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Wednesday, May 4, 2011
What we learned this spring

By Adam Rittenberg

Spring football in the Big Ten is in the books, and it's time to study up.

The spring brought three new coaches to the league, full-fledged quarterback competitions at several schools, a sprinkling of position changes, key injuries and some potential new stars. Nebraska went through spring ball with an eye toward its new league, while the Big Ten's flagship program (Ohio State) began facing a unique set of challenges in 2011.

Here's a look at what we learned in the Big Ten's spring session:

1. Buckeyes' reign in jeopardy: The situation involving the NCAA and coach Jim Tressel could have crippling ramifications for the Big Ten's flagship program. Ohio State also faces significant personnel challenges, as it must replace starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four others for the first five games. No quarterback separated himself this spring, and while freshman Braxton Miller enhanced his popularity in the spring game, the race is far from over. If Ohio State can survive this mess to win another Big Ten title, it can overcome just about anything.

2. Nebraska enters the conference as an immediate contender: Both divisional races could be wide-open this fall, as all the Big Ten's projected contenders have significant question marks. New member Nebraska might have the most stable situation coming out of the spring. The Huskers boast the Big Ten's most proven defense, which should pay dividends in a potentially offense-driven league in 2011. Although the Huskers' new offense has plenty to prove, the personnel is there, especially at the skill positions.

3. The new coaches are spicing things up: Players at Michigan, Minnesota and Indiana exit the spring knowing exactly where they stand with their new coaches. Toughness was a big theme for Brady Hoke, Jerry Kill and Kevin Wilson, respectively, and all three men really challenged their teams. Hoke is trying to bring back the values, both schematic and intangible, that define Michigan football, while Kill and Wilson got their points across with brutally honest assessments of personnel.

4. Answers and lingering questions at quarterback: Several signal-callers emerged to take charge this spring, including Purdue's Rob Henry, Iowa's James Vandenberg and Minnesota's MarQueis Gray. Bo Pelini said Taylor Martinez would be Nebraska's top quarterback if the season began today. Penn State was pleased with its top two quarterbacks this spring, but there's still no answer on a starter. Wisconsin and Michigan need to see summer strides from their projected starters, while Ohio State and Indiana will look for separation in August.

5. Defensive replacements emerge for Badgers, Spartans: Reigning co-champs Wisconsin and Michigan State had to replace significant production on defense from 2010. So far, the coaches like what they've seen. Bret Bielema reportedly thinks the defense can be just as good if not better than last year's unit, led by All-American J.J. Watt. The Spartans must replace four-year starting linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon but have pointed to increased line depth and the emergence of several talented underclassmen.