- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Spring (practice) has sprung in the Big Ten. So let's look back and review the highlights:
Best debut by a player: Ohio State true freshman Michael Thomas introduced himself to Buckeyes fans with 12 catches for 131 yards in the spring game. No Buckeyes player had more than 14 catches all season in 2011. Don't expect Thomas to replicate that performance every week in the fall, and Ohio State was throwing the ball all over the place in its spring game. Still, for an offense that was desperately seeking playmakers to surround Braxton Miller, Thomas's performance was very encouraging.
Best debut by a coach: (Tie) Urban Meyer and Bill O'Brien. The new coaches at Ohio State and Penn State didn't take long to endear themselves to their constituents. Already wildly popular among Buckeyes fans, Meyer brought the team and the student body a little closer by inviting students to watch a practice, even allowing them on the field during a kicking drill. O'Brien made Penn State's practices more open to public scrutiny, and then went around the state and area to meet and greet fans on a caravan tour. No wonder that the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions ranked first and third nationally in spring game attendance.
Best debut by a mascot: Mark Dantonio livened up Michigan State's spring game by putting Sparty -- the school mascot -- in for a running play. Sparty hardly looked like a warrior, getting stuffed immediately on the play and then fumbling, but Dantonio bailed him out by ruling that the defense was offside. There was no more entertaining sequence in any spring game in the country than that one.
Best fill-in for a Heisman finalist: Wisconsin, like a lot of teams, saw no reason to put its star players at risk in the spring game. So 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball watched from the sidelines as redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon ran 30 times for 159 yards and a touchdown. Gordon is stuck behind Ball and James White, but head coach Bret Bielema told ESPN.com that Gordon "might have the most talent of any kid ever I've signed at that position."
Best overhyped position move: A massive fan base and closed spring practices combined to have Michigan fans rampantly speculating about backup quarterback Devin Gardner moving to receiver. A Facebook update supposedly confirmed the move -- until it was later revealed as a fake. Bottom line: Gardner spent some time working at wideout, but is a long way from being an impact player there. And he's still the backup quarterback.
Best spring break: It's hard to question Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez's desire to get better. When the Huskers let their players loose for spring break in the middle of their practice session, Martinez eschewed the beach or the ski slopes. Instead, he went to California to work on his footwork with quarterback instructor Steve Calhoun. The word around Lincoln this spring was that Martinez's fundamentals and passing were much improved. If that's the case this fall, Nebraska's offense should be awfully dangerous.
Best big score: Thanks to a modified scoring system, Northwestern defensive tackle Chance Carter earned 17 points for his team when he returned an interception 19 yards for a touchdown. "It should be a pick-17 every time -- especially for a defensive tackle," Carter later joked. The play by the defense and the front four in particular (four sacks, plus that pick) provided some optimism for a team that struggled to stop anybody last season.
Best Food Network Challenge: New Illinois coach Tim Beckman knows the way to his players' hearts is through their stomachs. Illini team members who missed team meetings were forced to eat porridge for breakfast this offseason, while those who met their requirements received steak and eggs. The same was true at the spring game, with the losing Orange squad getting a postgame meal of beans and weenies instead of the steaks for the victorious Blue squad. We'll see if this motivational technique makes Illinois hungry enough to contend for a Big Ten title this fall.
Best hair: Spring is a time for experimenting, and that includes hairdos. Purdue defensive end Ryan Russell dyed his hair bright red and cut it into a mohawk. He also tested out some other colors during the Boilermakers' spring practice. "It's just a spring thing," he said. "I might change it up and do something different for the season."
Best quote: Dantonio didn't mince words when ESPN.com asked him about the challenges Michigan might present in the future with the Wolverines' strong recruiting efforts. "We're laying in the weeds," he said. "We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?" Michigan State fans loved the quote, while Michigan fans despised it. But the Spartans have earned bragging rights. They'll try to keep them when they visit the Big House on Oct. 20