Big Ten Notebook: What Coaches Are Saying

Each Big Ten head coach spoke to the media Thursday morning/afternoon at the Chicago Hyatt. Find out what Rich Rodriguez had to say about his transition to from West Virginia to Michigan, Joe Paterno had to say about his potential retirement and Kirk Ferentz said about Iowa's off-the-field issues.

· Illinois: Reigning Big Ten Coach of the Year Ron Zook led his Illinois squad to a very successful 2007 season. Now he wants to see whether his Fighting Illini can put the past behind them.

"I'm very, very proud of our football team and what we were able to accomplish this past year," said Zook of his '07 team, which finished 9-4 with a Rose Bowl appearance. "But I think … you have to go on. It's over."

While last season represented a major turnaround for the Illini, it ended on a sour note with a 49-17 Rose Bowl loss to USC.

"We still have a long, long way to go," Zook said. "We have to continue to remember how we were able to get to make the progress we were able to do."

If Illinois is to remain one of the top teams in the Big Ten, junior quarterback Juice Williams will have to continue to progress. Williams had an impressive 2007 campaign, combining for 2,498 yards on the ground and through the air. His best game came Nov. 10 in an upset victory over No. 1 Ohio State. Williams threw a career-high four touchdown passes in an 12-for-22 passing effort for 140 yards. He added 70 rushing yards on 16 carries.

Zook said Williams will be a key to the Illini's 2008 success.

"We say this many times, players are going to be better players as juniors and seniors than they are as freshmen and sophomores," Zook said. "I think when you see him around here today; he's just more relaxed. He's much more confident."

Even with a improving quarterback, Zook said Illinois will find its strength on the other side of the football.

"I really believe the strength of our football team is going to be the defensive side this year," he said. "We have eight senior starters and six of them are on the defensive side."

· Northwestern: Pat Fitzgerald will be entering his third season as the Wildcats' head coach with a veteran team. However, there will be some change in Evanston with new offensive and defensive coordinators.

Mike Hankwitz will lead the Northwestern defense after having the same title with Wisconsin from 2006-07. Mick McCall, most recently with Bowling Green as the offensive coordinator, will be the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

The Wildcats finished 6-6 in 2007, a recording good enough to be bowl eligible. However, Northwestern did not receive a postseason invitation.

"Obviously last year we took some very positive things from the season but we're not very satisfied with the overall outcome," Fitzgerald said.

The Wildcats hope to have a healthy Tyrell Sutton this fall. The former Big Ten Player of the Year missed most of the 2007 season with an injury, but should be back at full strength this fall.

"I believe that he's poised and healthy right now and can have that same kind of season this year as a senior and put maybe a great bookend on the back of a tremendously successful career," Fitzgerald said.

· Wisconsin: The quarterback position is the big question for Bret Bielema and the Badgers heading into preseason camp. With the graduation of 2007 starter Tyler Donovan, Bielema will have to choose between Allan Evridge and Dustin Sherer. Evridge, a transfer from Kansas State, appears to have the inside track and battled Donovan for the job last summer.

"A year ago at this time, we had the same quarterback controversy, and I believe competition brings the best out of people. So as those guys go into fall camp they have to perform every day.

"I don't know when we're going to name a starter. I do know 10 days out from our opener vs. Akron we'll release a two-deep and have our starter identified by then. If it happens before then, it happens. I'm not in any hurry, and I'm axious to watch those guys compete."

Bielema also addressed the status of defensive backs Allen Langford and Aaron Henry, both of whom are coming off ACL injuries. The head coach said both are ready for action, and that only defensive end Matt Shaughnessy will be limited as of the beginning of fall camp.

· Purdue: Joe Tiller is in his final season as head coach at Purdue. That doesn't mean he has lost any passion for the sport or his Boilermakers.

"I think I'm probably as excited about this year as I was at No. 1," he said.

The offensive guru has reason to be with returning quarterback Curtis Painter at the helm. Unfortunately for Tiller, he did not learn that much about his team during his final spring practice. Fifteen starters missed all or the majority of spring practice. Tiller called it the most unusual spring he has ever seen.

Another topic Tiller spoke about was collegue and friend Joe Paterno of Penn State. With Tiller's retirement looming, the Purdue head man was asked about Paterno's future at PSU. Tiller said he hopes Paterno continues to coach.

"He's a guy that's never been timid in terms of rendering an opinion, and I think college football is going to miss him greatly when he decides (to retire)," Tiller said. "I personally hope he keeps on keeping on. I kind of compare him to the (Energizer) Bunny. He just keeps on ticking."

· Indiana: After playing 13 for their late head coach, Terry Hoeppner, the Hoosiers and head coach Bill Lynch are looking for more.

Indiana finished the 2007 season with its first bowl appearnce since 1993. The Hoosiers lost 49-33 to Oklahoma State in the Insight Bowl, but did defeat rival Purdue for the Old Oaken Bucket in order to become bowl eligible.

