New coaches, QB battles highlight Big East spring

February, 10, 2009
2/10/09
11:39
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Fear not, Big East football fans. In less than a month, South Florida will be back on the practice field, with the rest of the league teams starting their spring drills shortly afterward.

There will be no shortage of situations to follow during the spring. There's a new head coach at Syracuse, new coordinators almost everywhere and no fewer than five teams seeking a new quarterback.

We've got all the story lines covered here in our team-by-team spring primer:

Cincinnati Bearcats

Spring practice starts: March 31

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

• Defense, defense, defense. Safety Aaron Webster is the only returning defensive starter from 2008, so this spring will be about finding out who's ready to step into bigger roles. Several backups have experience, including linebacker Andre Revels and defensive end Curtis Young. But all jobs should be open. And with this week's firing of defensive coordinator Joe Tresey, the Bearcats could be working under a new scheme.

• Cincinnati brings back quarterback Tony Pike, receiver Mardy Gilyard and its top two rushers in Jacob Ramsey and John Goebel. But the spring will be time to find new playmakers as well. Isaiah Pead averaged 6.6 yards a carry in limited duty as a freshman and should see his role increase. The bubble wrap will come off promising redshirt freshman Quentin Hines. Receiver D.J. Woods had a solid freshman season and will need to build upon that to help replace Dominick Goodman.

• You don't normally pay much attention to punters in spring practice, but this is an exception. The Bearcats have to find a suitable replacement for two time All-American Kevin Huber.

Connecticut Huskies

Spring practice starts: March 17

Spring game: April 18

What to watch:

• The Huskies offer arguably the most fascinating transition to watch this spring in the Big East. Their conservative, run-first and run-second offense has been thrown in the scrap heap, and new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead promises to bring a no-huddle attack endorsed by Randy Edsall. Can a team that was so dependent on Donald Brown switch to a fast-paced, multiple scheme?

• The offense's success will be based on who's playing quarterback, and there should be a fierce battle for that job. Both Zach Frazer and Cody Endres saw time last year when senior Tyler Lorenzen was hurt, and they both have similar skill sets. Johnny McEntee could get a strong look in the spring as well. This competition could easily carry over into the fall.

• UConn lost some key pieces to graduation, including defensive ends Cody Brown and Julius Williams, left tackle Will Beatty and cornerback Darius Butler. The coaching staff thinks it has players ready to emerge at those spots, but good springs from guys like Dan Ryan, Lindsey Witten and Marcus Campbell will make them feel better.

Louisville Cardinals

Spring practice starts: TBA

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

• The Cardinals need a quarterback after the graduation of Hunter Cantwell and Matt Simms' transfer. Adam Froman and Tyler Wolfe are the top two candidates right now, and head coach Steve Kragthorpe says the competition is wide open. But Louisville didn't bring in Froman from junior college to sit him on the bench, so the hope is that he claims the job.

• Kragthorpe has taken over offensive coordinator duties, saying he wants to go in a different direction. We'll be able to see what kind of direction he desires during the spring. There's also a new defensive coordinator in Brent Guy and several other new assistants to keep an eye on.

• There will be position battles at left tackle, center, both safety spots and all over the defensive line. Receiver Scott Long, who's coming off a knee injury, won't be ready until the fall, so younger wideouts will get more spring snaps.

Pittsburgh Panthers

Spring practice starts: March 19

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:

• Can Bill Stull hold onto the quarterback job? The senior struggled down the stretch last season, and coach Dave Wannstedt said there would be an open competition for the spot in the spring. Stull still has the edge, but backups Pat Bostick and Tino Sunseri will try to make their case.

• Who will step out of Shady's shadow? LeSean McCoy is off to the NFL, leaving a gaping hole in the backfield and in Pitt's offense. Chris Burns and Shariff Harris will likely get the first crack at trying to fill McCoy's shoes.

• The Panthers' defense has a strong returning corps, but two linebacker jobs are open. The biggest one is in the middle, where Big East defensive player of year Scott McKillop used to patrol. Senior Steve Dell was McKillop's backup last season, and Pitt is bringing in talented signees Dan Mason and Shane Gordon. But replacing McKillop's leadership and savvy will be a tall order.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Spring practice starts: March 10

Spring game: April 18

What to watch:

• All eyes will be on the quarterbacks as the Scarlet Knights search for Mike Teel's successor. With Jabu Lovelace sidelined with an injury, senior Dom Natale and freshman D.C. Jefferson should get the majority of the reps. One of them will emerge as the leader going into the summer, when Lovelace and incoming freshman Tom Savage will enter the mix.

• Whoever gets the quarterback job will need someone to catch his passes, and Rutgers must find big-play targets to follow Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood. Youngsters Marcus Cooper and Keith Stroud are the most likely candidates to assume bigger roles.

• Defensive line, cornerback and free safety are also priorities with the losses of Jamaal Westerman, Pete Tverdov, Jason McCourty and Courtney Greene.

South Florida Bulls

Spring practice begins: March 9

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:

• The offensive line lost four senior starters and will be the most pressing area to watch in the spring. The Bulls signed a couple of junior college transfers who might help right away, but the spring is a crucial time to begin building chemistry among the newcomers.

• Head coach Jim Leavitt demoted Greg Gregory from offensive coordinator last month and has yet to name a replacement. Whoever he chooses will be charged with spicing up an attack that had become stale and too predictable for Big East defenses. Quarterback Matt Grothe has to cut down on his turnovers, and he also needs more help from a dependable running game.

• The defensive backfield was vulnerable against big plays last year and loses starting cornerback Tyller Roberts and strong safety Carlton Williams. That's an area that needs an immediate upgrade.

Syracuse Orange

Spring practice starts:
March 23

Spring game: April 18

What to watch:

• No Big East team will have more of a curiosity factor this spring than the Orange, who start over with head coach Doug Marrone and an almost entirely new staff. This is Marrone's first head coaching job, so Syracuse fans will want to see how he operates and handles practice. They'll also be looking for reasons to get enthusiastic over a program that's suffered through four straight losing seasons.

• Cam Dantley won the starting quarterback job early last season and held onto it the rest of the year. But a new staff brings fresh eyes, and former starter Andrew Robinson will get a chance to win back his old job. Sophomore David Legree will do everything he can to gain attention as well. The Orange offense figures to be more wide open under former Clemson offensive coordinator Rob Spence.

• One player who will be under heavy inspection is Mike Williams. He was one of the best receivers in the Big East before academic problems caused him to leave school and miss all of last season. Now back, Williams has to prove his skills didn't drop off during his time away.

West Virginia Mountaineers

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 18

What to watch:

• The Pat White era is over, and this spring will begin a new chapter of Mountaineers football. Head coach Bill Stewart and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen have promised to switch to a more passing-oriented attack, resembling how the team played in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Expect to see different formations and plays built more specifically for new starting quarterback Jarrett Brown. The senior has been a capable backup and emergency fill-in guy during his career; now he must prove he's a full-time leader.

• The offense will only be as good as the big fellas up front, and West Virginia must replace at least three starting offensive linemen (tackle Selvish Capers can earn an extra year if he graduates on time). Last year's O-line underachieved, partly because so many starters missed valuable snaps in the spring with injuries. It's crucial to get the new group up and running early this year.

• Special teams will hold an added emphasis this spring. One of the team's most valuable weapons, placekicker/punter Pat McAfee, has used up his eligibility. The Mountaineers simply must improve a kickoff coverage unit that was one of the nation's most dreadful last season. The defense is back almost intact, but it can't be asked to start with such terrible field position over and over again this season.

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