This week, I'd like to take a look around the Big Ten at the eight teams in the league Ohio State will face during the 2008 campaign. I've been following each of those teams very closely during their fall camps and have learned some fairly interesting things about each team.
Rather than do a preview of each team during the preseason, when things will clearly change by the time Ohio State plays its four nonconference dates and gets to the league slate, we at BuckeyeSports.com have chosen to wait until the week of each game to preview each team the Buckeyes will play. However, right now, it's nice for me to take a look around the Big Ten just to have a preliminary view of each team with kickoff just hours away.
Buzz Of Camp: That Juice Williams has become one of the best passers in the conference. Rumors keep floating around that Williams might be able to complete near 70 percent of his passes this season after settling in around 40 percent as a freshman and just above 50 percent last season. From all indications, his command of the offense has become much better, allowing him to spread the ball all over the field.
Reason For Worry: Defensive tackle Sirod Williams, slated to be a senior who would be starting for the first time, blew out his knee during camp. The defensive tackle spot isn't all that loaded with experience except for Derek Lindquist, a returning starter. Erstwhile Buckeye recruit Josh Brent presumably steps into the role of the second starter. We'll channel Ron Zook and look at the positive here: Brent, a second-year Illini, worked out heavily and ate light during the summer to drop 25 pounds.
Player To Watch: Wide receiver Chris Duvalt. Writer Bob Asmussen of the Champaign News-Gazette named Duvalt the MVP of Illinois' Camp Rantoul because he caught everything, and he's listed as a starter for tomorrow's game against Missouri. The junior is a former defensive back is just one of the many young receivers Illinois likes, but he might be closest to a breakout season on a unit coach Kurt Beathard says is as talented as he's ever coached.
Note(s) Of Interest Uncovered And Passed On By Local Beat Writers: Other than Williams, the player who had the most buzz in camp was Arrelious Benn. He already had a great freshman season, earning the league's freshman of the year award, and did it all with a banged up shoulder that kept him in the slot position and made it nearly impossible for him to raise his arm. Now he's 100 percent and expects to be important parts of both the receiving and running games.
Also, Zook called center Ryan McDonald the "cowbell" of the offensive line at one point during camp, one of many Zook foibles, it appears, when it comes to sayings. This preseason, the Champaign News-Gazette ran surveys of players in each issue, and one question always asked involved trying to find out their favorite Zook sayings. The two that were mentioned the most: "I ain't no Willie off the pickle boat" and "Don't worry about if the mule is blind; just load the wagon!" Ahhh, the Zooker.
Michigan Buzz Of Camp: Uhhh, this one is a no-brainer. Pretty much every storyline of camp has had some root in the offseason coaching change that saw former national title winner Lloyd Carr retire and West Virginia head man Rich Rodriguez take over. Whether it's the concern over how well an inexperienced Wolverine offense will run Rodriguez's famed spread option or the constant publicity afforded to new strength and conditioning coach Mike Barwis, the changes to the program brought on by Rodriguez have made this Michigan's most interesting camp in quite some time.
Reason For Worry: Of the many reasons to worry on offense, perhaps the most serious comes on the line. Even in the best of times the Wolverines were going to have trouble blocking this year given the fact that the only returning starter on their offensive line is Stephen Schilling, who was treated rather rudely by Vernon Gholston last November. Things got worse when the probable started at right guard, Cory Zirbel, suffered an injury that will keep him out for at least the first half of the season. Things are so bad that John Ferrara, who was set to be a reserve defensive tackle, has been moved to right guard and is in the two-deep despite the fact that he's never played offensive line.
Player To Watch: Time to quickly cheat and go with two: tailbacks Michael Shaw and Sam McGuffie. Both should be familiar to Ohio State fans, as Shaw attended Trotwood-Madison outside of Dayton and McGuffie, a Texan, was on OSU's radar thanks to his friend J.B. Shugarts, an offensive line recruit from the Lone Star State. Running backs coach Fred Jackson was practically salivating at the thought of having the pair under his tutelage during camp, telling reporters that each is special, and the two are listed among the possible starters at running back.
Note(s) Of Interest Uncovered And Passed On By Local Beat Writers: Probable starting quarterback Nick Sheridan is a former walk-on that recently received a scholarship who is the son of Bill Sheridan, a former assistant at Michigan. The sophomore is described by teammates as more of a jokester than Steven Threet, who held the reins after spring practice.
Buzz Of Camp: That these aren't the "Same Old Spartans." Michigan State showed that to a large extent last season when they looked ready to stage the collapse traditionally undertaken under former head coach John L. Smith only to snap back into form to finish on a strong note. Now, the Spartans are viewed as the chic pick to take a big leap in the league standings. The vibes coming from camp have done nothing to tame that talk.
