New coaches bring element of surprise to Leaders
Half of the six teams in the Big Ten's Leaders Division have new coaches, plus there are a lot of familiar names and some not so familiar ones coming back this fall.
But one thing hasn't changed: The drive to the conference title still runs through the picturesque college town of Madison, Wis.
''I believe we are the targeted team right now in the Big Ten because of what we've done these past two years,'' said Montee Ball, the Badgers' superstar running back. ''Everyone is probably shooting and gunning for us. That's why we make sure we practice just as hard as we did two years ago when we first went to the Rose Bowl, and last year as well. We make sure we do what we do here.
''We play Wisconsin football.''
Clearly, that's been a successful formula for the Badgers, who have won the last two Big Ten titles, including last year's inaugural conference championship game.
The Badgers lost half of their starters from an 11-3 team that outlasted Michigan State 42-39 last year to pick up the first Stagg Trophy. They also lost six key members of the coaching staff.
But they welcome back the conference's top offensive player in Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist who led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns. They also return maybe its top defender in second-team All-Big Ten linebacker Chris Borland.
Beyond the Badgers, it's difficult to figure who'll be the top contenders.
Perennial power Ohio State is coming off a woeful 6-7 season but has new coach Urban Meyer. Illinois has retooled with Tim Beckman now in charge. And division co-champion Penn State has replaced the iconic Joe Paterno with former NFL offensive guru Bill O'Brien.
All in all, the Leaders Division should make for an interesting mix of the old and new.
''You've got some profile coaches at some great programs,'' said Indiana's Kevin Wilson, third in seniority in the division after going 1-11 and 0-8 in his first Big Ten season. ''You'd like to think they'll handle those things in a great way and still have good teams. It'll play out, but it looks to me like both divisions there's going to be (in for) some jockeying.''
Meyer, who won two national championships at Florida, has already jousted with conference coaches over recruiting players who had made verbal commitments elsewhere.
His first team features returning quarterback Braxton Miller and 15 other starters, although Meyer - a coach who loves nothing more than guys who can break off a game-changing play - is still on the lookout for speedy players to whom Miller can hand or throw the ball.
''That's a work in progress,'' he said of the search for playmakers. ''I'm holding out hope that in this last half of spring that we're going to put them in situations where they're going to make plays.''
Beckman, who moved from Toledo to replace the fired Ron Zook, has been an assistant in the Big Ten and spent much of the rest of his career near the conference.
He has made a point of getting to know last year's Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who is a building block for the new coaching staff.
''Nathan's got great arm strength and he runs the ball extremely well,'' said Beckman, whose team has 15 starters back from a team that wilted down the stretch, but won a bowl to go 7-6. ''But the thing that you don't realize as a football coach until you're around him all the time is his leadership capability. He's done a fabulous job with that and getting this team better each and every day.''
Penn State is trying to move on in the wake of the ugly sex-abuse scandal, the firing of Paterno and his subsequent death. By hiring O'Brien, an acolyte of New England genius Bill Belichick, the school has its first head-coaching change since 1966.
The Nittany Lions, 9-4 overall a year ago and tied with Wisconsin atop the division at 6-2, have a surplus of QBs for O'Brien to fit into his pro-style offense: Matt McGloin, Rob Bolden and Paul Jones. The first two have shared the job, but all three have gotten equal first-team reps this spring.
''They've definitely progressed,'' he said. ''Each one of them is a different type of player. They've worked very hard. They're all bright guys. They all have different types of tools.
''I really enjoy being around them.''
Purdue has benefited from surviving a series of ghastly, injury-filled seasons. Caleb TerBush was the starting QB last year for a team that won a bowl game (the Big Ten was just 4-6 in the postseason). There's Robert Marve, a former Miami Hurricanes starter who has had an injury-plagued career at Purdue but is now healthy after the NCAA handed him a final year of eligibility. Then there's Rob Henry, another starter who is out this spring after knee surgery.
It's reached the point where the Boilermakers shifted another former starter at QB, Sean Robinson, to linebacker.
''Having all these guys back is great, and unique in a lot of ways, but it gives us a lot of opportunities for this upcoming season,'' coach Danny Hope said.
Wisconsin is the only Leaders team that doesn't have its starting quarterback returning. But don't feel sorry for the Badgers. They've got three players fighting for the job this spring. Then, in June, they get Danny O'Brien, a former Maryland star who transferred in to play much like last year's stellar starter did, ex-North Carolina State standout Russell Wilson. Wilson led the Badgers, of course, to a second straight Rose Bowl and top-10 ranking.
No wonder everyone thinks that, despite losing half of their front-line players, the Badgers will be in the thick of the race once again.
Coach Bret Bielema downplays his team's favorite's role while at the same time sounding as if he's looking forward to the struggles ahead.
''We added three great coaches with great history,'' he said. ''It's going to be fun, I think it's exciting. It's what the Big Ten is all about. You have some transition. It's hopefully going to make the whole conference a national contender on a bigger stage.''
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