- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
Can you feel the love?
It's Valentine's Day, and the celebration is on here at ESPN.com. As some of you scramble for those last-minute gifts, I'm going to pass out Valentine's Day cards to each Big Ten squad.
The cards represent a reason why each team should feel warm and fuzzy heading into the 2011 season.
ILLINOIS: Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. He showed a ton of promise in his first season as the starter and made significant strides with his passing between the end of the regular season and the Texas Bowl. Scheelhaase boasts the maturity, poise and confidence to lead the Illini offense for the next three seasons. It also helps that he's a perfect fit for Paul Petrino's offense.
INDIANA: A demanding coaching staff led by Kevin Wilson. Mediocrity no longer will be tolerated in Bloomington, and while it might take some time to get things fully on track, Wilson is going to change the culture around the program. He comes from a big-time program (Oklahoma), has orchestrated a big-time offense and carries big-time expectations for the Hoosiers.
IOWA: Young playmakers on both sides of the ball. Iowa didn't win the Insight Bowl because of its seniors. It won because of a record-setting performance by freshman running back Marcus Coker and a pick-six by sophomore cornerback Micah Hyde. Quarterback James Vandenberg returns to the spotlight after impressing a lot of folks in 2009. Outside expectations likely will be tempered, but the future looks promising for Iowa.
MICHIGAN: Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Coach Brady Hoke hit a home run with his choice to rebuild an historically bad defense. Mattison boasts an impressive track record at the college and pro levels, and his recruiting prowess speaks for itself. Although Michigan's defense faces significant challenges in 2011, it no longer will be held back by coaching.
MICHIGAN STATE: A restocked offensive backfield. Most Big Ten teams lose their top quarterback or running back from 2010, but the Spartans bring back all of their leading men. Kirk Cousins enters his third season as the starting quarterback, making him the league's second-most experienced signal caller. He'll be joined by talented running backs Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper.
MINNESOTA: Quarterback MarQueis Gray. Not only is Gray back at his preferred position of quarterback, but he'll be operating in an offense that best suits his talents. It likely will take some time for things to click, but Gray should eventually thrive in a system that values a dual-threat quarterback.
NEBRASKA: The return of three key defenders. Sure, the Huskers lose their share of defensive standouts, but to get defensive tackle Jared Crick, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard all back for their senior seasons is huge. Crick will be the Big Ten's most decorated defensive tackle heading into 2011, and he and the other two form a very solid nucleus for Carl Pelini's unit.
OHIO STATE: No juniors departing to the NFL. The silver lining in the suspension saga is Ohio State returns all of its juniors for the 2011 season. If the Buckeyes can survive the first chunk of their season, they'll welcome back some of the league's more proven offensive performers. Ohio State also got a big boost when center Michael Brewster, who isn't among the suspended players, opted to return for his senior season to anchor the offensive line.
NORTHWESTERN: Dan Persa's work ethic. It's not easy to recover from a ruptured Achilles', but no player will work harder in his rehab than Persa, who already is well ahead of schedule. The quarterback had established himself as the team's hardest worker before the injury, and although time will tell if he reclaims his All-Big Ten form, you have to like his chances.
PENN STATE: A stockpile of offensive skill players. Whoever emerges as Penn State's starting quarterback will be surrounded by plenty of weapons in 2011. Derek Moye leads a receiving corps filled with playmakers, and Silas Redd and Stephfon Green give Penn State two home-run threats at running back. Devon Smith and Justin Brown both should see increased touches this coming season.
PURDUE: An offseason to get healthy. No college football team in America needed a healing period more than Purdue, which could be extremely explosive on offense if several players return at full strength. Quarterback Robert Marve, running back Ralph Bolden and receivers Keith Smith and Justin Siller are among the Boilers on the mend. Reserve quarterback Caleb TerBush also is expected to be back this fall.
WISCONSIN: Running backs Montee Ball and James White. Normally, a team losing its starting quarterback, its most experienced running back and two All-American offensive linemen would have reason to be concerned. But the emergence of both Ball and White plus tremendous depth along the offensive line should put Wisconsin in good shape entering the fall. The quarterback question is a valid one, but the Badgers will be able to run the ball effectively.
Can you feel the love?It's Valentine's Day, and the celebration is on here at ESPN.com. As some of you scramble for those last-minute gifts, I'm going to pass out Valentine's Day cards to each Big Ten squad.