Spring brings fresh starts around Big Ten

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
9:00
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Spring football kicks off earlier than normal in the Big Ten, as Michigan takes the field Tuesday, Northwestern follows Wednesday and eight other squads begin their sessions by March 8.

The accelerated schedules seem appropriate in a league filled with players, coaches and teams itching for fresh starts.

New assistants get their first chance to repair struggling units, whether it's Doug Nussmeier with Michigan's offense, Brian Knorr with Indiana's defense or Chris Ash and Larry Johnson with a once-feared Ohio State defense. Quarterback competitions begin or resume at nine places, as new faces such as Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Johnny Stanton and Minnesota's Chris Streveler enter the mix, while veterans like Wisconsin's Joel Stave and Michigan's Devin Gardner try to retain their starting jobs.

Happy Valley continues to buzz about new Penn State coach James Franklin, who seems to galvanize everyone whom he encounters. But Franklin barely has been around his new players and finally begins the real work with a team facing very real challenges.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes his team can start a rebound from a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013 season.
Spring also allows teams such as Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue and Indiana to look forward after disappointing seasons. Michigan State, meanwhile, continues to bask in the Rose Bowl glow but looks toward its next goal -- a national championship -- as spring ball kicks off March 25.

"It's big-picture stuff, building relationships with the players and everyone associated with the program," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The other thing is laying a really good foundation with the philosophies and schemes of how we're going to do things. That's going to happen naturally over time, but I'm not the most patient person. I wish it would have happened yesterday."

Franklin doesn't water down his goals for Penn State, especially in recruiting, but he's also realistic about the challenges of a reduced roster. The Nittany Lions return strong pieces such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive back Adrian Amos, but the two-deep has some holes that Franklin and his assistants must address, while installing new schemes.

"It's one thing when you get put in this situation in the first place with limited scholarships," Franklin said, "but the longer you're in it, the more effect it has. We've got some depth issues, there's no doubt about it, across the board. We're going to have to get creative."

Northwestern also is focused on depth after being hit hard by key injuries in 2013. Pat Fitzgerald blames himself and his staff for failing to get enough second-stringers ready, which proved costly in close Big Ten losses.

After their first bowl-less winter in six years, the Wildcats responded well in the weight room, as more than 50 players recorded personal bests. Although 11 players will miss spring practice, including standout running back/returner Venric Mark, the depth should be better in areas like the secondary.

"We're really emphasizing taking ownership of the finish," Fitzgerald said. "Finishing your technique, finishing the call, finishing the route. There's a lot of disappointment in the way the program didn't take the next step forward."

Michigan coach Brady Hoke restructured the roles of his defensive assistants for 2014, but the Wolverines' offense will be in the spotlight this spring after a wildly inconsistent season. Gardner, who continues to recover from a foot injury and likely won't be 100 percent until midway through the spring, will compete with Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and midyear enrollee Wilton Speight.

But other positions, such as offensive line, figure to be just as important as Michigan tries to achieve Hoke and Nussmeier's vision.

"We had good intentions as far as what we wanted our identity to be, but obviously I don't think it came out the way we'd like it to," Hoke said. "The quarterback position is as important as any, and we have a guy [Gardner] who is very talented and had some really good games and games where we had to protect him better, have a better run game and take pressure off of him, and I don't think we did."

While Michigan turns the page on offense, Ohio State focuses on a defense that allowed 115 points in its last three games and finished 110th nationally in pass yards allowed (268 YPG). The Buckeyes lost top defenders Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, but they also added two accomplished assistants.

Johnson, who churned out NFL linemen during 18 years at Penn State, chose Ohio State instead of remaining in State College. Ash leaves a sole coordinator role at Arkansas for a co-coordinator role at Ohio State, where he'll work with the embattled Luke Fickell and others to mend the defense through a simplified scheme.

"Back in the day when Ohio State played great defense, you knew what you were going to get," Ash said. "They played with swagger, played with confidence, played with toughness. We have to get back to that. The simplicity of the things we're going to do will lead to faster players, more plays made and a more aggressive defense.

"I wasn't here [in 2013], but I can tell you what Coach Meyer has told me, what Luke Fickell has told me and what I watch on film. I can see there's some hesitation, there's some uncertainty. Why that is, I don't know. But it's my job to get it fixed."

Purdue has plenty to fix after a 1-11 season, and players not surprisingly are wearing T-shirts with the word "FORWARD" on the backs. Maryland and Rutgers move forward to a new conference after an offseason that saw several staff changes, including new coordinators at Rutgers (Ralph Friedgen, Joe Rossi).

There's a fresh start of sorts at Wisconsin, as a large and decorated senior class departs. Coach Gary Andersen's markings will be more obvious with his second team, which begins practice March 7.

Wisconsin is just one of many places where the top quarterback job is at stake. Lunt, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, competes with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey at Illinois.

"Competition's competition, no matter where it's at," said Lunt, who has added about 15 pounds since his arrival and checks in at 225. "It's different because it’s different people, different coaches, but I'm excited for it."

He's not alone in the Big Ten. Spring ball can't start soon enough.

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