Big Ten: Kenny Nelson

Illinois didn't exactly have a huge breakthrough season in 2014, but you'd have to call it progress. The Illini made their first bowl game under Tim Beckman, although a loss to Louisiana Tech in the Heart of Dallas Bowl left them at 6-7 for the year.

Still, there's finally some reason for optimism in the offseason for Beckman's program. Can they build on this small amount of momentum? A lot of it is going to come down to defense. Fixing that side of the ball will be a big focus during spring practice.

[+] EnlargeMike Dudek
AP Photo/Bradley LeebMike Dudek had 76 receptions for 1,038 yards and six TDs as a freshman in 2014.
Schedule: Illinois opens spring drills on Saturday; that workout and the one on Sunday are both open to the public. The Illini will pause for spring break between March 21 and March 30 and have three scheduled April practices -- April 3, 10 and 16 -- that are open to the public. The spring game will be held April 18.

What’s new? Beckman hired a new co-defensive coordinator in Mike Phair, who also will oversee the defensive line. It has not yet been specified whether Phair or incumbent defensive coordinator Tim Banks will call plays. Beckman also parted ways with special teams coach Tim Salem in the offseason; a replacement has yet to be officially named.

Biggest question: Can the defense figure out a way to stop the run? The Illini fielded one of the worst rush defenses in the FBS last season, allowing nearly 240 yards per game on the line. So it's no coincidence that Beckman made a change with his defensive line coach, and he hopes that Phair -- who last coached in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- has some answers up front. There is some hope with the talent on hand. Jihad Ward played pretty well in his first year after transferring from junior college and has a chance to develop into a force as a senior. Kenny Nelson and Paul James will compete at the other defensive end, and while some defensive tackles are injured this spring, depth is much better. "Defensive line-wise, we really haven't had battles," Beckman said. "And now we do."

Three things we want to see:

1. Wes Lunt taking charge: Lunt had some good games last year in his first season since transferring from Oklahoma State, but he was also hampered by injuries. With Reilly O'Toole graduated and Aaron Bailey transferring, he's the only experienced quarterback on the roster, and it's time for him to play up to his vast potential and take full control of the offense, beginning this spring. "We're looking for a lot of the leadership capabilities of being a starting quarterback in the Big Ten," Beckman said, "and we'll try to put him in those situations."

2. Offensive line depth emerge: With only 10 bodies right now on the offensive line, Beckman said depth on that unit is "probably the biggest concern" this spring. The tackle spot is especially thin, though the healthy return of Ted Karras this summer will help a great deal. The starters should be fine, but you never want to be scrambling for depth at this position.

3. More offensive playmakers step forward: Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has a great foundation with Lunt, receiver Mikey Dudek (who eclipsed 1,000 yards as a true freshman) and senior running back Josh Ferguson. But more playmakers are needed, particularly to back up Ferguson. Junior college transfer Henry Enyenihi and early enrollee Dre Brown could help at tailback. The Illini could use some more consistency at receiver next to Dudek from guys such as Geronimo Allison and Malik Turner.
Michigan's defense controlled play throughout the spring game Saturday at Michigan Stadium, echoing a theme throughout most of the league that day.

Several Big Ten squads held scrimmages or open practices, and the defenses had the edge in most of them. The offenses stepped up in a few, and several quarterbacks appear to be separating themselves.

Let's recap the weekend scrimmages. (Note: Scrimmages that were closed to the media and had no available statistics.)

WISCONSIN

Despite a new-look front seven and several position changes, Wisconsin's defense dominated Saturday's scrimmage. Cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary both had good days against an undermanned receiving corps, and coach Gary Andersen called the quarterback play very average. "We have a long way to go in the throw game, and that's disappointing," Andersen said. "If we want to be a good team, we have to figure that out." The defense also shined against the run, even against top backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement.

PURDUE

Technically, the Boilers' offense won Saturday's jersey scrimmage at Ross-Ade Stadium. But the defense looked stronger for much of the day, recording seven sacks and two takeaways. Unofficially, five Boilers recorded sacks, including two from tackle Michael Rouse III, who finished with three tackles for loss. Coach Darrell Hazell said of the defensive line, "They played in the [offensive] backfield."

