Big Ten: 2013 spring wraps

Iowa Hawkeyes spring wrap

May, 3, 2013
5/03/13
10:30
AM ET
2012 record: 4-8
2012 conference record: 2-6 (tied for fifth in Legends Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

RB Mark Weisman, RB Damon Bullock, LB James Morris, LB Christian Kirksey, LB Anthony Hitchens, CB B.J. Lowery, WR Kevonte Martin-Manley, TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, OT Brandon Scherff

Key losses

QB James Vandenberg, WR Keenan Davis, CB Micah Hyde, DL Steve Bigach, DL Joe Gaglione, C James Ferentz

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Mark Weisman* (815 yards)
Passing: James Vandenberg (2,249 yards)
Receiving: Kevonte Martin-Manley* and Keenan Davis (571 yards)
Tackles: Anthony Hitchens* (124)
Sacks: Joe Gaglione (5)
Interceptions: Christian Kirksey*, Tom Donatell and Greg Castillo (2)

Spring answers

1. Ground and pound: Iowa is at its best when its offensive line is paving the way for a powerful running game. The Hawkeyes look ready to get back to that this year. The return of Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal from leg injuries means the offensive line is deep and experienced, and for once the Iowa running back curse did not rear its head during the offseason (though we've still got a few months to go). Bulldozer Mark Weisman leads a group that includes Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri and that gives offensive coordinator Greg Davis some versatility to use in the backfield. If injuries and other off-the-field problems can be avoided, this should be the strength of the Hawkeyes offense.

2. Linebackers set: Few teams return as much production at linebacker as Iowa, where all three starters are back after each recorded at least 95 tackles in 2012. That doesn't mean that they always played great, as none of the three have earned any All-Big Ten honors. But the linebackers -- Christian Kirksey, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens -- are without a doubt among the leaders on this defense, and all three played well this spring. Kirk Ferentz said that Hitchens -- who needed to improve despite his gaudy tackle numbers last year -- showed growth this offseason. All three must raise their games, but they're capable of doing so.

3. Carl's coming on strong: The Hawkeyes really need someone to emerge as a disruptive force on the defensive line, and junior Carl Davis showed he might be ready for that in the spring game. He had three sacks and batted down two passes, and though it was just a scrimmage, the 6-foot-5, 315-pounder has all the physical tools to be a star if he can stay healthy.

Fall questions

1. QB derby: Hey, Iowa's production at quarterback can't get much worse than last year. Still, the Hawkeyes have to settle on a starter, and the coaches say that it's an even three-man battle between Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol and C.J. Beathard following spring drills. Rudock and Sokol look to have pulled away a bit, but Iowa doesn't plan on naming a starter until mid-August.

2. Playmakers at receiver: Davis wants the offense to go more vertical this season after too many wasted horizontal passes in 2012. The question remains whether Iowa has the players to implement that. Martin-Manley is a reliable slot guy, and Jordan Cotton has good speed. But the Hawkeyes' receivers still have trouble gaining separation and creating yardage after the catch. Davis hopes the running game can open up things via the play-action pass, but the receivers need to spend this summer maximizing every ounce of their ability.

3. This is the end? Iowa generated only 13 sacks in 12 games last year, ranking last in the Big Ten by a large margin. Only 8.5 of those came from the defensive line. While there's promise with Davis and at the other defensive tackle spots, there are large questions about who can come off the edge and cause opposing quarterbacks trouble. Can Dominic Alvis take the next step? Will young players like freshmen Faith Ekakitie and Jaleel Johnson make an impact? This is an area that has to get better, both in rushing the passer and containing plays on the perimeter.
2012 record: 8-5

2012 conference record: 6-2

Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 3

Top returners:

QB Devin Gardner, WR Jeremy Gallon, TE Devin Funchess, LT Taylor Lewan, RT Michael Schofield, DT Quinton Washington, LB Desmond Morgan, LB Jake Ryan, CB Raymon Taylor, S Thomas Gordon

Key losses

QB Denard Robinson, WR Roy Roundtree, OG Patrick Omameh, C Elliott Mealer, DE Craig Roh, DT William Campbell, LB Kenny Demens, CB J.T. Floyd, S Jordan Kovacs

2012 statistical leaders

Rushing: Denard Robinson (1,266 yards)

Passing: Denard Robinson (1,319 yards)

Receiving: Jeremy Gallon* (829 yards)

Tackles: Jake Ryan* (88)

Sacks: Jake Ryan* (4.0)

Interceptions: Thomas Gordon* and Raymon Taylor* (2)

Spring answers

1. Defensive line fine: Michigan had to replace a four-year starter in Craig Roh as well as defensive tackle Will Campbell up front. It doesn’t seem like it will be an issue. Michigan has a potential star in Frank Clark at rush end as well as depth at the position with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. Keith Heitzman, for now, seems to have locked up a spot at strong side end, but there is a lot of talent there, too. The Wolverines have depth at all four spots and while competitions will continue into the fall, Michigan should be able to rotate at defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s leisure.

