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Thursday, March 2, 2006
Spring look around the Big Ten

By Bruce Hooley
Special to ESPN.com

Can Iowa and Ohio State find replacements at linebacker? Can Anthony Morelli fill the shoes of Michael Robinson at Penn State? Will Wisconsin find another star tailback? Our Big Ten notebook addresses those questions and much more.

Illinois Fighting Illini
Spring practice begins: March 27.
Spring game: April 22.
Area of concern: Illinois needs help everywhere, but it won't make even incremental improvement until it finds a franchise quarterback. Tim Brasic received most of the snaps last season, but he faces a challenge from Chris Pazan in the spring. Both might be eating the exhaust of incoming freshman Isiah Williams in the fall. Remember, coach Ron Zook wasn't shy about going with true freshman Chris Leak at Florida, even though other more experienced quarterbacks were available.

Indiana Hoosiers
Spring practice begins: March 20.
Spring game: April 15.
Area of concern: Indiana made significant improvement in coach Terry Hoeppner's first season. Now the Hoosiers need to add to the talent that emerged in 2005. Quarterback Blake Powers and wide receiver James Hardy need a running game to keep defenses honest. And it would be nice if the Hoosiers could find some reliable defenders.

Iowa Hawkeyes
Spring practice begins: March 22.
Spring game: None scheduled because of construction at Kinnick Stadium.
Spring practice ends: April 15.
Area of concern: The departure of linebackers Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge leaves a crater in the middle of the Hawkeyes' defense. Mike Klinkenborg and Mike Humpal will get the first chances to solidify that position. Iowa is hoping the maturity its young defensive line exhibited late last year results in that spot becoming a position of strength.

Michigan Wolverines
Spring practice begins: March 18.
Spring game: TBD.
Spring practice ends: April 15.
Area of concern: Five losses have brought change to Lloyd Carr's staff. Secondary coach Ron English left for the NFL, then was back a day later as defensive coordinator. He replaces the much-maligned Jim Herrmann. On offense, Terry Malone moved on to the New Orleans Saints and special teams coordinator Mike DeBord, once the head coach at Central Michigan, took over.

Michigan State Spartans
Spring practice begins: March 24.
Spring practice ends: April 21.
Area of concern: Opponents passed like crazy against MSU last season for two reasons. First, its secondary was porous. Second, teams had forever to throw. The front seven registered only 16 sacks. Without more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, coach John L. Smith will be feeling even more heat than he is over consecutive November swoons that cost MSU bowl bids in 2004 and 2005.

Minnesota Golden Gophers
Spring practice begins: March 25.
Spring game: April 22.
Area of concern: Glen Mason weathered a nasty contract spat to gain an extension, which will only heighten the pressure to make Minnesota more than a perennial Music City Bowl participant. To crack a Jan. 1 bowl, the Gophers must improve defensively. They allowed 19 points in their seven victories and 43 in their five losses.

Northwestern Wildcats
Spring practice begins: March 28.
Spring game: April 22.
Area of concern: Brett Basanez left his fingerprints all over the Northwestern record book, which happens when a guy starts for four seasons. Who succeeds him? Randy Walker wishes he knew the answer. C.J. Bacher threw all of 15 passes last season, which gives him the edge over Mike Kafka and Andrew Brewer. At least the winner will have tailback Tyrell Sutton to occupy opposing defenses.

Ohio State Buckeyes
Spring practice begins: March 29.
Spring game: April 22.
Area of concern: Replacing All-American linebacker A.J. Hawk and eight other defensive starters.

Penn State Nittany Lions
Spring practice begins: March 25.
Spring game: April 22.
Area of concern: Quarterback Michael Robinson meant so much to the Lions in leadership and performance that junior Anthony Morelli has an impossible task replacing him. Morelli will benefit from the return of Derrick Williams from a broken arm and another solid year of recruiting speed and skill. Still, keeping Penn State among the league's first division will be a huge challenge given an inevitable drop on defense with the heavy losses up front and in the secondary.

Purdue Boilermakers
Spring practice begins: April 5.
Spring game: April 29.
Area of concern: Joe Tiller had an unerring touch throughout his first nine seasons, but his success has created a ticklish situation. Boilermakers' fans who wouldn't have blinked at a bowl-less season before his arrival are grouchy over a 5-6 record last year. Ray Edwards' and Bernard Pollard's early exits for the NFL won't help rebuild a defense that allowed 431 yards -- and 28 points -- per game.

Wisconsin Badgers
Spring practice begins: March 25.
Spring game: April 22.
Area of concern: Wisconsin's production of 1,000-yard tailbacks has been rivaled in regularity only by the state's production of cheese. But with Brian Calhoun leaving early for the NFL and Booker Stanley being booted for off-field misdeeds, new coach Bret Bielema won't start with the security of an established rusher in his backfield. Couple that with the departures of receivers Jonathan Orr, Brandon Williams and Owen Daniels, and Bielema will be searching for skill position players to keep the Badgers among the Big Ten's elite.

Bruce Hooley covered the Big Ten for 18 years and now hosts a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.