Michigan's Kovacs already eyes opener vs. Alabama
He knows the spring game is still ahead and there are five months until the season begins.
But he is thinking hard about the Wolverines' opener against defending national champion Alabama at Cowboys Stadium in Texas, a game that is adding some urgency to practices in Ann Arbor this spring.
Alabama provides the ultimate measuring-stick game, Kovacs said Tuesday during a Big Ten Legends Division teleconference.
''It's no secret the SEC has won the last six national championships,'' he said. ''It's a very powerful conference, and we expect Alabama to be the best in that conference, and that's how we'll prepare. It's going to be a true test of where we're at.''
Spring practice is winding down most places in the Big Ten.
Legends Division spring games are Saturday at Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern, April 21 at Minnesota and April 28 at Michigan State. Leaders Division spring games are Saturday at Illinois, Indiana and Purdue, April 21 at Ohio State and Penn State and April 28 at Wisconsin.
Kovacs isn't the only Big Ten player looking ahead to his team's opener. Andrew Maxwell, who will replace record-setting quarterback Kirk Cousins at division champion Michigan State, will make his first career start against Boise State on Aug. 31. The Broncos were No. 8 in the final AP poll.
''I think it centers our focus as a team through the offseason and through spring ball and through camp, knowing we have to be sharp and ready to go Game 1,'' Maxwell said. ''Boise State, their recent success speaks for itself. They're a top-10, top-15 program in this country. For me personally, it's exciting to have that be my first start. For this team it's a great statement as to where we are as a program that we're scheduling these kinds of games early in the season.''
Michigan State (11-3, 7-1 Big Ten last season) believes it is built to last after back-to-back 11-win seasons. The Spartans are without Cousins, who set almost every school passing record, and have big holes to fill at receiver. But they return six offensive linemen who have started, and eight defensive starters are back.
Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said that even though Boise State ''is in the back of our mind,'' the key to the spring is to improve fundamentals.
Dantonio said he's not worried about turning the offense over to Maxwell, who has been in the system for three years and appeared in nine games last season.
''Great things are around the corner for him,'' Dantonio said.
At Michigan (11-2, 6-2), Denard Robinson has led the Big Ten in total offense two straight years and is in position to break the conference quarterback rushing record held by Antwaan Randle El. The Wolverines also have an established starting running back in Fitzgerald Toussaint.
Coach Brady Hoke's biggest concerns are the lines. The Wolverines lost an All-America center in David Molk, and three of the four starters are gone on the defensive front.
''On either side it's not very good right now,'' Hoke said. ''I think the kids are working, and they're coming in here with energy and all those things. But the expectation level of how physical we want to be as a football team, we're not where we need to be.''
Nebraska (9-4, 5-3) is looking for defensive improvement after slipping a bit during its first season in the Big Ten.
Injuries have kept several top defensive linemen out of spring practice, and coach Bo Pelini said that has allowed his staff to evaluate young players and build depth. Alonzo Whaley has established himself as the front-runner to take over at weakside linebacker for record-setting tackler Lavonte David.
Daimion Stafford has made a big jump at safety after being in the program for a year, and there are as many as eight players who could get significant time in the secondary. Running back Rex Burkhead has taken limited snaps in scrimmages because of the pounding he took in the fall.
''Going into his senior year, he's set up to do some great things,'' Pelini said.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz hired new coordinators on both sides of the ball, but don't expect the Hawkeyes (7-6, 4-4) to look much different.
Phil Parker was promoted from secondary coach to defensive coordinator, replacing Norm Parker (no relation). Greg Davis, Texas' offensive coordinator from 1998-2010, took over after Ken O'Keefe left to join the Miami Dolphins' staff..
Phil Parker will keep the Hawkeyes' 4-3 defensive alignment, and Davis will expand the passing game but won't stray a lot from the power football Ferentz favors.
James Vandenberg, entering his second year as starting quarterback, said the Hawkeyes need to build consistency. That's especially true on the road, where they were 1-4.
''You have to concentrate more,'' he said, ''and that's something we weren't able to do very well last year.''
Northwestern (6-7, 3-5) figures to be offensive-driven again with Kain Colter moving full-time to quarterback. Colter did a little of everything last year, throwing for 673 yards and six touchdowns, rushing for 654 yards and nine touchdowns as a running back and catching 43 balls for 466 yards and three TDs as a receiver.
Colter said he's glad to settle into one position.
''It gives me a chance to take the leadership over,'' he said. ''That's been good, and so is being able to focus on my mechanics and getting my passing a little better.''
Minnesota (3-9, 2-6) continues to mourn last week's death of linebacker Gary Tinsley, who finished his career last season and was on track to graduate next month. The Gophers practiced Tuesday for the first time since Tinsley was found dead in his campus apartment.
Coach Jerry Kill, who has seven starters back on offense and six on defense, said he is seeing progress. One of the most improved players is quarterback MarQueis Gray, who moved from receiver last year.
''I would say there's no comparison to where he was last spring to where he is now,'' Kill said. ''We have to get people around him to help him out.''