NCF Nation: Keith Watkins

Spring practice has begun in the Big Ten, so let's take a look at what to expect from each Legends Division team this spring.


Spring start: March 27

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Questions at quarterback: The Hawkeyes played James Vandenberg for every snap last season, and now that he's gone, they have no quarterbacks on the roster with any game experience. Sophomore Jake Rudock has been viewed as Vandenberg's successor, but he's still a mostly unknown quantity who should get pushed in the spring by former junior college transfer Cody Sokol and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard. Whoever wins the job will be tasked with improving an Iowa passing game that finished with a Big Ten-worst seven touchdown passes in 2012.

2. Skills competition: While the quarterback race is vital, Iowa also needs standouts to emerge at the other skill positions to fix an offense that sputtered under first-year coordinator Greg Davis. The wideout corps, which struggled to get separation or make big plays, now is without departed senior Keenan Davis, who tied for the team lead with 571 receiving yards. There's a reason why Iowa signed five receivers in the 2013 class. The running back position has strength in numbers, with Damon Bullock, Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri and Barkley Hill all competing for carries this spring. The Hawkeyes just need to finally get some luck in the health and off-field departments at that position while hoping one player emerges as the go-to back.

3. Transition game: Iowa long had one of the most stable staffs in the country. But coach Kirk Ferentz added three new assistants this offseason for the second straight year, giving the program some fresh voices but also causing some potential bumps in transition. The offense in particular didn't mesh well last season under Davis, who'll look for solutions this spring. Ferentz has new coaches overseeing the running backs (Chris White) and receivers (Bobby Kennedy) and a new defensive assistant who'll work with the linebackers (Jim Reid). The Hawkeyes hope they can inject some life into a program that has seen its fortunes dip the past couple of seasons, including last year's 4-8 disaster.


Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Devin Gardner as starter: Denard Robinson is gone and Gardner is the presumed Michigan starter for the first time. How he adjusts to that -- and how Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges develops more of a pro-style offense around him -- are a major launching point for the Wolverines next season.

2. Offensive line play: Michigan is replacing the entire interior of its offensive line and while there is a lot of young talent there, none of the potential candidates have any experience. Michigan offensive line coach Darrell Funk said he would like to have at least one of the three slots, if not two, settled by the end of spring.

3. Linebacker competition: The deepest position on Michigan’s roster also has the most competition. Jake Ryan at strongside linebacker is almost a given, but the middle and weak side slots are wide open. A bevy of freshmen and sophomores, along with returning starter Desmond Morgan, will vie for playing time in what will be a likely increased rotation in the fall.

-- Michael Rothstein, WolverineNation


Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. Still Maxwell's house?: Senior Andrew Maxwell started all 13 games last season at quarterback but was pulled in favor of freshman Connor Cook for the deciding drive of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The Spartans will open up the competition under center, with Tyler O'Connor and eventually incoming freshman Damion Terry joining the fray. Though he has a big edge in experience, Maxwell will have to prove that he can greatly increase last season's 52.5 completion percentage to hold onto the job through the spring.

2. Replacing Bell: Saying running back Le'Veon Bell was a big part of the 2012 offense is like saying Tom Hanks had substantial role in "Cast Away." Bell carried the ball 382 times last year, more than any back in the country, and gained 1,793 yards. There is no ready-made in-house replacement, as leading returning rusher Nick Hill had just 21 rushing attempts last year and may be too slight (5-foot-8, 190 pounds) to be an every-down back. Junior Jeremy Langford will move back to the backfield after seeing time at receiver. Signees Delton Williams, Gerald Holmes and R.J. Shelton might wind up with the job.

3. New playcaller in town: Mark Dantonio has yet to officially announce a replacement for former offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, who recently left for an assistant's post with the NFL's New Orleans Saints. But reports are that former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman has been tapped to lead the Spartans' offense. Can Bollman, whom Buckeyes fans criticized as being too conservative, find the solutions for what was a dreadful attack in 2012? The Spartans' defense once again enters spring ball with very few question marks. Michigan State's hopes rely heavily on how much progress it can make on the offensive side.


Spring start: March 26

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Defensive back end: The Gophers lost two outstanding cornerbacks in Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, as well as starting linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper. Jerry Kill has tried to address this during recruiting, adding a pair of well-regarded junior college linebackers (De'Vondre Campbell and Damien Wilson) as well as touted high school corner Jalen Myrick. But some holdovers from last season's roster will have to step into bigger roles this spring.

2. The full Nelson: True freshman Philip Nelson took over the quarterback job midseason and now will enter practice as the starter. He showed flashes of immense potential but still has a lot of things to learn. Kill has said Nelson is no lock to start in 2013 and that he'll face legitimate competition from redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner and incoming freshman Chris Streveler. Nelson has the inside track for now but must hold onto it.

