Big Ten: BT hope-concern 11

The Hope and Concern series wraps up with the Northwestern Wildcats.

Biggest reason for hope: A restocked offense

Northwestern returns nine starters on offense, including the nation's second most experienced offensive line (137 combined career starts). It's unknown whether quarterback Dan Persa will recapture his All-Big Ten form after rehabbing from a ruptured Achilles', but the senior has been ahead of schedule throughout his recovery. The Wildcats boast arguably the Big Ten's deepest group of wide receivers and tight ends, led by All-Big Ten selection Jeremy Ebert. While they have plenty to prove in the run game, the pieces are in place there. It all adds up to an offense that could be among the Big Ten's most productive in 2011.

Biggest reason for concern: Question marks throughout the front seven

Fixing the defense has been a focal point throughout the offseason, as Northwestern tries to regain the assertiveness it displayed in 2008. The Wildcats have to replace two starting linebackers and identify more playmakers along the defensive line. Senior end Vince Browne is a nice piece to build around, but Northwestern needs big seasons from tackles Jack DiNardo, Niko Mafuli and Brian Arnfelt and must build greater depth at the end position. The coaches think they've upgraded their athleticism at linebacker in recent recruiting classes, and they'll need younger players like Damien Proby, Collin Ellis and Tim Riley to step up this fall.

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Hope and concern: Michigan

June, 10, 2011
6/10/11
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The Hope and Concern series marches on with the Michigan Wolverines.

Biggest reason for hope: Greg Mattison and a clear identity on defense

It might take some time to transform one of the nation's worst defenses, but Michigan is headed in the right direction under Mattison. He's a proven coach with a proven system that immediately resonated with players who looked lost for much of the past three seasons. Michigan can't get much worse on defense, but there's an opportunity to make significant strides this season, especially up front. The Wolverines have some talent and experience in linemen Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh. They'll need some better luck on the injury front in the secondary and a few breaks to go their way, but Mattison and coach Brady Hoke are providing an identity on defense.

Biggest reason for concern: The kicking game

When you're installing new systems on both sides of the ball, you want to be able to count on the kicking game. The offense might have fewer long scoring plays this year, making it critical to, you know, make a field goal once in a while. But Michigan's situation on special teams looked shaky at best coming out of the spring. Kicker remains a huge question mark, and many hope incoming freshman Matt Wile will be the savior. Punter Will Hagerup did a solid job last season, although Michigan must improve in punt coverage after finishing 84th last season.

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Hope and concern: Nebraska

May, 27, 2011
5/27/11
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The Hope and Concern series marches on with the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Biggest reason for hope: The Blackshirts

Nebraska returns a defense loaded with star players and confidence. After spending some time this spring in Lincoln, I can tell you coordinator Carl Pelini and his players expect to have a championship-level unit this season. Nebraska has an All-America candidate at all three levels of the defense in tackle Jared Crick, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. The Huskers boast depth up front and should have enough contributors at linebacker in a league that demands it. Although the Blackshirts must adjust to a whole set of new offenses this fall, they boast the personnel and the experience to once again be elite.

Biggest reason for concern: Unfamiliarity with Big Ten, especially the defenses

While the Big Ten lost a bunch of star defenders to the NFL draft, the league still boasts some strong defenses, arguably better those than Nebraska faced in the Big 12. Throw in the fact that the Huskers are incorporating a new offense, and there could be a transition period with some growing pains. I'm also not sold on Nebraska's offensive line. Center Mike Caputo is a nice piece to build around, but several other players must prove themselves in a more physical conference. There's also the quarterback question. Can Taylor Martinez stay healthy and reclaim the form he showed last season? And if Martinez isn't the guy, who steps into the leading role? Nebraska still has to iron out some things before playing a very tough schedule in its new league.

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Hope and concern: Illinois

May, 26, 2011
5/26/11
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The Hope and Concern series marches on with the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Biggest reason for hope: QB Nathan Scheelhaase

Scheelhaase turned in a very impressive freshman season and ended it on a high note against Baylor in the Texas Bowl. By all accounts, he has continued to make strides during the winter and spring, particularly as a passer. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino has seen Scheelhaase making quicker decisions and getting the ball out faster to his receivers. Scheelhaase's ability as a runner is obvious, and Illniois likely will lean on him more after losing Mikel Leshoure to the NFL. There are some question marks at both running back and receiver, but the offensive line looks very solid. If Scheelhaase has time, he should be able to hurt defenses with both his arm and his legs.

Biggest reason for concern: Big holes in defensive front seven

Illinois loses a first-round draft pick in defensive tackle Corey Liuget and a third-round pick in linebacker Martez Wilson, not to mention valuable players like linebacker Nate Bussey and defensive end Clay Nurse. There are a lot of holes to fill, and Illinois needs players like Ian Thomas, Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown to take their games to the next level. The secondary should be a strength, but defenses need to be led by the front seven and coordinator Vic Koenning spent much of spring practice looking for leadership. Illinois likely won't have a player as disruptive as Liuget on the interior, so it will take more of a collective effort from a defense that made strides last season but also had some inconsistent play.

