Of course the big news in Evanston, Illinois was not so much the opening training camp but rather the stunning death of Northwestern head coach Randy Walker. Walker had been groomng new coach Pat Fitzgerald as his eventual replacement, so it didn't surprise anyone that Fitzgerald was tabbed to take over the reigns.
The fact that the Wildcats have a senior-laden team may help them in coping while they enter the season under such difficult circumstances. Fitzgerald will rely heavily on sophomore running back Tyrell Sutton to lead the offense. Freshman Mike Kafka won the starting quarterback job and the hope is that he will be able to limit mistakes while putting up enough numbers to keep opposing defenses from stacking the box with eight or nine players to stop Sutton. No one could blame Northwestern if they struggle this season after being forced to enter it under such a dark cloud.
Glen Mason enters 2006 at Minnesota hoping to find a suitable replacement for departed running back Laurence Maroney. Heading into training camp Amir Pinnix was viewed as the leading candidate, but his lackluster performance through camp has opened the job up to converted linebacker Alex Daniels; especially after other potential contributors Brylee Callander and Jay Thomas were suspended form the team. Quarterback Bryan Cupito is solid but seems to get somewhat lost in the shuffle among the Big 10's quarterbacks. Mason hopes his defense is strong enough to handle a week two match up with highly regarded Cal, especially if his vaunted running game struggles to find a bell cow back.
Lloyd Carr hopes to rebound from a very un-Michigan like 2005. Well publicized coaching staff shake ups preceded training camp. Questions about the offensive line weren't answered definitively. The announcement this week that offensive tackle Mike Kolodziej will give up football for medical reasons was an unwelcome blow to an already shaky unit. That means that Ruben Riley will open the season as the starter at right tackle. Riley has good athleticism but whether he can handle a full time starting job will remain to be seen.
On a positive note, running back Michael Hart is healthy and looks to bounce back from his injury plagued season last year and perform more like he did as a true freshman phenom in 2004. Back up Kevin Grady has slimmed down and should provide excellent depth. Quarterback Chad Henne had a solid but unspectacular camp, and for some reason seems to be more maligned than he should be as a three-year starter who has performed as well as he has in the past.
Iowa has become a trendy pick to challenge for a national championship in 2006. The more people look at this team the more they see what a solid group it is. It helps to have quarterback Drew Tate and running back Albert Young returning. The defense looks especially strong. Tackle Mitch King could garner a lot of national recognition by the end of the season. Linebacker Mike Humpal stepped into the vacancy caused by Chad Greenway's graduation and had a standout training camp. The schedule won't challenge Iowa until week three when they have their annual showdown with intrastate rival Iowa State. This team will follow all Kirk Frerentz coached Iowa teams as tough, hard-nosed and over achieving. It's just that this year they have hopes of over achieving themselves into a national title.
The best news that Indiana coach Terry Hoeppner could get was that standout wide receiver James Hardy won't face any jail time for a summertime domestic violence charge. Now he needs to get major question marks on his defense and offensive line answered and a turnaround may actually be underway. The offensive line will rely heavily on contributions of some talented true freshmen, but talent may not be enough for them to overcome inexperience and a lack of strength. But Hoeppner may have to roll the dice and hope they can. There may not be enough help on campus to improve the defense, which ranked 93rd in the nation last year. A positive is that the schedule could allow Indiana to be undefeated after four games when Wisconsin comes calling, with another victory to possibly follow against Illinois.
Of all the highly-touted quarterbacks in the Big 10 Conference, Michigan State's Drew Stanton is the best. And it may not even be close for second. Head coach John L. Smith needs Stanton to be that good and more in 2006. Questions abound on defense and in the kicking game, where freshman Bret Swenson won the job in camp. Swenson will hope to improve on the Spartan's pitiful 31 percent success rate on field goals last year. It would surprise no one if running back Javon Ringer plays a bigger role on offense this year, despite quality depth at the position. Ringer and 6-foot-6 wide receiver Matt Trannon will be Stanton's main cohorts on what could be a very explosive offensive unit.
Defensively Michigan State needs major improvements. Keeping linebacker Kaleb Thornhill healthy would go a long way in helping. The Spartans could easily be undefeated when Notre Dame arrives on campus looking for some revenge from last year's stunning loss. A loss, mind you, that left Michigan State players planting the MSU flag at mid-field in Notre Dame Stadium with their coach's blessing. That coach now finds himself on a very hot seat, needing a bowl invite and maybe more just to ensure he has a job next year at this time.
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