3. Receiving line: The Gophers don't have a returning wideout who had more than 375 receiving yards last year, though Derrick Engel showed promise with a 100-yard day in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. You can blame some of that on the turnover and youth at quarterback. But Minnesota needs much better play at receiver to become a more balanced offense. Improvement by guys like Devin Crawford-Tufts and Isaac Fruechte this spring will help, as would some immediate contributions from recruits Eric Carter and Drew Wolitarsky.


Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:

1. Youth movement on defense: The Cornhuskers lost eight starters from last season's defense and will hope that some athletic young players are ready to step in. Guys like Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose and Thomas Brown will be given long looks this spring. Nebraska coaches are hopeful that what they lack in experience, they'll make up for in speed. There's no bigger key for Big Red than having its young defenders make great strides in the spring.

2. Safety issues: The safety spot is an important one in Bo Pelini's scheme, and the Huskers lose both starters and a couple of top reserves from that position. Jackson will be given a look there, and the staff is high on Corey Cooper. But no starting jobs are locked down.

3. Martinez's progression: Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez won't be involved in a lot of live drills, and the spring will be a time to get freshman Tommy Armstrong some reps. But Martinez still needs to fine-tune a few parts of his game, most notably his tendency to force throws in key spots. He made great progress last offseason through extra hours of hard work; a similar leap this spring would make Martinez one of the very best players in the country.


Spring start: Feb. 27

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. The quarterback duo: The Wildcats spent large parts of last season rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, using Siemian for more obvious passing situations. Will that continue this season? Colter needs to improve as a passer to become a better option as an every-down quarterback, and Northwestern's downfield passing game must get better. You can bet there will be a lot of eyes on Colter and Siemian this spring to see what offensive coordinator Mick McCall has planned.

2. Secondary concerns: The news that cornerback Nick VanHoose won't practice this spring because of injury could be a blessing in disguise. The Wildcats' secondary struggled when he was hurt last season, so this may provide an opportunity for others to get better without him. Jimmy Hall and Traveon Henry are youngsters who should see plenty of reps this spring in the defensive backfield.

3. Offensive line makeover: Three starters are gone from last season's offensive line, including both guards and left tackle Patrick Ward. Jack Konopka is the favorite to succeed Ward but will miss the spring with injuries, while 2012 signee Adam DePietro is among those who could step in at guard. Northwestern should have one of the best running games in the Big Ten in 2013 but will need its line to begin to take shape this spring.

Recruiting Q&A: NU's Pat Fitzgerald

February, 7, 2013
Signing day was suspense-free for Northwestern, and that's just how Pat Fitzgerald likes it.

Fitzgerald and his staff wrapped up the bulk of the Wildcats' class months ago and didn't have to sweat out the faxes on Wednesday. Northwestern is hoping this latest batch of recruits can add to the program's recent success, which included a 10-win campaign and first bowl win in 64 years this past season.

I caught up with Fitzgerald to ask about this year's recruiting effort:

What were your goals for this class?

Pat Fitzgerald: Once again, we want to continue to recruit speed, and I think if you look at the class, it's a very fast, very athletic group that we felt strongly about early. With our staff being together so long, we're a little ahead of the cycle. We had 17 of the 19 guys verbally committed before their senior year. Our first priority is speed, and our second is to solidify our physicality up front. I think we added some very talented guys that will add to some good classes in front of them and will add to the depth on both lines.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Tony DingPat Fitzgerald says the national brand of a Northwestern education allows him to recruit in all corners of the country.
So do you think you'll see the impact of last season's success more in the following year?

PF: I think we've already seen the fruits of that labor. There's a lot of excitement. Basically in January, we're junior recruiting and seeing a bunch of juniors' high school coaches and talking to them about their prospects and getting on the phone with the kids. They all have watched us play and know we're a consistent winner and that we're knocking on the door to being Big Ten champions. The kids are excited about that. A bunch of juniors came up last fall to watch us play, so they've seen the plan for our new facility. And even as recently as the last 48 hours, I've had conversations with kids regarding the opportunity to play at Wrigley Field. So there's a lot of buzz, a lot of interest and a lot of positives going on.

Your highest-rated prospect is quarterback Matt Alviti. What do you like about him?

PF: Well, we've known about Matt for a number of years now. Matt's been on our campus throwing for years. I joked that I think I've known Matt longer than I've known my son, Brendan. It's kind of fitting that [Wednesday] was Brendan's birthday and we signed Matt that day. But he's a true dual-threat quarterback. He's a very dynamic athlete who can make all the throws and then some in our offense and run the ball the way we want to see our quarterback run athletically. At the end of the day, what sold me the most on Matt was watching the way he handled and managed the expectations of being the quarterback at [Park Ridge, Ill.] Maine South. That's a high-profile program here in Chicago and one with state championship expectations. He took that team over as a sophomore and handled that very well. He's a guy we've had circled for a number of years, and we feel very excited about him and the future of our quarterback position.