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The Hope and Concern series marches on with the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Biggest reason for hope: Track record on defense

Ohio State has reached a point where it can rely on producing an elite defense every season. Never more have the Buckeyes needed their D to rise to the occasion than in 2011. Despite losing seven starters and the most production since after the 2005 season, Ohio State always has the ability to reload and potentially become more dominant. John Simon and Nathan Williams anchor the line, while safety Tyler Moeller returns from injury to provide leadership in the back four. The Buckeyes need Etienne Sabino and other defenders who are moving into bigger roles to step up, but history is on their side. If the defense maintains its stinginess and opportunistic play, Ohio State should be able to survive the first five games without Terrelle Pryor & Co.

Biggest reason for concern: So many distractions

Ohio State's ability to focus and remain united will be put to the ultimate test this season. The Buckeyes will be without Pryor and four other key players for the first five games, as well as coach Jim Tressel, whose fate rests with the NCAA Committee on Infractions. Although Tressel is stilling planning to be around the team Sunday through Friday, all the controversy creates the potential for things to fall apart. Ohio State must address the personnel issues, particularly at quarterback and at receiver, but the most significant challenge could be psychological, given the unique circumstances. It's imperative for the seniors and other leaders to keep the squad on track.

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The Hope and Concern series marches on with the Michigan State Spartans.

Biggest reason for hope: Depth at the skill positions

Michigan State's recruiting and development have really paid off at spots like running back, wide receiver, defensive back and linebacker. The Spartans bring back veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins, all three of their primary running backs, B.J. Cunningham and several other contributors at receiver and multiple tight ends who can make plays. On the defensive side, the secondary once again should be solid with players like safety Trenton Robinson and cornerback Johnny Adams, who came on strong this spring. Although Greg Jones and Eric Gordon will be missed at linebacker, the Spartans should have enough there with Chris Norman, Max Bullough, TyQuan Hammock, Denicos Allen and others.

Biggest reason for concern: The offensive line

Line play is the area separating Michigan State from elevating its program from good to great. The coming season should provide a good gauge on whether the Spartans can take the next step as they must improve on both sides of the ball. The defensive line could be an area of strength, but there are significant questions up front after Michigan State lost both starting tackles and center John Stipek. Converted defensive linemen like Dan France and Blake Treadwell will be integral this fall, especially France, who should enter the season as the team's starting left tackle. The coaches think the line will be more athletic, but can a new-look group come together and play consistently?

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The hope and concern series marches on with the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Biggest reason for hope: Linebacker U could be back

Penn State left spring practice excited about its potential at linebacker, and for good reason. Michael Mauti is healthy and primed for a potentially huge season in 2011. Veteran Nathan Stupar also returns following a 73-tackle season. The best news coming out of spring ball was the continued development of Gerald Hodges, who has star potential after appearing in only eight games last fall. "There's always new traffic patterns to learn, and I think the game's slowing down now for him," defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said of Hodges, who came to Penn State as a safety. "He's seeing better, he's understanding it better. Playing the position for a couple years, he's much more comfortable." If players like Hodges and Khairi Fortt continue to make strides, Penn State could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers.

Biggest reason for concern: Question marks on both lines

Penn State's success or mediocrity since it joined the Big Ten can be directly tied to line play. The Lions appear to have enough at the offensive and defensive skill positions to be pretty good this fall. But there are questions along the line of scrimmage. Penn State has very little depth at defensive end and needs Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore to stay healthy this fall. Although the defensive tackle spot boasts a few more bodies, Brandon Ware's departure could hurt. The offensive front boasts some veteran leadership in tackles Quinn Barham and Chima Okoli, but there's some uncertainty at center and the whole group must perform more consistently than it did in 2010.

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Hope and concern: Minnesota

May, 17, 2011
5/17/11
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The Hope and Concern series marches on with the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Biggest reason for hope: Quarterback MarQueis Gray's spring development

Gray was the most pleasant surprise of Minnesota's spring practice session, as the one offensive player who really needed to grasp the new system seemed to get it. While many anointed Gray as Minnesota's starting quarterback after the 2010 season, the junior went out and earned it this spring. He studied Northern Illinois film in the winter to absorb the new offense and then was able to give pointers to his teammates when practices began. "He's been the biggest surprise on our whole team, period," coach Jerry Kill said. "MarQueis has done an unbelievable job of picking up what we're asking him to do. He's had to learn a lot, he's seen a lot of different things from the defense, he's handled himself well, he's very composed." Exactly what Minnesota needs from its leader.