Top quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby struggled, combining to complete 21 of 42 passes for 205 yards with a touchdown (Etling) and an interception (Appleby). Running back Raheem Mostert highlighted the offense with 134 yards and two touchdowns on only nine carries. Mostert is making a strong push this spring to be Purdue's No. 1 running back.

MINNESOTA

The Gophers' defense loses top performers Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen from last fall's unit, but it controlled play on Saturday. Minnesota's D held the offense without a point on its first seven possessions in the scrimmage. Safety Cedric Thompson had an excellent interception off a deflection on the first drive. The offense picked it up later in the scrimmage, as quarterback Mitch Leidner found KJ Maye for a 50-yard touchdown strike, and both Leidner and Berkley Edwards had long touchdown runs.

NEBRASKA

Here's one offense that flexed its muscles on Saturday after being subdued earlier in the week. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. had an "efficient" performance, according to coach Bo Pelini, as he continues to look like the team's top signal-caller. Armstrong ran for two touchdowns. Sophomore Terrell Newby received a lot of work at running back as Ameer Abdullah sat out, and receiver Jordan Westerkamp turned a short pass into a long gain. Defensive tackle Aaron Curry left the field with a neck injury, but Pelini thinks he'll be fine.

MICHIGAN STATE

The offense recorded a 27-25 win against the defense in MSU's first spring jersey scrimmage, as quarterback Connor Cook completed 15 of 21 passes for 187 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett, who has been relatively quiet since transferring from Tennessee, had five receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown. Tyler O'Connor, competing for the backup quarterback job, had a good day (10-for-15 passing, 132 yards, TD).

After allowing a touchdown on the opening possession, the defense forced four consecutive stops. Standouts included safety Kurtis Drummond (six tackles, 1 TFL, interception), end Shilique Calhoun (two sacks) and linebacker Chris Frey, an early enrollee, who had two sacks and three tackles for loss.

ILLINOIS

The Illini had their second off-site practice of the spring, traveling to Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield for a controlled scrimmage on Friday night. Quarterback Wes Lunt continues to look like Illinois' starter. According to Rivals.com's Doug Buchson, Lunt completed his first 14 pass attempts against the second-string defense for about 250 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman wideout Mike Dudek continues his strong spring, and receiver Geronimo Allison had a 45-yard touchdown catch from Lunt.

Defensive linemen Kenny Nelson and DeJazz Woods stood out against the second-team offensive line, consistently penetrating the backfield. Cornerback Caleb Day also looked good.

RUTGERS

The most important thing coming out of Rutgers' first spring scrimmage was some clarity at quarterback, as Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano all worked with the first-team offense. Although a rash of injuries made it tough to get a true gauge, Bimonte had the best day, leading two touchdown drives. Coach Kyle Flood said all three signal-callers will continue to work with the top offense. Flood singled out defensive linemen Darius Hamilton and Kemoko Turay for their play during the scrimmage.

NORTHWESTERN

Like several other Big Ten teams, Northwestern can't have full-blown scrimmages because of its injury situation. But the Wildcats had their top units match up for stretches of Saturday's practice on the lakefront. Trevor Siemian entered the spring as the No. 1 quarterback and appears to be ending it the same way. Siemian looked sharp on his first series, completing all three of his attempts. Dropped passes were a problem for much of the day, but wide receiver Kyle Prater, a USC transfer who has battled injuries for much of his career, had a one-handed grab on a pass from Zack Oliver. Cornerback Matt Harris and safety Kyle Queiro both made plays for the defense.

OHIO STATE

The Buckeyes invited students inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for Saturday's practice, creating some cool scenes. Several young players stood out, namely cornerback Eli Apple, who had two interceptions and a big hit. Running back Curtis Samuel, an early enrollee, also sparked the crowd with a 50-yard touchdown run. Linebacker has been an area of concern for Ohio State, but Darron Lee and Chris Worley both made some plays on the outside. Ezekiel Elliott is looking more like Ohio State's top running back, as he showed his size and versatility during the practice.

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