Eastern Illinois, where he would be immediately eligible. Schabert would have been a fifth-year senior this season. He is best remembered for throwing a 79-yard TD pass to Lee Evans against Ohio State that gave the Badgers a 17-10 win and broke Ohio State's 19-game winning streak.
A veteran line should help Stocco, as well as provide Anthony Davis the chance to have a huge year. Few backs in the country have more talent than Davis, who was slowed by injuries last year. He is eager to show the nation (and NFL scouts) what he is capable of doing. Davis has speed, quickness and surprising power for a back of his stature.
Backup Booker Stanley did well last year, but Alvarez is hoping that the running game will be the Anthony Davis Show.
On the defensive end, the Badgers have talent at nearly every position but little depth. Look for FS Jim Leonhard and DT Anttaj Hawthorne to be the main men. Leonhard is the captain of the secondary, while Hawthorne can stuff the run and play havoc with his ability to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
PRESEASON PREDICTIONS: Ranked 11th by Lindy's; 20th by Street & Smith's; 21st by Athlon. RB Anthony Davis, 2nd team All-America by Lindy's and Street & Smith's. DL Anttaj Hawthorne, 1st team All-America by Lindy's; 2nd team by Street & Smith's; 3rd team by Athlon; DB Jim Leonhard, 1st team All-America by Lindy's; 2nd team by Street & Smith's and Athlon. Offensive line ranked eighth nationally by Lindy's. Defensive line ranked ninth by Lindy's.
KEY GAME: After ending Ohio State's long winning streak last season, the Badgers better be ready for payback at Ohio Stadium on Oct. 9. Wisconsin follows with a game at Purdue, so this will be a critical stretch for the title-hopeful Badgers.
THE MINDSET: This is a team that is happiest when it is playing a smashmouth style of football. The offensive line is content with that style and so is RB Anthony Davis. If the Badgers come out with a running mentality and dominate the game with their downhill blocking, that will allow QB John Stocco to go over the top when the defense is prepared for the run. Stocco knows a few things about hitting big-time receivers; he was Larry Fitzgerald's quarterback in high school.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: WR Lee Evans was a gamebreaker. Not only did he have 4.4-type speed, he ran like a running back when he was in the open field. WR Brandon Williams is talented in his own right, but to step in for Evans will not be easy. Williams lacks the upper-body strength to cause the downfield havoc that Evans did.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He had some tough throws, a nice rhythm and put the ball where it had to be. He had good command of what was going on." — Head coach Barry Alvarez on QB John Stocco, who will be the No. 1 quarterback this season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARS: RB Anthony Davis — Injured much of last season, Davis should be very motivated this year. Davis has the skills to dominate, and knows how to wait for his blocks to develop before exploding.
C Donovan Raiola — The anchor of the offensive line. Raiola is a very aggressive run blocker and also can hold his ground against pass rushes and stunts up the middle.
PROJECTED DEFENSIVE STARS: DB Jim Leonhard — A very smart defensive back and a very effective punt returner. Leonhard has always known how to read a quarterback's eyes .... and that's why he is an interception machine.
DT Anttaj Hawthorne — He is a tough guy against the run who can also get penetration. Look for Hawthorne to challenge for All-America honors.
INJURY IMPACT: No. 2 RB Dewayne Smith is scheduled to begin his sexual assault trial Sept. 1, three days before the Badgers' Sept. 4 opener vs. Central Michigan. Smith pleaded not guilty in May to second-degree sexual assault as a result of an incident in February. ... DEs Erasmus James (hip) and Darius Jones (knee) missed spring football but should be healthy in the fall. ... Projected starting linebackers Mark Zalewski (hand) and Elliot Goode (knee) missed much of the spring practice. ... S Brett Bell aggravated the shoulder injury he had that kept him out all last year. ... WRs Brandon Williams and Darrin Charles sat out spring practice with undisclosed injuries.
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