NCF Nation: James Kittredge

Three new head coaches. Fourteen new coordinators. Quarterback competitions. New faces everywhere. The Big Ten had it all during spring football.

Here are five lessons we learned about the league this spring:

1. Big Ten offenses are speeding up: Tempo was a huge theme for offensive coordinators we spoke with around the league this spring. Defenses are catching up to the spread in college football, so offenses are speeding up to stay a step ahead. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer talked about mimicking Oregon with a no-huddle spread attack, and even conventional offenses like Iowa's and Penn State's will have no-huddle elements and an emphasis on maximizing snaps. It's a myth that the spread offense is new to the league -- teams like Purdue and Northwestern have run it for more than a decade -- but most Big Ten teams have spread elements and want to keep the pedal down as much as possible.

2. Bill O'Brien is building momentum but still needs a quarterback: First-year head coach Bill O'Brien has taken the necessary steps to win over Penn State's fan base. Now he needs to do what he does best: identify a quarterback and develop the signal caller for the 2012 season. The spring didn't provide much separation as Matthew McGloin, Rob Bolden and Paul Jones adjusted to O'Brien's complex, NFL-style offense. Bolden's struggles in the Blue-White Game might have closed the window on his chances, although no decisions have been announced. O'Brien told ESPN.com he wanted to reduce the candidate pool from three to two before fall camp. Penn State needs a significant upgrade at quarterback after the past two seasons, and the O'Brien effect must pay off for the Lions this fall.

3. Fresh faces bring greater accessibility: The Big Ten has a reputation of being a buttoned-up, closed-doors league when it comes to accessibility. And in some respects, the label holds true to this day. But new faces and new approaches have created a more open feel around the conference. Penn State opened up some spring practices to media for the first time in recent memory. Ohio State hosted thousands of students at an practice, creating very cool scenes like this. Open practices at Iowa seems like a pipe dream, but one of the nation's least accessible programs had more interaction with the media this spring than in recent memory. Hawkeyes coaches are taking to the Twitterverse, and there's even talk that Kirk Ferentz might start tweeting soon. While I'm sure mentioning this will jinx us, the increased accessibility is a welcome change.

4. Nebraska isn't lacking confidence: The Huskers didn't steamroll through the Big Ten in their first go-round, as some expected, but a somewhat bumpy ride didn't damage their confidence, either. Led by junior quarterback Taylor Martinez, Nebraska players are openly discussing the national championship as a goal for 2012. The Huskers last played for the title after the 2001 season, which marks their most recent BCS bowl appearance. Coach Bo Pelini is comfortable with the title talk, and Nebraska points to an offense that returns mostly intact, a defense with potentially more depth and arguably the Big Ten's best special teams units as reasons to believe. As wide receiver Kenny Bell told me, "It's a big jump to go from a 9-4 to a 13-1 or a 14-0 season. But if you don't believe wholeheartedly in a goal, there's no point in trying to chase it."

5. Spartans look loaded on the lines: Most football games are won at the line of scrimmage, and Michigan State is positioned to win plenty of them this fall. The Spartans' defense could be the Big Ten's best unit in 2012, and it starts up front with freakish end William Gholston, veterans Tyler Hoover and Anthony Rashad White, newcomer James Kittredge and others. Perhaps more important, Michigan State's offensive line is taking shape after a choppy 2011 season that brought injuries and personnel shuffling. This could be the deepest offensive line in coach Mark Dantonio's tenure, and the Spartans will try to re-establish themselves as a power running team with top ball-carrier Le'Veon Bell back in the fold.

Spring previews: Legends Division

February, 17, 2012
2/17/12
9:00
AM ET
The 2012 Big Ten season doesn't kick off for six-and-a-half months, but spring football is just around the corner. All 12 Big Ten squads will hit the field next month for the first of 15 spring practices. There are plenty of new faces, as the winter months brought an unprecedented number of coaching changes to the Big Ten. Should be a fun and exciting spring around the conference.

Let's take a quick look at the Leaders Division:

IOWA

Spring practice start date: March 24
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • New coaching flavor: For the first time in the Kirk Ferentz era, Iowa will welcome new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Phil Parker isn't exactly new, having served as Iowa's defensive backs coach throughout Ferentz's tenure, but he now takes charge of the defense for the first time. Will he continue running Norm Parker's scheme or shake things up? Iowa also will have a new offensive coordinator (yet to be named) and several new position coaches, including Reese Morgan, who moves from offensive line to defensive line.
  • Running back auditions: Iowa once again needs to identify a featured back after Marcus Coker transferred to Stony Brook in January. Coker basically was the team's rushing attack in 2011, accounting for 77.3 percent of the rushing yards and 61.9 percent of the carries. Jordan Canzeri and Jason White will compete with several other unproven players this spring. The good news is Iowa has had little trouble developing backs. Keeping them is another story.
  • Reloading the defensive line: The running backs might get more attention, but defensive line is Iowa's most pressing need entering the spring. The Hawkeyes lose three starters from last season's squad, including NFL prospect Mike Daniels at defensive tackle. While D-line historically has been a strength for Iowa, the Hawkeyes haven't had so much uncertainty in quite some time. Morgan, who hasn't coached on the defensive side, has his work cut out this spring.
MICHIGAN

