5 Big Ten spring football questions
Five questions to answer and issues to address as Big Ten teams — there are 14 of them now, if that makes any sense — take to the field at some point this month for spring football practice, even as it’s very much winter across much of the conference.
It will (thankfully) be August before we know it.
Can Ohio State fix its defensive issues?
The Buckeyes ran off 24 straight wins in Urban Meyer’s first two seasons before losing two straight to close 2013, and even before the losses came there were signs of impending trouble with a defense that suffered personnel losses and had too many bad habits. Now, some of that defense’s best players in the back seven are gone, and co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers and defensive line coach Mike Vrabel have moved on to different jobs, too. Meyer has recruited too well not to have a better defense, and with the hires of Chris Ash and Larry Johnson to replace the departed coaches and four weeks of spring ball to improve fundamentals and inspire competition from gifted but largely unproven players, the Buckeyes have to be better by the time September comes if they want to have any chance of reaching their lofty goals in November, December and January.
What does Michigan State do for an encore?
The Spartans have open jobs and big shoes to fill, especially on defense. There’s talent on hand, though, both of the game-proven and unproven variety, and Michigan State will eventually have to prove it can handle playing as the hunted, not the hunter. When spring practice opens later this month, the focus will be on getting the offense to play like it did late last season right off the bat in 2014. Quarterback Connor Cook’s confidence should be high, and running back Jeremy Langford will have his sights set on an even bigger year. Three offensive line starters are gone but there are players with experience ready to move into larger roles. With momentum comes confidence, but spring is simply an appetizer for high expectations in East Lansing.
Can Michigan use the spring to make a leap?
When Michigan State and Ohio State are headlining teams not just in conference but nationally, that’s not going to play well in Ann Arbor. Even if you don’t believe Brady Hoke is on the hot seat, he’s certainly not in a comfortable seat, not with Michigan’s rivals doing what they’re doing and with the way the Wolverines collapsed down the stretch last season. The best news as spring ball starts is that senior quarterback Devin Gardner is back sooner than expected from the toe injury that kept him out of the bowl game last December, and that’s especially important since Michigan spent big bucks to bring offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier from Alabama to give the offense a new and necessary life. If Gardner can be ready to lead from Day One, that’s one fewer question surrounding a team that’s going to be watched very closely this season.
Quarterback battles all around
Joel Stave is back for Wisconsin, but he enters spring competing to retain his job. "It’s his job to lose, Badgers coach Gary Andersen said, but he has company. Nebraska has the roster to beat Wisconsin and Iowa to win the newly-constructed West Division, but the Huskers first must find a quarterback and spring ball brings a competition to watch between Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Johnny Stanton. There could be as many as nine new quarterbacks leaguewide by the time the season starts, including touted Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt at Illinois. Ohio State’s Braxton Miller returns as the two-time Big Ten Player of the Year but will be limited this spring by what the school calls minor shoulder surgery. The spring will be big for Cardale Jones and redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett not just in looking at 2015 but because Miller gets hurt when the real games start, and super insurance policy Kenny Guiton has moved on. Cook will be pushed at Michigan State, and now that Stephen Morris has game experience at Michigan he’ll have a chance to make a strong spring impression, too.
How quickly will leaders emerge?
Iowa is replacing basically its entire linebacking corps, and Wisconsin will be hard pressed to replace the kind of leadership it got from the likes of Chris Borland and Jared Abbrederis. No job should feel safe at Purdue and Illinois, just to name a couple, and there’s a new leader in the coach’s office at Penn State as James Franklin replaces Bill O’Brien as head coach and hopes to help gifted young quarterback Christian Hackenberg continue his development. Northwestern has Trevor Siemian back at quarterback but in a bigger role, and with the way 2013 ended the Wildcats need not only to get healthy this spring but to develop strong leaders across the board. Spring football is supposed to be about positives — get ready to hear coaches say everybody is stronger, faster and more mature — but it’s also about laying the foundation for the really big months later in the year.