League Coaches Talk Shop, Improvements

As Ohio State goes through spring practices geared toward helping the Buckeyes contend for a fifth straight Big Ten title, it's always a good time to turn an eye toward the competition the team will face come September. The Big Ten's coaches discussed how their spring practices are progressing recently on a teleconference, highlights of which are discussed within.

Illinois (3-5, 5-7)
Juice Williams led the Big Ten in total offense by almost 80 yards per game in 2008, but he also led the league with 16 interceptions thrown. Head coach Ron Zook said he's happy with the progress the dual-threat quarterback has made so far when it comes to leadership.

"He's taken charge," Zook said. "He's more vocal than he has been in the past. He's excited about this year. He's in the film room all the time. That's one of the things that we talked about before is Juice had to learn how to become a quarterback, knowing that it was kind of a way of life. He really has stepped up to the challenge."

The offense he'll be running, according to Zook, will be similar to the one he's used over the past few years despite the offseason departure of offensive coordinator Mike Locksley to take on the head coaching position at New Mexico State.

New coordinator Mike Schultz ran a similar offense the past few seasons at TCU.

"One of the things that was really great about when we hired Coach Schultz was that we wanted to continue to do the same things," Zook said.

Work continues on a defense that was in the bottom half of the Big Ten last season, especially with the graduation of middle linebacker and team leader Brit Miller.

Indiana (3-9, 1-7)
Much of head coach Bill Lynch's time focused on his team's offense, which finished just 10th of 11 teams in the conference when it came to points.

During the spring, Indiana has undergone some major changes on that side of the ball. Former second-team All-Big Ten quarterback Kellen Lewis has moved to wide receiver and Ben Chappell has taken over as the fulltime quarterback.

In addition, IU has changed from the spread offense that Lewis used to rack up rushing yards to a multiple-formation offense that even includes some plays run out of the pistol formation.

"In terms of scheme, we're trying to run the ball a little bit more other than just the spread," Lynch said. "We were pretty much just a spread football team the past couple of years and we'd like to become a little bit more multiple."

When it comes to running the ball, Indiana loses running back Marcus Thigpen, a fast, shifty back who was capable of ripping off a touchdown run from anywhere on the field out of the spread. This upcoming season, the Hoosiers boast four running backs that weigh 200 pounds or more in Bryan Payton, Demetrius McCray and bruisers Trea Burgess and Darius Willis.

"We really have three or four backs that have played very well," Lynch said. "These guys are more fitted to do what we're doing with the running game."

Lynch also raved about the play of an offensive line that was banged up a season ago, a circumstance that allowed many players to see the field and gain experience.

Iowa (9-4, 5-3)
Head coach Kirk Ferentz pointed to quarterback Ricky Stanzi and linebacker Pat Angerer as players he sees stepping up as leaders for a squad hoping to keep positive momentum going after a resurgent season that included the conference's only bowl victory.

Ferentz said he has been particularly pleased with the development of Stanzi, whose emergence helped galvanize the squad last season.

"Coming out of his third year, you hope to see a little bit more maturity and a little bit better work habits, those types of things," Ferentz said. "Part of being a college football player is accepting responsibility and growing into a role, and I think we've seen that."

When it comes to figuring out a way to restock a running game that is missing the Big Ten Silver Football Award winner Shonn Greene, a back who left early for the NFL draft after leading the league in rushing yards, Ferentz said that no one player from the group of Jewel Hampton, Paki O'Meara and Jeff Brinson will be counted on to carry the load.

"We don't expect to replace Shonn," Ferentz said. "Shonn just had extraordinary production a year ago. We don't expect any one person to fill that void, but I think we have a capable group back there. By the end of the season we should be able to have guys play well at that position."

Michigan (3-9, 2-6)
Repairing a team that had the worst season in the storied history of the school won't be an easy task, but Rich Rodriguez sees some progress out of his team during his second spring at the helm.