Now the Hoosiers will have to try to continue their momentum. A returning quarterback in Kellen Lewis should help. Lewis passed for more than 3,000 yards and rushed for a team-best 736 last year, but he was suspended during the offseason for undisclosed reasons and missed spring practice.

Lynch said solidifying the offensive line was the first point of emphasis during the spring. Indiana also worked on improving its defense and increasing the tempo on offense.

"We felt like we came out of (spring practice) a better football team and looking forward to improving once we get going Aug. 30," Lynch said.

· Michigan State: A potential dark horse in the Big Ten race, the Spartans are looking to reach second base, to steal an analogy from head coach Mark Dantonio.

"First base was a bowl game for us, and I think it is important for us to take a step forward and not a step back," Dantonio said. "We'll move forward on our quest for a championship."

Offensively, Javon Ringer is set to lead MSU. The Dayton, Ohio, native combined with Jehuu Caulcrick to form a potent one-two punch at tailback in 2007. Now Caulcrick is gone to graduation, and Ringer will be the top running threat.

Nonetheless, Dantonio is hoping for another rusher to step up. He mentioned junior A.J. Jimmerson and red shirt freshmen Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett as players who could move into bigger roles in 2008.

Another big hole to fill with be that of Devin Thomas, who went on to the NFL after an impressive junior campaign. Dantonio said players such as sophomore Mark Dell, red shirt freshman B.J. Cunningham and true freshman Fred Smith could help with depth, according to Dantonio.

"Can we do it as a committee? We look forward to doing that," said Dantonio.

· Minnesota: To say the 2007 season was a disappointment for new head coach Tim Brewster would be an understatement. The Golden Gophers were anything but golden in an 1-11 campaign that also included a winless Big Ten season.

Brewster is still hopeful for a turnaround in 2008.

"We have tremendous optimism and we're very excited about the challenge we face at the University of Minnesota," Brewster said. "We want to become a better football team, a more improved football team. I really believe we've taken the steps to become a more confident, improved football team."

An impressive recruiting haul this spring aided Brewster's optimism. Regarded as a top-20 recruiting class, Minnesota signed 31 players. Twenty-one of which were defensive athletes and will be needed to help shore up the Gophers' porous defense.

"They'll help us be more dynamic," Brewster said. "We needed playmakers. … We didn't stop anybody. We were a very poor defensive team last year."

· Penn State: Paterno wanted to talk about his 2008 Nittany Lions. He just didn't get many questions on that subject.

Instead most of the questions were about his future with Penn State. The longtime coach repeatedly top reporters that he did not know when he was going to step down.

"I obviously get tired of answering the same question about when I'm going to retire when I don't know," Paterno said. "I can only say that I don't know so many times. I'd like to retire when I feel as if I cannot make a contribution to Penn State."

Paterno did address his football team's quarterback controversy. Senior Daryll Clark and sophomore Pat Devlin will battle for the starting job, and Paterno said he's in no hurry to make a choice.

"I'm not interested in making an easy decision," Paterno said. "I'm interested in making the right one. I'm going to take my time. … We're going to give all the kids a chance."

· Iowa: Drama off the field highlighted Iowa's offseason. Tornadoes and floods have wrecked havoc across the Hawkeye state, and the football team also had to deal with legal issues affecting several players.

"The best way to (deal with off-the-field issues) is to find a way to get our players to make better decisions off the field," said Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. "That's where it all starts. Much of the attention we've drawn to the program has come off the field. … This will be a different year."

Ferentz called his '08 Hawkeyes young with some experienced players. They return 14 starters, including seven on offense. He labeled four-year starting tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul as defensive leaders, and senior linemen Seth Olsen and Rob Bruggeman as offensive leaders.

"He's a tremendous young man," We always feel terrible anytime somebody's career is ended prematurely."

· Michigan: Rich Rodriguez has often been asked what to expect from his Wolverines in his first season at the University of Michigan.

He said he would answer if he knew.

"Everyone asks, ‘Coach, what's the team going to be like,' " said Rodriguez, the last coach to face the media. "The honest answer is that I don't know. I'm not giving you 'coachspeak.' I have not been through a training camp. I haven't been in a ballgame where we're struggling in the third quarter and see how guys respond. … I really don't know yet."

Rodriguez said the transition from West Virginia to Michigan has gone well, despite the legal drama between Rodriguez and his alma mater. The lawsuit pitting WVU and Rodriguez over the former coach's buyout was settled earlier this month.

"There's a lot of things I'd like to talk about, but I want to move on," Rodriguez said. "I think that's one of the biggest reasons this got settled. People wanted to put it in the past. … It became so public. That was the problem."

While the off the field issues have been settled, Rodriguez said there is plenty of work to be done. The biggest challenge will be replacing Jake Long, Chad Henne and Mike Hart.

"I'm not a pessimist or an optimist, I'm more of a realist," Rodriguez said. "We‘ve lost some of the best players that have ever played at the University of Michigan. The first pick in the draft (Long), a second round pick (Henne) and a four-year starter in Mike Hart. … We‘ve lost a lot of talent."


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