Reason For Worry: The secondary, traditionally not a strong part of the Michigan State defense, took another hit when presumed safety starter Roderick Jenrette was excused from camp because of personal issues. He has not returned. Chris L. Rucker will start at cornerback thanks to a strong camp, while Kendall Davis-Clark, a former corner, and Otis Wiley are the starting safeties. All have heavy onuses on them, especially Wiley, a senior who has never quite reached his potential.
Player To Watch: Very few freshmen around the league received as much positive publicity during camp than wideout Keshawn Martin, just a two-star recruit when Michigan State signed him in February. Mark Dantonio said he'll be a great player at MSU. Quarterback Brian Hoyer said he knows how to get open. Offensive coordinator Don Treadwell says he has soft hands. Martin is on the third team on the depth chart and could move up quickly in an unproven group.
Note(s) Of Interest Uncovered And Passed On By Local Beat Writers: Hoyer told reporters this fall that senior wide receiver Deon Curry is known as "Coach Curry" because of the fact that he's sure-handed and runs precise routes. Also, it doesn't hurt that his father is Michael Curry, the new head coach of the Detroit Pistons.
For a second fun fact, punter Aaron Bates worked some at quarterback during camp and impressed enough that he could be the team's No. 3 option, a fact helped along by the reality that the team is thin at the position after two transfers out of the program.
Buzz Of Camp: That Adam Weber is a much improved player, and he was a pretty darn good one a year ago. With a year of experience under his belt, he's talked of being more consistent and smart in 2008, and head coach Tim Brewster loves his toughness, arm, touch and footwork.
Reason For Worry: 1-11, to put it bluntly. This is a team that was competitive last year but was unable to get over the hump in just about every game, for whatever reason – talent, coaching, execution, consistency – it may have been. The first of those has been upgraded, although probably not enough, and the latter three are still question marks until Brewster proves he has what it takes to lead the program. A real key will be the supposed improvement of the secondary, which is getting glowing reviews but was blown to smithereens by just about every group of mammals that it encountered in 2007.
Player To Watch: This could be a number of players, given how much experimenting Minnesota has done in order to try to ensure 2008 will be different than 2007. Here's a few to keep an eye on: starting middle linebacker Lee Campbell, 256-pounder who was moved from defensive end midway through camp; cornerback Marcus Sherels, who is reportedly the most athletic Golden Gopher; and walk-on fullback Jon Hoese, who used to race snowmobiles and isn't afraid of collision.
Note(s) Of Interest Uncovered And Passed On By Local Beat Writers: Defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg was a force in 2006 with 10 sacks but compiled just one sack a year ago. He says he's a different player now for a variety of reasons. One is health; he suffered a wrist injury last year that hampered his play, especially when he tried to overcompensate and then hurt his shoulders. The other is that he's in better shape because he's sober; a New Year's Eve bar fight put him in jail, and he's swore off alcohol and improved his conditioning as a result.
Northwestern Buzz Of Camp: That the Wildcats are ready to surprise some people, although enough people are pegging Northwestern as a surprise team that it might not be one anymore. The Wildcats have tools similar to the ones they had in 2000 and 2005 when they posted surprise seasons: experienced quarterback, an explosive tailback, skill out wide and enough talent on defense to stay in games.
Reason For Worry: Tyrell Sutton's body. The Akron Hoban product has missed significant time each of the past two years with injuries, and he was dinged up a bit during camp's first week. However, he's healthy now and not on the injury report. With Sutton at 100 percent, the Wildcats could win eight or nine games; if he succumbs to the injury bug again, those numbers go down.
Also, the offensive line has some question marks, not in talent but in experience. Center Ben Burkett and left tackle Al Netter have been given high praise during camp but are just redshirt freshman. In between, left guard Keegan Kennedy is a converted defensive lineman.
Player To Watch: Wideout Jeremy Ebert. Young Ohioans have been getting some love in Evanston – redshirt freshman Jordan Mabin of Northfield Center is a reserve cornerback who should receive lots of playing time – and Ebert is at the head of the list. The former Hilliard Darby quarterback is the only freshman on Northwestern's two-deep, as he's listed as a backup receiver and kick returner. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald praised his play in important situations like third downs and goal line situations, the types of things that freshmen are usually behind in when they arrive.
Note(s) Of Interest Uncovered And Passed On By Local Beat Writers: Safety Brendan Smith, a former All-Big Ten honorable mention pick who missed last year because of shoulder injuries, grew a Mohawk hairdo for camp in an effort to try to regain some swagger.
