- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Indiana opens spring practice on Saturday, joining Northwestern as the first Big Ten teams to hit the practice field this spring. So today we take a look, as we're doing with every league team, at the big shoes the Hoosiers need to fill from the 2011 season. This one's a little relative, since IU didn't have any all-conference players last year and needs a talent upgrade in a lot of places, but head coach Kevin Wilson still has some bigger gaps than others.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Jeff Thomas, LB
Why: Thomas was one of the few reliable anchors on a defense that mostly struggled. A two-year starter, he led the team with 80 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss from his middle linebacker spot.
Replacement candidates: David Cooper (6-1, 230, incoming junior college transfer); Jacarri Alexander (6-1, 235, incoming junior college transfer); Jordan Wallace (5-11, 215, incoming freshman); Nick Mangieri (6-4, 230, incoming freshman).
The skinny: Wilson went looking for immediate help from the junior-college ranks this offseason, so expect Alexander and Cooper to push for starting roles right away. Both have excellent size for the position and just need to adjust to the major-college level. Wallace and Mangieri will be green, but Wilson showed no hesitation in throwing true freshmen into the fire last season.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Andrew McDonald, LT
Why: McDonald was a two-year starter at left tackle, providing stability to an offense that saw lots of upheaval in 2011.
Replacement candidates: Charlie Chapman (6-6, 292, Jr.); Peyton Eckert (6-6, 295, Soph.); Bill Ivan (6-4, 282, Soph.); Dimitric Camiel (6-6, 290, incoming freshman); Jason Spriggs (6-6, 240, incoming freshman).
The skinny: The Hoosiers unfortunately aren't blessed with a plethora of experienced options at the tackle spot. Eckert started six games at right tackle as a true freshman and could make the switch to the left side this spring. Chapman was McDonald's backup last season but played only sparingly. It's quite likely that at least one of the true freshmen will crack the depth chart at one of the tackle positions. Camiel is a Texan who is Texas-sized, but who knows how quickly he can make the adjustment to Big Ten football.