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June 16, 2009

Whispers: Post-spring issues in the Big Ten

Spring practice is finished across the nation, but not every question was answered.

Every school has one big, vexing query that hangs over its program. This is part six of a series examining the biggest question each "Big Six" squad faces.

This week, we look at the Big Ten.

Illinois: Can the defense hold up? The unit improved in the last two weeks of spring, but there still will be a first-year starter at free safety in Supo Sanni and three new guys (Martez Wilson was the starting weakside linebacker last fall but has moved to the middle) at linebacker. Plus, the Fighting Illini must find a consistent pass rusher. End Jerry Brown may be the guy.

Indiana: Who will make plays on offense? The unit took a bit hit when Kellen Lewis was kicked off the team. He had been moved from quarterback to wide receiver in hopes of maximizing his playmaking skills. This offense needs playmakers at wide receiver, and the running game also needs to improve.

Iowa: Will the Hawkeyes be strong enough up the middle? One of Iowa's big keys to success in 2008 was the middle of the offensive and defensive lines. The o-line opened big holes for RB Shonn Greene, while the d-line excelled at stuffing the run. The staff wasn't happy with the play at center after Julian Vandervelde was moved from guard. And no one is sure how the defensive tackles will perform with Mitch King and Matt Kroul gone. Staffers hope sophomore Mike Daniels and junior Karl Klug can hold up for the Hawkeyes.

Michigan: Will the offense be any better? It showed signs of life in the spring after an atrocious debut under Rich Rodriguez. Turnovers were a huge issue last fall, as the Wolverines ranked last in the Big Ten in turnover margin. But the biggest problem for an attack that ranked 109th in the nation was the lack of a quarterback suited to run the spread-option offense. Junior Nick Sheridan is back after playing in eight games, but true freshman Tate Forcier turned heads in the spring and may be the answer if he can fend off a challenge from fellow true freshman Denard Robinson.

Michigan State: Is there another Javon Ringer in the house? Not likely. Ringer was the ultimate workhorse last fall for the Spartans, leading the nation with 390 carries and 22 rushing TDs en route to rumbling for 1,637 yards. Michigan State likely will use a committee approach that includes sophomores Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett, redshirt freshman Caulton Ray and senior A.J. Jimmerson. Incoming freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper also could get a look.

Minnesota: How well will the personnel adapt to the new offensive scheme? Tim Brewster dumped the spread and hired Jedd Fisch from the Denver Broncos to install a more ground-oriented attack. Brewster also hired two other offensive coaches in running game coordinator Tim Davis and receivers coach Richard Hightower. Quarterback Adam Weber and wide receiver Eric Decker are good building blocks, but the line remains a work in progress and there doesn't appear to be a top-flight running back.

Northwestern: Is there any air in the passing attack? Everyone knows new starting quarterback Mike Kafka can run, but can he throw well enough to keep defenses honest? In addition, Northwestern lost its top three receivers from a year ago, so Kafka will be throwing to some inexperienced targets.

Ohio State: Are there playmakers at linebacker? Gone are James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman. Coaches will build around weakside linebacker Ross Homan, who can make plays from sideline to sideline. Senior Austin Spitler steps into the middle linebacker role, with Tyler Moeller taking over as the strongside 'backer. This group must come together quickly if the Buckeyes hope to continue their run of Big Ten dominance.

Penn State: Who will catch passes? Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood are gone. That trio combined for 466 receptions, 6,107 yards and 44 TD grabs in their careers. Daryll Clark may be the top quarterback in the Big Ten, but he needs some targets to help take the pressure off running back Evan Royster. Redshirt freshman A.J. Price, junior Brett Brackett and sophomore Chaz Powell need to emerge at wide receiver.

Purdue: Will the passing attack take flight? The Boilermakers will turn to senior quarterback Joey Elliott, who has limited experience and is coming off a serious shoulder injury. Further muddling matters is that the receiving corps likely will need to rely heavily on newcomers.

Wisconsin: Will the Badgers get good quarterback play? Many are worried about a front seven that returns only two starters. But quarterback is more of a worry. Senior Dustin Sherer emerged from spring drills as the starter, but redshirt freshman Curt Phillips should push for the job during fall camp. The coaches felt Sherer played better in the spring than he did last season and is more comfortable in his role. But the staff likes Phillips' athletic ability and the way he finished spring practices with a flourish.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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