Buzz Of Camp: The spread HD offense is coming to Penn State. What, exactly, is the spread HD? No one seems to know for sure outside of the PSU practices, but the general thought is that the offense will look something like the one the Nittany Lions ran in 2005 with Michael Robinson at quarterback. They have a similarly athletic quarterback in Daryll Clark pulling the strings this time around and enough reputed talent at the skill positions to possibly pull it off. Quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said the offense will be "moving so fast, with so much speed, that you're going to need mirrors in the TV to keep up with us." Whatever that means.
Reason For Worry: The linebacker position. Linebacker U is more like Linebacker Who? This year after the graduation of Dan Connor and the season-ending spring injury of presumed middle linebacker Sean Lee. In Lee's place will be junior Josh Hull, a formerly undersized walk-on who has rebuilt his body. Coaches say he understands the system and is ready to go. He'll be pushed by sophomore Chris Colasanti, a highly touted recruit who still needs to learn the game a bit.
There is also concern at defensive tackle, where the dismissals of Chris Baker and Phil Taylor and the season-ending leg injury to Devon Still has left the Lions in a gulch. Abe Koroma and Ollie Ogbu should get the first chances, but the depth is a concern.
Player To Watch: Redshirt freshman tailback Stephfon Green, a speedster who broke off enough good runs during the spring to tantalize Nittany Lion fans. He told reporters this fall that he ran a 4.25-second 40-yard dash at the Penn State pro day this spring, and he hopes to lower it as his Penn State career goes on. Green is so good that starting tailback Evan Royster can't wait to see what he can do.
Note(s) Of Interest Uncovered And Passed On By Local Beat Writers: Safety Mark Rubin was one of the best youth swimmers in the country growing up, even telling reporters that in his younger years he would beat Olympic hero Michael Phelps from time to time during the sprint races that weren't Phelps' forte until recent years.
Buzz Of Camp: That Joe Tiller's final ride into the sunset could be a successful one if things break Purdue's way. They believe they have a pretty good quarterback in Curtis Painter and enough talent around the rest of the offense to make Tiller's basketball on grass scheme work. On defense, the rumblings are that this could be a good unit if a few players step up.
Reason For Worry: The biggest thing that might keep Purdue's defense from stepping up could be depth at linebacker. Outside linebacker Anthony Heygood is thought of as the stalwart. Fellow outside ‘backer Jason Werner has all the tools necessary to be a great linebacker and is hopeful that lingering back injuries will stay away in 2008. The middle spot is still up for grabs between Kevin Green and Chris Carlino (see below for Tiller-inspired humor about Green).
Player To Watch: Wide receiver Greg Orton. Orton has had success in the past – he caught 67 passes last year, including 10 against Ohio State – but the report is that he excelled during his offseason conditioning and looks to be the No. 1 wideout heading into the fall. Tiller said he doesn't think the Boilermakers have had wideout over the years who has worked harder during the offseason than Orton worked this year.
Note(s) Of Interest Uncovered And Passed On By Local Beat Writers: Tiller told the media during the preseason that Green is a guy in the past who has "looked like Tarzan and played like Jane."
Buzz Of Camp: That Wisconsin's running game will be back to the smash-mouth unit that most have come to expect. Tailback P.J. Hill, he of the outstanding freshman season and not-so-great, injury-riddled sophomore campaign, is ready and raring to go at 230 sculpted pounds. Three seniors are on the offensive line, while sophomore left tackle Gabe Carimi added weight during the offseason. If sophomore center John Moffitt is ready the line should be fine.
Reason For Worry: Injuries decimated the Badgers during the spring, so there is concern about whether everyone will be back and in game shape. In addition, all-everything tight end Travis Beckum could miss the opener with a lingering hamstring injury. Otherwise, it's hard to have much confidence in starter Allan Evridge, not because he's had a poor camp but because his history is less than encouraging. He started six games as a freshman at Kansas State in 2005 but did not complete half of his passes, and last year as a Badger he completed just 5 of 12 passes. He also had a shaky spring.
Player To Watch: LB Jaevery McFadden. The 6-3, 220-pound junior claimed the starting middle linebacker spot from incumbent Elijah Hodge during the fall. The athletic, speedy McFadden, a converted tight end, earned time in Wisconsin's nickel defense last year and now has impressed coaches with his ability to play in all situations. In addition, Bielema said Wisconsin's middle linebacker must play like an outside ‘backer in certain situations, and McFadden can seamlessly transition into those situations.
Note(s) Of Interest Uncovered And Passed On By Local Beat Writers: Redshirt freshman cornerback Mario Goins, a listed starter, played soccer and golf growing up and was a 4-handicap during the spring. He shot par at Wisconsin's University Ridge golf course the first time he played it.