Hope Springs Eternal For Big Ten Coaches

The Big Ten media days allow those from around the conference to get a taste of what each school thinks about their football programs before camp starts. BuckeyeSports.com was there on Monday and takes this tour of the Big Ten to find out what coaches are thinking ahead of the summer practice season.

2008 proved to the Fighting Illini that life isn't always easy. A year after upsetting No. 1 Ohio State and making a Rose Bowl appearance, Ron Zook's team crashed back to earth with a 5-7 record thanks mostly to mistakes and inconsistency.

"We didn't reach expectations," Zook said. "I think that's part of the process, part of what it takes. You have to teach them how to win, and then you have to teach them how to sustain that. I'm excited to see whether we've learned that or not. I believe we have."

Last year, Williams struggled in the first year without All-Big Ten running back Rashard Mendenhall. He was at times explosive, throwing for 3,173 yards and topping 300 yards four times, but he also tossed 16 interceptions as the weight of the offense settled on his shoulders.

Zook thinks that won't be a problem this season.

"These guys understand that it doesn't have to be just one guy," Zook said. "We don't have to put the team on Juice's back. Juice can just be who he is."

A young Illinois defense also is in need of improvement after allowing 26.6 points per game – almost five more than the year before. Zook said he hopes middle linebacker Martez Wilson, a one-time five-star recruit, is ready after making 73 stops last year outside as a sophomore.

"Well, if you go back and you look at J Leman and Brit Miller, two guys that had great, great years, it really was their junior year before they came on and had the type of year that we all were expecting," Zook said. "(Wilson has) had a great offseason as well. He had a great spring. He's excited. I think he understands the position much, much better."

Bill Lynch's Hoosiers will try to make a large improvement from last year's 3-9 finish, which came a year after Indiana was able to make it to a bowl game for the first time in more than a decade.

Mirroring his team's fate was Greg Middleton. The defensive lineman went from the nation's sack leader in 2007 to finishing with just 18 stops and four sacks a season ago.

"There's no question he didn't have the kind of year he had as a sophomore," Lynch said. "I'm sure there are different reasons for that, but we're kind of looking at that as in the past. I think from the time we got back and really got the offseason program officially going in January, he's been a different guy. He's had a great work ethic."

Middleton is a senior, just like many of the Hoosiers' top players on defense. Seven players projected to start will be in their final seasons. Indiana also boasts depth at offensive line, where 84 career starts come back.

The story is different at the offensive skill positions. Ben Chappell takes over as the starting quarterback after splitting time with Kellen Lewis last year, while Indiana will be depending on a bevy of younger running backs and wideouts. Lynch likes the potential, though, as the Hoosiers move away from the spread offense they had run in the past.

"We've got a quarterback in Ben Chappell, great leader, outstanding student, and he's got some experience," Lynch said. "He started and played the entire game last year when we beat a very, very good Northwestern team. So he's had experience and has proven himself as a winner in the Big Ten. We've got fine wide receivers, some young kids that played quite a bit last year that are back."

Iowa returns as a mystery team in the Big Ten. Most observers like the returning players for the Hawkeyes, but there's little doubt the team lost its three best players last season in running back Shonn Greene – the league's player of the year – and defensive tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul.

"Both those guys were extraordinary players, extraordinary team leaders, very different personalities, different styles of play," head coach Kirk Ferentz said of the latter two. "It's probably going to be a little bit like our running back position, I would guess. I think we're going to see several players, in other words."

When it came to running back, he spoke positively of Jewel Hampton, who averaged 5.1 yards per carry and blocked well as Greene's backup last season. No mention was made of a summer leg injury that reportedly has his status in doubt as camp nears.

The Hawkeyes will play only five road games this year, but all should be tough. Iowa starts its road slate in week two at rival Iowa State before Big Ten road showdowns with Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State.

"If we are going to be standing around at the end of November, we're going to have to prove our mettle certainly away from Kinnick (Stadium) as well as in Kinnick," he said.

The marquee home nonconference game is a clash with Pac-10 foe Arizona, while the Hawkeyes will welcome Michigan, Indiana, Northwestern and Minnesota into Iowa City.