Spring practice start date: March 17
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Defensive line rotation: It's a good thing coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison focus so much on the defensive line. The unit needs some extra attention this spring after losing standouts Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. The defensive tackle spot will be particularly interesting. A lot of eyes will be on Will Campbell to see if the big man can finally blossom. Quinton Washington and others are in the mix.
  • Receiving orders: Michigan needs to develop more options in the passing game this spring. The team loses top wideout Junior Hemingway, and Darryl Stonum was dismissed from the squad in January following another legal issue. Roy Roundtree needs a big spring as he looks to re-establish himself as the team's No. 1 wideout after a production drop-off last season. Tight end Kevin Koger also departs, creating an opportunity for others.
  • Al Borges' offense, Take 2: The new offense had some highs and lows in Year 1, and Michigan will be looking to establish greater consistency this season. It'll be interesting to see how a full year in the system impacts quarterback Denard Robinson. Robinson must cut down on his interceptions after tossing 15 last season. The Wolverines also are looking for an offensive line anchor following the departure of All-American center David Molk.
MICHIGAN STATE

Spring practice start date: March 27
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • Take it to the Max: Andrew Maxwell's time has arrived as he steps in for three-year starter and three-time captain Kirk Cousins at quarterback. It's a tall order, but Maxwell has been groomed for this moment and has shown good potential in practices. He'll be working with a new set of leading receivers, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who hopes to be cleared to play for the upcoming season. Maxwell must establish himself as a team leader this spring.
  • We're not Worthy: All-American Jerel Worthy is gone, and Michigan State needs a replacement for the standout defensive tackle. While Anthony Rashad White returns at the other D-tackle spot, the Spartans don't have much overall depth at the position. It'll be interesting to see what the coaches do with Micajah Reynolds, who has bounced between defensive line and offensive line during his career. It's a big spring for Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge and a host of players who redshirted last season, including Damon Knox.
  • Receiving orders: Arnett seemingly would be Michigan State's No. 1 receiver if he's ruled eligible by the NCAA, but there are no guarantees and the Spartans must identify other options this spring. Bennie Fowler showed promise in 2010 before being slowed by a foot injury last season. He needs a strong spring. Michigan State also is moving Tony Lippett back to receiver from cornerback, where he started several games last season. Lippett is an excellent athlete who can provide a boost on the edge. The Spartans also will be looking for more from tight end Dion Sims.
MINNESOTA

Spring practice start date: March 22
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • The search for a pass rush: Minnesota should be improved on offense in Year 2 of the Jerry Kill era, but the team could sink or swim depending on the defense. It starts up front with a defensive line that hasn't generated much pressure for several years. Coordinator Tracy Claeys wants to be aggressive, but can he find difference-makers? The Gophers haven't had an elite pass-rusher since Willie VanDeSteeg in 2008.
  • Supporting cast on offense: Although quarterback Marqueis Gray had his ups and downs last season, he accounted for most of Minnesota's offense, leading the team with 966 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns. Gray needs more help if the Gophers intend to take the next step this season. Minnesota will be looking for a featured running back this spring, as Donnell Kirkwood and others are in the mix. The Gophers also need more options at receiver after losing Da'Jon McKnight.
  • Troy Stoudermire: Stoudermire turned heads last spring with some big hits from the cornerback spot. After receiving an additional year of eligibility from the NCAA in January, he'll look to deliver more punishment. Minnesota desperately needs leaders and playmakers to emerge in the secondary, and Stoudermire's return could be huge after he missed most last season with a broken bone in his forearm.
NEBRASKA

Spring practice start date: March 10
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Star search on defense: No Big Ten defense loses more star power than Nebraska, which must replace linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, the league's top performers at their respective positions. David's departure is especially critical, as Nebraska lacked depth in its defensive midsection last season. Although Nebraska played most of the past season without defensive tackle Jared Crick, it needs some difference-makers to emerge in all three levels of the defense this spring.
  • Papuchis takes over: Like Iowa, Nebraska promoted a position coach to defensive coordinator, as John Papuchis takes control of a unit that fell short of expectations last season. Papuchis is young and energetic, and his rapid rise mirrors that of his boss, Huskers head coach Bo Pelini. Although no system overhaul is expected, it will be interesting to see how Papuchis puts his imprint on the defense this spring.
  • Taylor Martinez's maturation: Despite two years as the starter and the support of his coaches, Martinez enters a pivotal spring. Although Martinez remained healthy last season and showed improved decision-making at times, he also completed just 56.3 percent of his passes and didn't break off as many long runs. A full year in Tim Beck's offense could pay off for Martinez this spring, but he needs to continue to make strides. It will be interesting to see if the coaches even entertain the possibility of a competition, or if backup Brion Carnes gets more reps.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring practice start date: March 3
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Colter and the QB race: Northwestern will have a quarterback competition this spring as it looks for Dan Persa's replacement, but the hope among many is for Kain Colter to take control. Colter stepped in for Persa last season and emerged as the team's best all-around offensive weapon. But he needs to improve his arm strength and his accuracy and show he can be a more complete quarterback at this level. Although Colter will be on the field no matter what in the fall, he has the opportunity in spring ball to solidify himself as the starting quarterback.
  • Young defenders: The defense has been a big problem for the past year and a half, and Northwestern needs to identify more playmakers before September. The good news is the Wildcats played a lot of young players last season, particularly late in the season. Northwestern needs its youth to mature, beginning in the spring. Keep an eye on players such as defensive end Tyler Scott, safety Ibraheim Campbell, linebacker Collin Ellis and cornerback Daniel Jones. Northwestern needs several of them to take the next step.
  • Spotlight on the secondary: Few Big Ten units struggled more than Northwestern's secondary did last season. Making matters worse, the Wildcats lose three starters, including All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters and cornerback Jordan Mabin, a four-year starter. If Northwestern ever intends to turn the corner as a program, it needs to build better depth in the secondary, whether it's through recruiting or from moving players from other positions. It'll be interesting to see how the group performs this spring.

SPONSORED HEADLINES