- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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The opening of spring practice around the Big Ten brings competition to each of the league’s 14 programs. Departing top players and the maturation of others lead to fights for practice reps that will help shape depth charts and summer conversation topics.
At Ohio State, the nation’s most prominent position battle looks set to be waged at quarterback upon the return from injury of Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. This spring, the spotlight belongs to Cardale Jones.
So which position battles require close attention over the next few weeks?
Michigan quarterbacks: It’s wide-open, with junior Shane Morris, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and true freshman Alex Malzone auditioning for Jim Harbaugh and coordinator Tim Drevno. Speight owns a size advantage. Morris has played in parts of the past two seasons, but was ineffective in place of Devin Gardner. The spring serves only as an appetizer in this race, which figures to extend to August, when freshman Zach Gentry joins the fun.
Minnesota running backs: David Cobb meant so much to the Gophers over the past two seasons as they rolled to 16 wins. Minnesota likely can’t replace his production with one back, though redshirt freshman Jeff Jones -- a homegrown, elite recruit from the Class of 2013 -- looks physically equipped to give it a shot. Senior Rodrick Williams Jr. (who showed flashes late in the year), sophomore Berkley Edwards and redshirt freshman Rodney Smith will likely also factor in the battle for the top job.
Iowa quarterbacks: Junior C.J. Beathard dodged rumors of a transfer in December and senior Jake Rudock did the same recently. Both remain in Iowa City, ready to resume the battle that ended in a bowl defeat against Tennessee with Beathard in charge of the offense. Soon after, the Hawkeyes placed him atop the depth chart. But any edge over Rudock, a 25-game starter over the past two seasons, is small and could disappear quickly this spring.
Ohio State cornerbacks: Opposite Eli Apple, the Buckeyes must replace Doran Grant. It’s no easy task, considering Grant’s value to the Ohio State defense during its national title run. But sophomores Gareon Conley and Damon Webb look up to the task. Conley played considerably more last season after a redshirt year that followed his arrival in Columbus as the No. 1 prospect in Ohio in 2013. Webb, the top prospect out of Michigan a year later, figures to make a jump after limited action last year.
Penn State offensive tackles: The urgency here outweighs the options, and the Nittany Lions have plenty of candidates to replace Donovan Smith, gone early to the NFL. Andrew Nelson started as a freshman at right tackle and may take over on the left side. Opposite Nelson, the race is on, with redshirt freshmen Noah Beh, Brendan Brosnan, Chance Sorrell and Chasz Wright set to enter the mix. Newcomer Paris Palmer, a junior, may be the man to beat, though. True freshman Sterling Jenkins joined the program in January.
Purdue quarterbacks: Juniors Austin Appleby and Danny Etling bring considerable starting experience into the spring. Redshirt freshman David Blough, who came to Purdue with credentials equally as impressive as the other two, has yet to take a collegiate snap. But for the Boilermakers, who’ve won just one Big Ten game behind the elder quarterbacks over the past two seasons, it’s all hands on deck.
Nebraska I-backs: This is a legitimate four-man race to replace three-time 1,000-yard rusher Ameer Abdullah. Senior Imani Cross has the size and experience, with 22 career touchdowns. Junior Terrell Newby is a quicker option with skills perhaps well suited to Mike Riley’s offense. Sophomore Adam Taylor offers an impressive mix of power and speed but missed last season with a knee injury. Redshirt freshman Mikale Wilbon showed promise last year in scout-team duty.
Michigan safeties: The Wolverines have a lot back at safety, including surefire starter Jarrod Wilson. But competition for the other spot may grow fierce between the likes of senior Jeremy Clark and juniors Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas. Most intriguing, Jabrill Peppers, after injuries shortened his much-hyped true freshman season, has taken spring snaps at safety. Michigan coaches continue to audition defensive backs, so it may take much of the spring to sort out who is vying for specific spots.
Rutgers running backs: If healthy, rising senior Paul James has earned the top spot. But James needed knee surgery last fall and has battled other injuries. He’s out this spring, leaving a glut of young backs to fight for time. Sophomore Robert Martin finished last season on a strong note, but not as well as classmate Josh Hicks, who gashed North Carolina for 202 yards in the Quick Lane Bowl. Juniors Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples, who led the Scarlet Knights in rushing last season, add flavor to this competition.
Northwestern quarterbacks: Senior Zack Oliver is the man with the most experience as the Wildcats prepare to replace Trevor Siemian. But Oliver’s late-season turnover trouble helped open this race up for sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson. Each of the three brings a different set of skills, so a decision would help simplify matters as the season nears.