Big Ten Coaches Ready For 2007 Season

The 2007 Big Ten media days are chock full of information for all die-hard Big Ten fans. The conference, much-maligned a year ago, figures to be improved in this go-round. Included are quick glances at the 10 conference teams with which the Buckeyes will be competing and some comments from their coaches in order of their appearance on the podium.

Illinois The ever-excited Ron Zook, now entering his third year as the head coach, said he put the boat away Sunday and is now ready for some progress in Champaign after two straight two-win seasons. How much progress is made will depend heavily on the play of sophomore quarterback Isiah "Juice" Williams, who has to improve on his 39.5 percent completion percentage of 2006.

"There's no reason for us to believe he's not going to be able to do the things that we saw him do when we recruited him," Zook said of the Chicago native. "The attitude has just been super. He texted me with something Sunday that just kind of blew me away. You can tell that he's thinking about the game."

Zook declined to go into what the message said but was heavily optimistic about Williams, who should be helped out by a running game that led the Big Ten in yards per game. Rashard Mendenhall, a tailback, is 100 percent after offseason injury troubles.

Zook was also pleased with the progress of his heralded freshman class that includes a number of highly rated defensive line prospects in Josh Brent and Martez Wilson and touted wideout Arrelious Benn.

"I said in the recruiting process last year that if they can be as good of people as the last class, the sophomores, then we're going to be cooking with gas," Zook said.

Northwestern Under former coach Randy Walker, Northwestern was often known for a gimmicky, exciting offense that enabled the Wildcats to put plenty of points on the board. That fingerprint was not present in 2006 in Pat Fitzgerald's first year, as the ‘Cats were last in total offense, 10th in passing offense and eighth in rushing offense.

They hope to change that, and a key to a reversal will be the play of tailback Tyrell Sutton, an Akron Hoban grad who totaled just 1,261 yards and seven touchdowns last year a year after a standout freshman year that saw him top 1,800 total yards and score 18 times.

"It's obvious on offense that the key for our offense to be successful will be Tyrell Sutton," Fitzgerald said. "He's healthy and he really matured in the offseason."

C.J. Bachér returns as the quarterback and put on 10 pounds of bulk in the offseason, while Fitzgerald said he was excited about a trio of redshirt freshman wideouts in Sidney Stewart, Carl Fisher and Lee Coleman and freshman receiver Charles Brown.

Wisconsin The biggest question for the Badgers coming off a surprising 12-1 season in the first year under Bret Bielema is the quarterback position. Veteran John Stocco graduated, leaving fifth-year senior Tyler Donovan and junior Kansas State transfer Allan Evridge as the two players battling for the signal caller spot.

"It's very hard for me as a head coach for me not to envision (Donovan) as the guy," Bielema said. "He has a lot of advantages over Allan."

The Badgers also return the conference's leader rusher in sophomore P.J. Hill, who popped for 1,569 yards and 15 touchdowns in his redshirt freshman year.

"I think P.J. and I both screwed up," Bielema said. "Everybody tells us we did too good our first year. You set yourself up for high expectations."

Purdue A number of pundits see Purdue as a possible surprise team in the Big Ten, a role they've held almost annually since 11th-year head coach Joe Tiller arrived in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers return eight starters on offense, including the Big Ten's leading passer in Curtis Painter, its leading receiver in Dorien Bryant and the tailback duo of Kory Sheets and Jaycen Taylor. On the defensive side of the ball, Tiller welcomes back seven starters.

"We have obviously a degree of optimism at Purdue in the sense that we have the most starters back that we've had in our 10 years at Purdue, so that's encouraging," Tiller said.

The Boilermaker secondary had its issues a year ago and the four returning starters there will have to step up, as will projected middle linebacker Dan Bick. One thing Tiller said was a point of emphasis in the offseason was improving the physicality of a team that was dominated during a 24-7 loss to Maryland in the Champs Sports Bowl.

"We got knocked around pretty good physically," Tiller said. "I think the one thing that's changed at Purdue is our players have rededicated themselves to improving their strength and their size."

Michigan State In 1920, Warren G. Harding won the United States presidency based on a campaign of a return to normalcy after the World War I years. Eighty-seven years later, former OSU defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio takes over the Michigan State football program with similar decree after the tumultuous, ill-fated tenure of John L. Smith.

"I believe we need to win back the respect of our fans at this point," Dantonio said.

Dantonio will try to do so with the help of some talented Ohio products, quarterback Brian Hoyer of Cleveland St. Ignatius and tailback Javon Ringer of Dayton Chaminade-Julienne. Hoyer showed flashes of talent while backing up oft-injured Drew Stanton the past two years, completing 58 percent of his passes, while Ringer has averaged 6.3 yards per carry while battling injuries.