And Godwin ... well, I'm not even going to try to pronounce his last name ...

PF: Igwebuike. He's a talented, talented guy. He was a finalist for Mr. Ohio football and a guy who not only could be a running back but also could be a DB. Frankly, he has not made the decison on where he wants to play yet. But we evaluated him kind of like when we looked at Ibraheim Campbell. We felt like Ibraheim could be a tailback or a DB for us. I think we were right in our evaluation of him.

You have some other guys listed as athlete or running back. How much flexibility do you have with some of these guys and their positions?

PF: Well, Tommy Fuessel will be a wide receiver. Keith Watkins is going to play corner and we're excited about that. He's the one who gave us the idea of what he wanted to do. Jayme Taylor will be a superback for us. Xavier Menifield and Warren Miles-Long are running backs, and Godwin -- we'll see how that all progresses. Tyler Lancaster could play on the offensive or defensive line, so we'll see how that unfolds. The same thing with Marcus McShepard and Matt Harris. Both guys really run and are very athletic and talented on offense and defense and also in the return game. Speed and size were what we were looking for, and I believe we've added that to as deep of a roster as we've ever had.

You have a really solid nucleus from last year's team returning. So do you see this class contributing much next year or just adding depth?

PF: It's kind of the million dollar question, and it's hard for me to answer without being able to coach them. I tell all the guys in my home visit with them in December or January that they have to prepare today to start next year. If they don't prepare mentally and physically right now to get themselves ready to start, they're going to redshirt. I'm not going to waste a guy's year on covering kicks and being on kickoff return. I was that guy. I had to play, though. We had depth issues here, and I had to play before I was ready. As I look back, I wish I didn't have to do it. We have a five-step process we go through as a staff to evaluate whether or not we're going to play a kid. I'm just not going to waste a guy's year covering kicks.

You have three recruits each from Texas and California. How have you been able to build pipelines into those coveted areas?

PF: We're going to start and end our recruiting always here in Chicagoland. The backbone of this class, a quarter of our class, is from Chicagoland. We're excited about those guys from a standpoint of protecting our backyard. But when we leave Chicagoland, there's no secret to our roster. If you look at it over time, we're going to hit Ohio hard, Michigan hard, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and California. This year, we had great success in Ohio and Texas. If you add those states up, I think it's about half the class. We have a national brand with our education, and once kids get around our players -- who are our best ambassadors -- on official visits, it seems like the culture of who we are as a program sells itself.

How much more speed do you think you've added just in the past couple of years?

PF: I think we can run. It's been a priority in our recruiting classes really since I took over the program but even more so now that we're having really consistent success, winning bowl games against SEC teams, winning nonconference games against the SEC, the ACC, the Big East champion. There's no question that kids are excited about our program, and for us to take the next step we need to continue to get faster. We need to continue to get mentally and physically tougher so we play a physical brand of football. We're not there yet, but that's where we're headed.

You mentioned in your news conference about how many of these players were captains of their teams in high school. Is that something you specifically look for when recruiting?

PF: No question. I'll always talk to guys who weren't captains and I'll say, "Why weren't you a captain? If you want to be a Big Ten player and a Northwestern student-athlete, I'd fully expect that you're captain-level material. So what held you back from having that role?" I just think that, if you get guys who know how to lead and are leaders, they're going to lead in the college environment and make good choices off the field and do the right things in the classroom and spend the time it takes to be a champion. You can't be a champion in 20 hours. That's not going to happen. So hopefully we'll continue to foster that environment.

There must be a lot of competition when you name your captains, then.

PF: I'll give you an example. We only have about 80 guys on campus right now with graduation and whatnot, and I think we had over 60 apply for our leadership council. So I think that tells you where we're at as a program and where the leadership is. I hear coaches all the time who are frustrated that they don't have enough leaders. Well, if you don't recruit leaders, how do you think you're going to have them?

With the returning players, have you noticed any extra bounce in offseason workouts after the bowl win?

PF: This group is very focused and very disciplined. We're further along in that aspect than we've ever been. Obviously, if you look at what we have coming back and what we've recruited, we think this is the most talented locker room coming back we've had in a long, long time. They're really driving each other, and make no bones about it, the next step is winning a Big Ten championship. We've got to take those necessary steps to do that, and the only way to do it is by preparing in the seven months before we play the games. We're excited about it. The momentum is going in the right place, but we've got a big chunk of work to do.