11 questions for Big Ten spring football
College football coaches don't get mulligans. They have to live with their mistakes, day after day.
Rich Rodriguez's first season ended more than four months ago. The final indignity, a 42-7 loss to Ohio State, put the lid on a 3-9 season—worst in Michigan history.
"Normally you think: It's the off-season, you can enjoy it," Rodriguez said.
"But you're kind of miserable after losing that many games."
Bret Bielema can relate. Just as Wisconsin recovered from the sting of a midseason four-game losing streak, the Badgers got decked in the Champs Sports Bowl, a 42-13 loss to Florida State.
"In my profession," Bielema said,
"it all starts at the top. And I've made some adjustments in terms of how I handle certain areas of the program."
For starters, Bielema moved back Wisconsin's spring practice schedule. He figured that if players make their biggest speed and strength gains over the summer, why not give them an extra seven- to eight-week conditioning period?
"What's better than one summer?" he asked.
So summer in Madison started in February and ended Tuesday, with the team's first spring practice.
Rodriguez began spring practice 11 days earlier than any other Big Ten program.
Can you blame the man for wanting to shorten his off-season after a winter of program-wide soul-searching?
"When you have a season like we did, you take great pains to evaluate everything," he said.
"It's not fun but you've got to do it."
With the final batch of Big Ten schools—including Northwestern, Illinois and Ohio State—opening spring practice this week, let's look at one key question for each.
Who will block for Terrelle Pryor? Two follow-ups: Who will catch Terrelle Pryor's passes? And who will carry the rock? Ohio State lost Beanie Wells, the pass-catching Brians (Hartline and Robiskie) and three starters on the offensive line. In recent years, coach Jim Tressel has snapped his fingers and found able-bodied, NFL-bound replacements. He'll need to do that again to avoid stunting Pryor's growth.
Will Illinois be lean and mean or fat and happy? The hypermotivated group that earned a trip to Pasadena, Calif., after the 2007 season snoozed its way to seven losses last year. "I think [the Rose Bowl berth] had some type of effect," quarterback Juice Williams told ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg. "Guys kind of slacked off a little bit."
Will Northwestern thrive with a true dual-threat QB? C.J. Bacher's toes didn't twinkle like those of new starter Mike Kafka, who set a Big Ten record with 217 rushing yards at Minnesota. The offense will get a face-lift after the graduations of Tyrell Sutton, Ross Lane, Rasheed Ward and Eric Peterman.
Is Penn State already out of the national-title chase? Remember how the basketball team went 10-8 in Big Ten play but didn't make the NCAA tournament because of its lame non-conference schedule? Penn State could go undefeated in 2009 and get snubbed for the BCS title game by one-loss teams from the SEC and Big 12. Why? Because of an indefensible non-league schedule of Akron, Syracuse, Temple and Eastern Illinois.
Has Iowa found a hidden Jewel? The Hawkeyes hope Jewel Hampton, a 5-foot-9-inch, 200-pound sophomore from Indianapolis, can dull the loss of Shonn Greene. The Doak Walker Award and Silver Football winner rushed for 1,850 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Will Wisconsin get back to being Wisconsin? In February, Bielema met for at least 15 minutes with all 98 of his players to seek their input on how to rebuild after a 7-6 season. Two results: He created a Badger Council—two players from each position group who contribute ideas—and he weeded out players with bad attitudes, yanking four from the roster.
Can Michigan survive with another green quarterback? A small fracture in Nick Sheridan's right leg leaves incoming freshman Tate Forcier as the Wolverines' best quarterback in spring camp. Another incoming freshman, Denard Robinson, will arrive on campus in June and challenge for the starting job. "The real competition," Rodriguez said, "will come in August."
Who will take on Javon Ringer's workload? Ringer carried 390 times—83 more than any other Big Ten player. No wonder Michigan State currently lists four co-starters: A.J. Jimmerson, Andre Anderson, Ashton Leggett and Caulton Ray.
Where will Indiana's Kellen Lewis play? Not quarterback, which is amazing considering Lewis has thrown for 6,395 yards and made second-team all-Big Ten in 2007. But Lewis has moved to receiver, giving way to part-time 2008 starter Ben Chappell.
"When you go 3-9," Lewis told ESPN.com,
"you've got to change something."
Is Minnesota ready for the curtain to rise? The Gophers will unveil their new 50,300-seat, on-campus home—TCF Bank Stadium—Sept. 12 against Air Force. Though a 7-1 start decayed into a 7-6 final record, the Gophers return quarterback Adam Weber and the league's top pass-catcher, Eric Decker. Shoulder surgery will shelve Weber this spring, allowing backup MarQueis Gray to begin to justify comparisons to Vince Young.
Are we already tired of those 'renewed Hope at Purdue' puns? Oh, yes. But they do apply. Purdue officials say the program has been energized by the transition of power from Joe Tiller to former Purdue assistant and Eastern Kentucky coach Danny Hope.