2. Devin Gardner’s progression: After the way he played toward the end of last season, there was not much doubt about Gardner as the starter, but Michigan’s coaches appear happy with his growth throughout the offseason. He has developed as a quarterback the way the coaching staff has liked, and this is even more critical because he is the only healthy scholarship quarterback until Shane Morris arrives next month. Gardner's teammates believe in him and he is setting up for a big year.

3. Tight end weapons: Michigan still doesn’t have great depth at tight end, but what the Wolverines do have is a young group of guys who will become big targets for Gardner as the position evolves into a more featured role. Devin Funchess could have a breakout sophomore season and Jake Butt has a similar skill set. A.J. Williams slimmed down as well, perhaps turning him into more than just an extra blocker.

Fall questions

1. Who runs the ball: Michigan was never going to be able to answer this question in the spring with Fitzgerald Toussaint coming off a broken leg and freshmen Derrick Green and Deveon Smith still not on campus. But none of the running backs who participated in spring made a lasting impression on the coaches, meaning if he is healthy, Toussaint will likely receive the first chance at winning the job in the fall.

2. Can Jake Ryan be replaced: Michigan seems confident with its grouping of Brennen Beyer and Cam Gordon at strongside linebacker, but part of what made Ryan Michigan’s best defender was his ability to instinctively be around the ball. Whether or not Beyer or Gordon can do that in games remains to be seen. If the combination of those two can approximate that, Michigan’s defense should be fine.

3. Can the interior of the line hold up: Michigan is replacing both of its guards and its center. While the combination of redshirt sophomore Jack Miller at center and redshirt freshmen Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis at guard has a ton of talent, none have taken a meaningful snap in a game before. How they mesh with returning tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, along with how they connect with each other on combination blocks on the inside, could determine not only Michigan’s running success this fall, but also how many games the Wolverines win in Brady Hoke’s third season.
2012 record: 6-7
2012 conference record: 2-6 (tied for fifth in Legends Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 10; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Philip Nelson, RB Donnell Kirkwood, DT Ra'Shede Hageman, S Brock Vereen, DB Derrick Wells, LT Ed Olson, DE Michael Amaefula

Key losses

QB/WR MarQueis Gray, CB Michael Carter, CB Troy Stoudermire, DE D.L. Wilhite, LB Mike Rallis, LB Keanon Cooper

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Donnell Kirkwood* (926 yards)
Passing: Philip Nelson* (873 yards)
Receiving: A.J. Barker (577 yards)
Tackles: Troy Stoudermire (82)
Sacks: D.L. Wilhite (8.5)
Interceptions: Michael Carter (4)

Spring answers

1. Identity verified: The Gophers figured out who they wanted to be on offense and were able to start implementing that during bowl practice last December: a physical, run-first team. It worked in the Meineke Car Care Bowl and carried over into this spring, with an offensive line that's developing a nasty streak and two power backs in Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. The Gophers will look to bring that hard-nosed approach into this fall.

2. Phil the one: Philip Nelson took over as the team's starting quarterback as a true freshman at midseason last year, but he wasn't guaranteed the starting job this offseason. Despite getting good competition from Mitch Leidner and Chris Streveler, Nelson played well enough this spring that head coach Jerry Kill says it's his spot to lose. Leidner also impressed at times and is a great athlete, so Minnesota has options at the position this year.

3. Turning the corner: The Gophers had to replace two standout seniors at cornerback in Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire. They feel good about at least one of those spots after Derrick Wells moved from safety to corner this offseason and handled the position nicely. Wells made some big plays at safety last year, and the hope is he can do the same at his new spot. There's not a lot of proven options at the other corner role, but three players who transferred from junior college last year are pushing for time, while the safety position has good depth and is led by Brock Vereen.

Fall questions

1. Linebacker holes: The Gophers lost most of their contributors at linebacker from last year, with Aaron Hill the only leftover starter. It's why they signed five linebackers in this year's recruiting class. Junior college transfer Damien Wilson lived up to advance billing, and Kill is expecting big things out of another incoming juco, De'Vondre Campbell. But anytime you're relying on newcomers and players arriving in the summer, nothing is for certain.

