Friday, February 18, 2011
Huskers headline Big Ten spring makeover
By Adam Rittenberg
Brady Hoke, left, and Bo Pelini are two of the new faces in the Big Ten.
Nebraska's official moving date isn't until July 1, but it might as well be March 12.
On that day, the Huskers will step onto the field for their first spring practice as a Big Ten program. There's no looking back. Nebraska has closed the book on the Big 12 (probably slammed it shut and torched the damn thing). Everything the Huskers football program does from this point on -- scheme installation, player development, recruiting -- impacts them in their new league.
"We're already watching film on the Big Ten games from last year," Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead said. "We're not playing the same Big 12 teams every year, so now it's a whole new conference, a whole different style of games, so we're just looking forward to it."
Nebraska is in the Big Ten. Let that sink in for a minute.
For the first time since 1993, the Big Ten will enter spring football as a bigger league and, in all likelihood, a better one. The conference not only adds a storied football program in Nebraska, but its expansion to 12 members brings historic changes.
Divisional play begins this season and the Big Ten will hold its inaugural football championship game Dec. 3 in Indianapolis. Archrivals Ohio State and Michigan still want to destroy each other in late November, but they also must focus on winning their respective divisions, the Leaders and the Legends.
Nebraska's arrival and the expansion ripple effect are only part of the newness surrounding the Big Ten this spring. Three programs welcome new coaching staffs as Brady Hoke takes over at Michigan, Kevin Wilson at Indiana and Jerry Kill at Minnesota. The Big Ten featured no unplanned head-coaching changes in each of the previous two seasons.
The league also witnessed a surge of assistant coach changes in the offseason, including an unprecedented amount of moves from one member school to another. Four Big Ten position coaches -- Nebraska's Tim Beck, Michigan State's Dan Roushar and Wisconsin's Charlie Partridge and Chris Ash -- have been promoted to coordinator spots and will begin the scheme-shaping process this spring.
Only two Big Ten coaching staffs -- Penn State and Iowa -- remain fully intact from 2010.
There's an inherent newness about spring football, which provides a clean slate no matter what happened the previous season. But for a league steeped in tradition and not known for dramatic change, this is a fairly extreme makeover.
Hoke isn't new to Michigan -- he spent eight years as a Wolverines assistant -- and he wants to restore the old winning ways in Ann Arbor. The spring brings no shortage of challenges for Hoke and his assistants, who inherit the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Denard Robinson but also a defense that reached historic lows under the previous regime.
Most importantly, Hoke must outline his expectations and demands for a group of players he didn't recruit.
"I want to make sure we're crystal clear on the direction we want to go," he said. "They have to understand the goal of the program and how we're going to go about achieving that goal, the accountability to each other, the toughness that we want to play the game with, the mentality we want to play the game with and the demeanor that you play the game with."
Culture change is a term Wilson has used often during his short time at Indiana. He says he hasn't watched a nanosecond of tape from last year's team. It's a new deal now.
For the Hoosiers to truly turn a corner as a program, they have to believe they can get there.
"We have recruited harder with our current football team than the kids we [signed in February] or the kids for next year," Wilson said. "We really think we're not far away and we're excited about what we can do. I think we're a lot better than people think, including ourselves.
"Our football team is better than our football team thinks it can be."
After succeeding at just about every level of football, Kill steps on the big stage this spring in Minneapolis. He'll be working with more talent than he ever has but plans to stick with the schemes and philosophies that got him here. Among his first priorities is integrating a dynamic offensive system around MarQueis Gray, who moves back to the quarterback spot full time after playing receiver this past fall.
The spring will bring quarterback competitions at places like Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana and Nebraska. Ohio State faces the unique task of preparing for the impending suspensions of five players, including quarterback Terrelle Pryor and three other offensive starters. Northwestern and Purdue both will go through the spring without quarterbacks Dan Persa and Robert Marve, who are working their way back from injuries. The practice field will be a welcomed site for Iowa, which endured a rough offseason marked by the hospitalization of 13 players with rhabdomyolysis.
Illinois and Michigan State are among the squads looking to replace elite defenders such as Corey Liuget (Illinois) and Greg Jones (Michigan State).
Bottom line: Spring ball will be anything but boring in the Big Ten.