There's little doubting that last year's 3-9 season for the Wolverines was an utter disaster, a season that finished among the worst in school history. Rich Rodriguez begins his second campaign with hope that the Wolverines will be able to learn from that experience and return to bowl contention in 2009.

That improvement will have to start on defense, where Michigan gave up 28.9 points per game. Greg Robinson, the former Syracuse coordinator once thought to be among the best defensive coaches in the game, takes over the defense.

"I think the biggest thing Greg has done just in the six or seven months he's been on campus is he's really done a great job of developing that chemistry amongst the defensive players that we needed," Rodriguez said. "We have some young guys. We lost some outstanding defensive players, but I really like our defense."

That unit boasts Brandon Graham, a second-team All-Big Ten choice last year who hopes to improve on his 10 sacks from last year as a senior, and middle linebacker Obi Ezeh.

On offense, Michigan struggled a season ago. With just three returning starters, the Wolverines averaged 20.3 points per game and turned the ball over 10 more times than the Michigan defense could earn.

"Everybody, you focus on the quarterback and lack of experience there, but we had a lack of experience everywhere on the offense," Rodriguez said. "Now all those guys, particularly up front on the offensive line, have played before."

The entire offensive line returns for the Wolverines, but true freshman Tate Forcier is expected to start at quarterback after the transfer of Steven Threet and a spring leg injury to Nick Sheridan.

Michigan State
The Spartans found themselves at the forefront of media day when linebacker Greg Jones was named the preseason league defensive player of the year. The junior had an outstanding season last year, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors by making 127 tackles and 12 tackles for loss on the season.

"What I see in Greg is a tremendous work ethic," head coach Mark Dantonio said of the Cincinnati native. "He's an excellent leader. What you see on the game field is what you see in practice. The great ones that I've been around, that's what happens. They practice just like they play, so it becomes a habit to play at that level of competitiveness."

Michigan State also was chosen as the preseason third-place team in the conference behind Penn State and Ohio State, the first time the Spartans have been in the top three since the 2002 preseason. Dantonio talked a lot about continuing to build a program and did mention he knows Michigan State's history of struggling to deal with expectations, but he added he thinks he has a good enough team to compete.

"Our goal, as every year goes on, is to be Big Ten champs," he said. "I think if you come to Chicago, you sit in front of your teams and you don't have that goal and really believe it, then you're selling your players short. So our goals will be a Big Ten championship, a BCS game, and we'll move from there. We'll hope to continue with our consistency. Good things are happening, and I'm very, very excited about this year."

The Big Ten's master of enthusiasm and praise was back at it again in 2009, starting by giving credit to his two best offensive players, the aerial connection of Adam Weber and Eric Decker.

"I think Adam is an outstanding player," Brewster said of the quarterback who threw seven touchdown passes and 1,074 yards worth of balls to Decker. "I don't think there's a better wide receiver in the country than Eric Decker, and I think he's poised to have a tremendous senior season. And Weber to Decker I think is going to be a heck of a tandem."

Decker will get some help on offense with the addition of five-star JUCO wideout Hayo Carpenter, whom Brewster praised as having "tremendous speed, toughness and hands."

Minnesota went 7-6 last season, dropping its final five games, before getting two new coordinators in Jedd Fisch on the offensive side and Kevin Cosgrove defensively. Brewster said he doesn't expect a steep learning curve even though Fisch has installed more of a pro-style offense than the Golden Gophers ran before.

"We haven't really changed much on the defensive side of the ball … so there's been a very seamless transition with Kevin Cosgrove," he said. "Offensively there's been a little bit more change, but our kids have embraced the change, doing what we're doing. Adam Weber has been amazing in his leadership this summer, the captain's practices, film sessions."

From a news standpoint, the biggest thing fourth-year head coach Pat Fitzgerald said was that senior defensive end Corey Wootton, who was a first-team All-Big Ten choice last year with 10 sacks, is expected to be 100 percent by the time the season rolls around.

"I fully anticipate Corey will be full-go in camp," Fitzgerald said before adding that Wootton still won't be on the field every day during camp. "Will be participate in every practice? Probably not."

