During the course of spring practice, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett visited 11 of the 12 league schools, getting an up-close look at the players and coaches who will shape the 2012 season.
Now it's time for them to share their thoughts on what they saw and learned this spring, and you can follow along as they exchange emails. First, they'll discuss the teams in the Leaders Division. A Legends Division email exchange will arrive in the near future.
Brian Bennett: Adam, I guess the biggest story in the Big Ten this spring was the culture change at both Penn State and Ohio State. You went to both places. What was your sense of how different things are there now, compared to your previous visits to State College and Columbus?
Adam Rittenberg: There's definitely a new energy in both football complexes, Brian. Change can be tough on fans, especially at a place like Penn State where they've only known their program under Joe Paterno's watch, but the players seem to be excited about the new ways things are operating. At Penn State, they're excited to play for a coach (Bill O'Brien) who comes straight from the NFL and has made some much-needed modernizations to certain areas of the program (strength program, offensive philosophy). The enthusiasm about strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald and his philosophy really stood out to me at Penn State. I was also impressed by some of the younger players like freshman tight end Jesse James and redshirt freshman defensive end Deion Barnes.
The changes aren't as dramatic at Ohio State because Urban Meyer retained so many assistants from the previous staff. On the other hand, the thought of Ohio State running a true no-huddle, spread offense amazes players as much as it does the rest of us after so many years of TresselBall. One welcome change with both programs is greater accessibility for the media (and, through us, the fans). I had to pinch myself a few times while watching a Penn State practice.
You made your first visit to Madison, where, judging by the pictures you posted on Twitter, you likely gained 15 pounds and lost that Kentucky twang. What stood out about your time in Mad-city?
Brian Bennett: I'm just now shedding the last of those cheese curds from my system. Change was not really a buzzword with the Badgers, even with a slew of new assistant coaches and some turnover at key positions. This program has a system it believes in and will continue to do the same things year in, year out with new faces.
Wisconsin is still all about running the ball, and Montee Ball looked terrific during the practice he participated in while I was there. If possible, he's even a step faster, and backup Melvin Gordon is going to be a star someday as well. The quarterbacks and receivers weren't nearly as impressive or consistent, but Danny O'Brien wasn't there and Jared Abbrederis was out with his foot injury. I am intrigued by the size of some of the Badgers wideouts, like Marquis Mason (6-foot-4) and Chase Hammond (6-5). The Badgers could be effective throwing some jump balls to those guys, and with their tight ends and offensive line, their offense is going to be just fine.
There are more questions on the defense, but I liked what I saw from the defensive tackles and the secondary, which looks a little more athletic. We know the linebackers will be good with Chris Borland and Mike Taylor. If David Gilbert or someone else can come back and give them a pass rusher from the defensive end spot, this team should be loaded for a run at repeating in the Leaders Division.
I see Illinois as a bit of a mystery team in the division, with a new coach and a new system. How much progress did the Illini make in learning the spread under Tim Beckman, and do they have enough offensive playmakers to run it?
Adam Rittenberg: I don't think they do, although running back Josh Ferguson's performance in the spring game raises hope. Illinois also has some versatile players in cornerback Terry Hawthorne and quarterback Miles Osei who can fill in at receiver and/or running back if need be. But Beckman has been candid about the lack of depth at running back, and we both saw how that offense fared after opposing teams limited A.J. Jenkins' effectiveness. I do think quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase could end up being a good fit for the spread. He obviously has the mobility you need at that position, and while his arm strength is a question mark, he should be able to spread the ball around if enough weapons emerge. I think it's critical for receiver Darius Millines to stay healthy. He really had stood out in practices, but he just can't stay on the field.
I liked what co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said about the offense needing to regain its swagger. It's still hard to pinpoint exactly what happened to the unit last year, but I know when a spread offense establishes a nice tempo, it's awfully hard to stop. But here's the thing with Illinois: it might only need to score 20-24 points a game. The defense should be really, really good, and potentially better than last year's crew. The coaches are really excited about Michael Buchanan at end, and the front seven could be the best in the Big Ten.
You also spent some time in the Hoosier State this spring. Purdue coach Danny Hope feels this is his best team. Things couldn't get much worse for Kevin Wilson at Indiana after a 1-11 clunker in 2011. What sense did you get from being in West Lafayette and Bloomington?
Brian Bennett: I sensed quite a bit of confidence coming out of Purdue's camp. That will happen when you have 18 starters back, three healthy quarterbacks and are coming off a bowl win (granted, only against Western Michigan, but it beats the alternative).
The Boilermakers didn't let reporters watch any meaningful parts of spring practice because they're installing Tim Tibesar's new defensive system, so I didn't learn as much about them as I'd like. Still, it's clear this team has experience and some major talent with guys like Kawann Short and Ricardo Allen on defense. I think Purdue is very much a sleeper in the division, though we're going to need to see this team cut down some of its mental mistakes and play with far greater consistency than it has in the Danny Hope era.
The best thing I saw from Indiana was competency on defense. Wilson played so many freshmen last year, and the benefit is that those guys are now a year older and know the system. They were able to execute it much better this spring, and the juco kids will help a lot. The Hoosiers have some nice players on offense, like young quarterback Tre Roberson, running backs Stephen Houston and Isaiah Roundtree and tight end Ted Bolser, and I think Seth Littrell's system will play well to their strengths. Yet you look at the roster and compare it to the upper echelon of the Big Ten, and it's clear that Indiana has a long way to go to catch up and be any sort of factor in the league race.
I came away from the spring still thinking Wisconsin will win this division, but I also believe it will be a tight race and that Penn State could very well take it. Ohio State might end up being the best team in the Leaders but can't play for the league title. Did your spring visits make you feel any differently about the division?
Adam Rittenberg: I agree that Wisconsin remains the team to beat, but I came away thinking the division could have greater depth. The Legends still looks stronger with Michigan State, Michigan and Nebraska up top, and every Leaders Division team has some flaws. But Wisconsin knows how to win, returns a nice core and added a key piece in O'Brien. Ohio State will be a better defensive football team -- end John Simon is poised for an enormous senior season, and hopes are high for tackle Johnathan Hankins, too -- and while there will be some growing pains on offense, it's not as if the Buckeyes set an impressive benchmark in 2011. They were mostly awful.
Penn State and Illinois are very similar teams to me. Both have new coaches whose hiring elicited some skepticism. Both look extremely strong in the defensive front seven. Both retained excellent D-line coaches from the previous staff (Larry Johnson, Keith Gilmore). Both have standout linebackers (Gerald Hodges, Jonathan Brown) and stout defensive tackles (Jordan Hill, Akeem Spence). And both have major question marks on offense: Penn State more so at quarterback, Illinois more so at running back/receiver. Still, if the defenses perform to their capability, Penn State and/or Illinois could really make some noise in a wide-open division.