On defense, he's pleased with the hiring of Greg Robinson, the former Syracuse coach who brings plenty of experience as the new coordinator of a defense that was 10th in the Big Ten in scoring and allowed more than 40 points four times.

"There's always some subtle schematic changes," Rodriguez said. "There's not going to be a lot of major chances scheme-wise but I think a lot of the time that's probably overrated anyway. I think one thing Greg brings is a wealth of experience. I'm looking for a guy that can bring in some leadership and really pull it all together, and I think Greg's been able to do that already in a short period of time."

Of course, Michigan's offense wasn't anything to write home about a year ago, finishing last in scoring and passing yardage.

Steven Threet has left, leaving Nick Sheridan – who started the opener and the Ohio State game before suffering a leg fracture during the early spring – as the only quarterback on the roster with experience. True freshman Tate Forcier has impressed, according to most reports, after enrolling early and Denard Robinson is expected come fall.

"I feel good with the talent we have there, but obviously the experience level is not going to be what we want," Rodriguez said. "But you have to play to get that."

Rodriguez also said found a silver lining in the fact that last year went so poorly on the field on offense, pointing out that he was of the belief that his system wasn't to blame.

"The reality was I think no matter what system we ran last year we probably would have struggled," he said. "I'm glad we got in what we got in. At least they have a year under the system."

Michigan State (9-4, 6-2)
The Spartans continued trekking upward under former OSU assistant Mark Dantonio, winning nine regular-season games and appearing in a New Year's Day bowl.

Of course, MSU's men's basketball team one-upped the football Spartans recently, reaching the NCAA Tournament championship game.

"I think it's a great thing for Michigan State University," Dantonio said. "It's a great thing for our football program. I'm sitting in my office right now. About 300 yards away is our basketball facility, and we talk an awful lot about championships here and what it takes to win championships, and you don't have to look too far to see that going on in our basketball program."

The Spartans are in a similar situation as Iowa, needing to replace a standout running back in Javon Ringer. Dantonio said that MSU will require a team effort in that regard with players like senior A.J. Jimmerson and sophomores Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett taking over.

Unlike the Hawkeyes, Michigan State will need to replace a quarterback in Brian Hoyer. Last year's backup, sophomore Kirk Cousins, and Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol are in the midst of a battle that could continue into the early season.

"I think both guys are very, very good," Dantonio said. "They're both athletic, they have great arms, they're tough, they have great leadership qualities about them and they're extremely hard workers. I think we need to see how they perform in games. I think it's going to be that close."

Minnesota (7-6, 3-5)
Much of the talk about Minnesota going into the 2009 season is more about where the team will be playing as opposed to who will be on the Golden Gopher squad. The program is moving into a new open-air facility, TCF Bank Stadium, on the Minnesota campus after spending nearly the past three decades in the Metrodome.

Head coach Tim Brewster turned an eye toward Columbus while discussing his new edifice, the construction of which he deemed a dream come true.

"You guys have a tremendous home-field advantage there at Ohio State, and we're looking forward to having the same type of advantage here," he said. "(Architect) HOK has just built a magnificent stadium. The crowd is going to be on the field. We're looking forward to having a home game and it truly being a home game."

Brewster said that he was happy with the "personality" of his team even after the offseason additions of offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch and defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove.

When discussing on-field issues, Brewster turned his attention to an offensive line that didn't have a great year in 2008. The Golden Gophers were last in rushing offense as well as sacks allowed per game.

"I'm really pleased with our offensive line," he said. "I think the offensive line is going to be critical to our success this season. We've had five guys together since the start of spring practice, and I'm really encouraged by the improvements that they've made."

Northwestern (9-4, 5-3)
Retooling a passing game that lost starting quarterback C.J. Bacher and its top three wideouts in Eric Peterman, Ross Lane and Rasheed Ward is the chief concern at Northwestern after a surprising nine-win campaign.

When it comes to wideout, head man Pat Fitzgerald is happy, especially with the progress of 6-3 quarterback-turned-receiver Andrew Brewer.

"He's doing a great job on the outside," Fitzgerald said.