Fitzgerald said that the squad has had an offseason of "solid improvement and ownership taken by our players" a year after Northwestern was one of the surprise teams in college football, going 9-4 and taking a ranked Missouri team to the wire in the Alamo Bowl.

The Wildcats will have to replace quarterback C.J. Bacher, but Mike Kafka started a few games and ran for 321 yards on 68 carries – a 4.7-yard average – while completing 69.6 percent of his passes (32-46). He'll still have to deal with the loss of numerous skill position players; the Wildcats graduated their top two running backs and top three wideouts.

"Our guys have done a great job competing with themselves first and with each other to improve, and I'm very excited about the depth that we have," Fitzgerald said. "Will it be one name, will it be one face in all those roles? Probably not, especially early. But we'll figure that out as we get ready for Big Ten play."

Penn State
The Nittany Lions are the defending Big Ten co-champions and are selected second in the league during the preseason, but head coach Joe Paterno still isn't sure how good his team will be after suffering heavy losses at defensive back, offensive line and wideout.

"I'm not quite sure right now where we are for a lot of reasons," Paterno said. "We're going to have to take some young people and put them in key spots. There will probably be a couple of kids I haven't seen play yet, but that will go on for a while."

What Penn State does return in a first-team All-Big Ten quarterback in Daryll Clark, though the senior was pipped for the preseason league offensive player of the year award by Terrelle Pryor. No matter to Paterno, though, who discussed Clark's offseason growth.

"He loves to play, and he carries people with him," Paterno said. "He's a dynamite guy in the huddle. In your winter program, he's a guy out there pushing everybody, one of the guys that we have. And he's just, I think, going to have a fine year. But you've got to get better at the little things you do well and all of a sudden not try to jump too far ahead. I think if we can just keep him progressing, he'll be a really good football player."

Danny Hope's first year at the Big Ten media days drew a comparison to his predecessor's first. Joe Tiller arrived in 1997 to skipper a team that went 3-9 the year before, a record similar to the Boilermakers' 4-8 finish last year in Tiller's final campaign.

Tiller's spread offense took the Big Ten by storm that year, as quarterback Billy Dicken led Purdue to an 8-3 regular season before a win against Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl

"Well, there are a few comparisons," Hope said of 1997 and 2009. "We have a great home schedule for 2009, and we did as well in 1997. From a quarterback standpoint, I think there's some similarities. We had Billy Dicken in 1997, and he's a guy that had not played a whole lot and people didn't know a whole lot about. Same thing with our quarterback this year in Joey Elliott."

Elliott threw just 15 passes last year in relief of Curtis Painter before injury shut him down, but Hope is confident the senior has the ability to have a big year.

"He's been ready," Hope said. "I thought he was a heck of a quarterback and ready to go last year. Before he got injured he played very well. We're outside of our comfort zone, if you will, in some ways at Purdue. We're used to having a guy that's thrown for 10 to 12,000 yards and is up for every award a quarterback can be up for. That's not the case in 2009, but I'm a big Joey Elliott fan. I'm a lot more comfortable with the quarterback scenario with Joey Elliott than most people would realize."

Hope added, though, that redshirt freshman Caleb TerBush can expect to see some playing time as well as Purdue adds some more running plays out of the shotgun to their spread offense.

Wisconsin The Badgers have become known for physical play over the past few seasons, so it shouldn't be a surprise that the first question asked to head coach Bret Bielema was about the tight end position.

Following in the footsteps of players like Travis Beckum and Owen Daniels are Garrett Graham, who led the team with 40 catches and five touchdowns last year, as well as backups Mickey Shuler and Lance Kendricks.

"Garrett has developed," said Bielema, who pointed to a play in which Graham had his arm torn open before missing only a quarter as a monument to his toughness. "We'll move (Turner) around and play him in the fullback position. (Kendricks) probably runs as well as Travis, catches the ball very well and is a very intense young man."

Bielema also pointed to the three players he brought to Chicago – Graham, linebacker Jaevery McFadden and defensive end O'Brien Schofield – as players who epitomize the program he's trying to run.

"Those three guys kind of embody what this year's team is going to be about. We don't have a lot of high-profile names," Bielema said. "I think our guys have really taken a year to recover from (last year) and have a hunger in them that's burning pretty intense."

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