2. Downfield passing: The passing game was shaky at best for the Gophers in 2012, and things didn't exactly get better when leading receiver A.J. Barker transferred. Minnesota doesn't have anyone who eclipsed 375 receiving yards a year ago. Kill is hoping to see improvement from Derrick Engel, Isaac Fruechte, Devin Crawford-Tufts and a healthy Jamel Harbison. But those guys must prove they can make plays when it counts.

3. Rushing the passer: D.L. Wilhite and his team-leading 8.5 sacks from a year ago are gone. Defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman looked like a beast this spring, but no other returnee had more than two sacks a year ago. The Gophers need players who can get after the quarterback off the edge, and they're hoping Theiren Cockran, Michael Amaefula and Ben Perry make the same kind of strides Wilhite and Hageman did a year ago. But again, they have to prove it.
2012 record: 10-3
2012 conference record: 5-3 (third in Legends division)
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

RB Venric Mark, QB Kain Colter, QB Trevor Siemian, C Brandon Vitabile, WR Christian Jones, TE Dan Vitale, S Ibraheim Campbell, CB Nick VanHoose, DE Tyler Scott, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, K Jeff Budzien

Key losses

G Brian Mulroe, T Patrick Ward, DT Brian Arnfelt, LB David Nwabuisi, DE Quentin Williams

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Venric Mark* (1,371 yards)
Passing: Trevor Siemian* (1,317 yards)
Receiving: Christian Jones* (417 yards)
Tackles: Damien Proby* (112)
Sacks: Tyler Scott* (9)
Interceptions: David Nwabuisi and Nick VanHoose* (3)

Spring answers

1. Secondary options: Northwestern has had major issues in the secondary during the past 15 years or so, but the group took a step forward in 2012 and should take another one this fall. Improved recruiting efforts throughout the defense are starting to pay off, and it showed up at both the cornerback and safety spots this spring. Young players such as safety Traveon Henry and cornerback Dwight White had strong springs, and the Wildcats are able to go at least four deep at both spots. "Our secondary runs as well as it has at all four positions," coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

2. Depth emerging at WR, RB: The Wildcats bring back almost every offensive skill player from 2012, but they saw depth at both wide receiver and running back improve this spring. Fitzgerald and his offensive staff were pleased with the spring performances of veteran receivers Christian Jones and Rashad Lawrence. Jones and sophomore tight end Dan Vitale should boost the passing game in the middle of the field. The Wildcats also have plenty of insurance behind All-Big Ten running back Venric Mark. They can go four deep at the position as redshirt freshmen Stephen Buckley and Malin Jones both showed flashes this spring.

3. Living on the edge: Like the secondary, Northwestern's defensive line made progress last season, especially with the pass rush. There's a chance to make more this season, especially at the defensive end spot. Tyler Scott returns after tying for the Big Ten sacks lead, and the Wildcats boast three young speed rushers -- Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo -- who had some impressive moments this spring. Lowry is the furthest along in his development, but both Gibson and the ultra-athletic Odenigbo will be part of the rotation.

Fall questions

1. Walk that line: Offensive line is undoubtedly the biggest question mark for Northwestern entering the season. Several projected starters missed spring practice following postseason surgeries, which allowed younger players like tackle Shane Mertz and guard Adam DePietro to get a bunch of reps in practice. The Wildcats are set at left tackle (Jack Konopka) and center (Brandon Vitabile), but there will be plenty of competition at the other three spots in preseason camp. Northwestern needs to set its starting rotation fairly early and then build that all important chemistry before the season kicks off.

2. Filling gaps on defense: There's more overall depth on defense entering 2013, but Northwestern has to fill gaps in all three areas of the unit. Henry likely locked up a starting safety spot this spring, but the cornerback spot opposite Nick VanHoose will feature plenty of competition in camp between White, C.J. Bryant and Daniel Jones. Northwestern also needs a third starting linebacker, where Drew Smith and Collin Ellis will compete. And defensive tackle might be the team's thinnest spot on defense. It'll be important to see some progress there in camp.

3. Shaping the offensive identity: Northwestern seemed to run two or three different offenses in 2012 and endured a midseason identity crisis that, in my view, cost it at least one game and maybe two. That's the danger of using a two-quarterback system, which will remain for the 2013 campaign. Northwestern is looking for a bit better run-pass balance as it has enough weapons at receiver and tight end to attack defenses more through the air. Fitzgerald thinks he can win a Big Ten title with both Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian at quarterback, but figuring out exactly what the offense will be remains a challenge that continues in preseason camp.

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