"We have a quarterback who has some experience," Dantonio said. "I think he has presence in the huddle, makes good decisions down the field, has a strong arm and he can escape when needed."

Dantonio also warned that MSU, which often used smaller, more athletic defensive players under Smith, would "not accept a soft defense."

Minnesota New Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster takes over as a ball of energy. The 47-year-old has ratcheted up the recruiting efforts of the U, had a coach visit all of Minnesota's high schools and told reporters Tuesday that he expects to perform well in rivalry games with Michigan (for the Little Brown Jug) and Wisconsin (Paul Bunyan's Axe).

"Make no mistake about it, we're going to get the Jug," Brewster bellowed. "Lloyd (Carr) knows that. Wisconsin, we're going to get the Axe. That's our deal."

The biggest question mark for the Gophers comes under center, where they must replace Bryan Cupito. In the battle, which Brewster called tremendous, will be junior Tony Mortensen, redshirt freshman Adam Weber and Brewster's son, true frosh Clint.

Penn State The Nittany Lions might be a chic darkhorse pick to make noise in the Big Ten this season, but 42nd-year head coach Joe Paterno is not among those with that opinion.

"We're going to be a good, competitive football team, not a great team," Paterno said. "We're a little bit too young to feel that we're ready to be a football team that can come into the league with the kind of teams that are going to be in the league this year to do a little bit better than just hold our own."

Sparking Penn State will be senior quarterback Anthony Morelli and linebacker Dan Connor, two players that have the talent to be among the best in the conference. However, most of the news recently out of Happy Valley has been negative after an offseason incident that resulted in the season being in doubt for All-Big Ten safety Anthony Scirrotto and defensive lineman Chris Baker.

Paterno said he was not sure what discipline will face the duo. He also reiterated his demand that his team clean Beaver Stadium after fall home games, and was not interested in their response.

"I didn't ask for reaction, I told them," Paterno said. "We're not exactly in a democracy. I told them, ‘I'm P.O.'d at you guys.'"

Iowa The genius dust came off head coach Kirk Ferentz a little bit last year after a 6-6 regular-season campaign that included just a 2-6 record in Big Ten play. All that came with scrappy senior quarterback Drew Tate at the helm. In 2007, it will be sophomore Jake Christensen who will be first in line to take snaps following a year in which he made one start and completed 23 of 35 passes.

Ferentz compared Christensen to Tate, as well as former Iowa quarterbacks Nathan Chandler and Brad Banks, each of whom were solid quarterbacks for long stretches of their careers.

"All three of those guys sat a year as apprentice quarterbacks, if you will," Ferentz said. "We sure think Jake is going to be tough to beat out. We've been impressed with his leadership skills."

Iowa's defense returns eight starters, including the entire defensive line and six members of the front seven. One empty spot is safety, where Ferentz said he expects two starters two come from senior Devan Moylan, junior Harold Dalton, redshirt freshman Brett Greenwood and redshirt frosh Lance Tillison.

Indiana Indiana, of course, was rocked by the June death of head coach Terry Hoeppner after a battle with cancer. Bill Lynch, the former coach at Ball State, takes over and hopes to continue the building done under Coach Hep.

"As a football team they've been through a lot of adversity," Lynch said. "This summer I think that's been tough, and I know we're all looking forward to getting together this weekend because I think it's time to get this thing back together. I really think they've grown together through this process."

IU might have the most talent at the skill positions as it's had in quite some time. Sophomore quarterback Kellen Lewis returns after an impressive freshman year that saw him total 2,661 yards of offense and 19 touchdowns, and he has deep threat James Hardy back as well. The sophomore snagged 10 scores in 2006.

"(Lewis) did what you would hope a young guy would do in the spring: he got better," Lynch said. "He got a much better grasp of the offense and, more importantly, he became the leader of the offense."

Michigan The event was topped off by Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr, who would neither confirm nor deny reports that his coaching career is nearing its end at the end of this season. If 2007 is his final year, his hopes of riding off into the sunset with a successful year should depend on how a rebuilt defense returning just four starters performs.

"Defensively we have to rebuild," Carr said. "We lost four players (LaMarr Woodley, Alan Branch, Leon Hall and David Harris), all of whom were drafted high in the NFL Draft last year. We do have some guys that are excited about their opportunity."

One thing that should worry Buckeye fans is the news that tailback Mike Hart, the preseason Big Ten offensive player of the year, has bulked up. Hart, who missed the spring because of injury, showed impressive ability to fight through tackles last year and could be even better in that regard in 2007, Carr said.

"You're going to see a guy who's much stronger, much bigger physically than he was a year ago," Carr said.

Buckeye Sports Top Stories