Biggest reason for concern: So many adjustments

Minnesota players not only are adjusting to new systems on both sides of the ball, but they have to acclimate to Kill and his increased demands. Kill came to Minnesota because of his ability to turn programs around, but he typically doesn't see things click in Year 1. The new schemes could benefit the Gophers on both sides of the ball, especially on defense, but several position groups have significant question marks, including defensive line and wide receiver. Kill also challenged his players to improve areas like academics and conditioning this spring. It'll be interesting to see how many players truly buy in.

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Hope and concern: Iowa

May, 11, 2011
5/11/11
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The Hope and Concern series marches on with the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Biggest reason for hope: Returning players who stepped up in Insight Bowl

When a team loses a group of seniors like Iowa does, you want to see evidence of who will carry the torch. Several Hawkeyes underclassmen provided the proof Dec. 28 against Missouri. Running back Marcus Coker rushed for an Iowa bowl record 219 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries. By all accounts, Coker has built on his bowl performance and continued to develop throughout the winter and spring. Sophomore defensive back Micah Hyde had the decisive 72-yard interception return for a touchdown against Missouri and looks ready to take over Tyler Sash's defensive playmaker role. Other returning players like linebacker James Morris also stepped up in the bowl game, and an offensive line that returns three starters held an edge at the line of scrimmage.

Biggest reason for concern: Depth in the defensive front seven

Iowa's defense doesn't feature a ton of blitzing or additional defensive backs on the field, even against the spread. Coordinator Norm Parker relies on his front four to generate consistent pressure, and his linebackers to fill gaps and make tackles. The Hawkeyes exit the spring feeling pretty good about three down linemen -- Mike Daniels, Broderick Binns and Lebron Daniel -- and Tyler Nielsen and Morris will occupy two of the starting linebacker spots. But who fills the gaps elsewhere? And more important, what will Iowa do if injuries crop up to returning players with experience. It's tough to reload when you lose three defensive linemen to the NFL draft, and Iowa's lack of depth at linebacker hurt the defense at times last season.

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Hope and concern: Indiana

May, 10, 2011
5/10/11
11:00
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The Hope and Concern series continues with the Indiana Hoosiers.

Biggest reason for hope: Wide receivers and tight ends

One group new IU coach Kevin Wilson doesn't have to worry about is wide receiver. Indiana once again will boast one of the Big Ten's deepest and most talented collections of wideouts. Despite losing NFL draft pick Tandon Doss as well as Terrance Turner, Indiana brings back Damarlo Belcher, the Big Ten leader in receptions last fall, along with sophomore Duwyce Wilson and sophomore Kofi Hughes, who took a step forward during spring practice. Tight end Ted Bolser also returns to the mix after a 27-catch performance as a freshman in 2010. Although Indiana still doesn't know its starting quarterback, whoever wins the job will have options at his disposal.

Biggest reason for concern: Depth on defense

While Indiana must figure out its starting offensive backfield, defense remains the No. 1 area of concern with this team until proven otherwise. The Hoosiers exited the spring feeling good about several individual defenders -- linebackers Jeff Thomas and Leon Beckum, defensive end Darius Johnson, defensive backs Greg Heban and Lawrence Barnett, to name a few -- but whether they have enough depth to get through the season remains to be seen. Injuries will crop up in Big Ten play, and Indiana hasn't shown the ability to survive them on defense in recent years. The summer will be essential as the Hoosiers try to find insurance throughout the unit.

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Hope and concern: Purdue

May, 9, 2011
5/09/11
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It's time to revive the Hope and Concern series. This is pretty straightforward: I'll list the biggest reason for hope and the biggest reason for concern for each Big Ten team heading into the 2011 season.

Let's get things started with Purdue.

Biggest reason for hope: Upgraded team speed

Speed has been Danny Hope's biggest priority in recruiting, and he has scoured the state of Florida for as much of it as he can find during his tenure in West Lafayette. Hope thinks Purdue's speed will be upgraded on both sides of the ball this coming season. "A couple years ago, we only had five or six guys who could run 4.5s or better [in the 40-yard dash]," Hope told ESPN.com. "We've tripled or maybe quadrupled that number. It makes a big difference. We have some guys who can make some plays in space on both sides of the football." Players like cornerback Ricardo Allen, linebacker Will Lucas and wide receivers Antavian Edison and O.J. Ross provide the speed and athleticism Purdue hopes will translate into more victories this season.

Biggest reason for concern: Unproven pass rush

Purdue led the Big Ten in both sacks (33) and tackles for loss (91) last season, finishing 14th and fourth nationally in the respective categories. But the departure of 2010 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Kerrigan leaves a significant void Purdue could struggle to fill. Kerrigan not only made a ton of plays himself, but created opportunities for other defensive linemen like tackle Kawann Short (six sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss in 2010). The Boilers need Gerald Gooden to produce this fall, but the senior has struggled to stay healthy and sat out this spring. Junior Robert Maci and redshirt freshman Ryan Russell took most of the reps this spring, but both men need to prove a lot in games. If Purdue doesn't get much from the end spot, it'll need huge seasons from Short and fellow tackle Bruce Gaston Jr.

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