The quarterback portion of the equation figures to fall to Mike Kafka, who played in eight games last year as Bachér fought injury. Kafka impressed most with his running skills, piling up 4.7 yards per carry, during 2008 but Fitzgerald said to not sleep on his passing abilities. Kafka completed 32 of 46 passes (69.6 percent) with two touchdowns and three interceptions.

"Mike is a true dual-threat quarterback," Fitzgerald said. "Michael can throw it as well as he can run it. Based on the game plans we had going into the games that he was in, we were utilizing his ability to run for various reasons."

When it comes to the rehab of defensive end Corey Wootton, who had 10 sacks before suffering a leg injury in the Alamo Bowl, Fitzgerald said that he is progressing but still will not be a part of the team's spring practice sessions.

Penn State (11-2, 7-1)
The Nittany Lions might be coming off of a Rose Bowl season, but legendary head coach Joe Paterno was in curmudgeon mode while discussing his team's spring progress.

Chief among his concerns was a secondary unit that lost seniors Tony Davis, Lydell Sargeant, Anthony Scirrotto and Mark Rubin. In addition, part-time starting cornerback A.J. Wallace has been battling a hamstring pull.

"We've got a long, long way to go to be a good secondary," Paterno said. "We're not even close. But they're working hard at it, and before we get to our first game next fall I think we'll be adequate. Whether we'll be really good or not is up for grabs."

Paterno also listed leadership as a concern after the departure of a number of veterans, not just at defensive back but also at wide receiver and offensive line.

One thing he's not worried about is senior quarterback Daryll Clark, who had a breakout season in 2008 while throwing for 19 touchdowns and six interceptions.

"He's doing everything you want out of a quarterback," Paterno said. "He's great in the huddle, he's great in meetings. He's a real big-league quarterback right now."

Purdue (4-8, 2-6)
Joe Tiller's final season at Purdue didn't go the way he wanted, but fans of the Big Ten's version of basketball on grass don't have to worry that his once-revolutionary offense is on the way out.

Replacement Danny Hope expects to run a similar offense to the one Tiller put on the field during his 12 seasons – but with a few tweaks.

"I came to Purdue with Coach Tiller in 1997 and we had been together at Wyoming and felt like we were in the cutting edge of the spread offense," the former Eastern Kentucky head coach said. "We brought it to Purdue and it made an impact on the teams we had at Purdue and the success we had at Purdue. The spread offense is what I know and what I believe in. But there have been a few wrinkles I've picked up since I left Purdue.

"We'll be in the shotgun quite a bit, spread the field and throw the football. Purdue identifies with that and we think that gives us our best chance to win, but there will be a lot of new wrinkles to the offense in 2009."

Joey Elliott looks primed to take over at quarterback after the graduation of Curtis Painter and the academic suspension of Justin Siller. When it comes to his targets, Elliott will be tossing to a group that surprised Hope during the spring despite the losses of Greg Orton and Desmond Tardy, who combined for 136 catches last season.

Keith Smith returns to lead the group after making 49 grabs last year.

"We didn't know where we would be at when spring started," Hope said. "I was really shocked when I got out there to see the way we were. We've made great progress and we're much further along now that we're going into the final week of spring ball than I thought we would be based on where we started at."

Wisconsin (7-6, 3-5)
After two straight disappointing seasons, head coach Bret Bielema went back to the drawing board, meeting with his players in an effort to figure out how things could be turned around.

"There was definitely a heightened sense of urgency about being able to be accountable to one another. That was a big thing," he said. "The other big point from our players … was just the camaraderie amongst themselves – that they definitely needed to be together on the same page and everything that they did."

Bielema was also pleased with the development of players at the quarterback position and at running back, where Dustin Sherer and John Clay will be the starters, respectively, after getting their feet wet a season ago.

He also discussed the development of linebacker Jaevery McFadden, who moved back to his natural position outside after starting in the middle a season ago.

"If he has a great senior year we'll probably have a very good defense," Bielema said.

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