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Thursday, May 4, 2006
Updated: May 10, 10:05 PM ET
Big Ten spring recap

By Brett Edgerton
Special to

Can Ohio State find the defensive answers to contend for the national title? Will Michigan rebound? Can Penn State stay on top? How will Wisconsin look in Bret Bielema's first year in charge? Take a look at what questions were answered in the Big Ten this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall.

Illinois Fighting Illini
2006 Schedule
9/2 Eastern Illinois
9/9 at Rutgers
9/16 Syracuse
9/23 Iowa
9/30 at Michigan State
10/7 Indiana
10/14 Ohio
10/21 at Penn State
10/28 at Wisconsin
11/4 Ohio State
11/11 Purdue
11/18 at Northwestern

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 10, Defense: 10, Kicker/punter: 2

2005 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Pierre Thomas* (664 yds)
Passing: Tim Brasic* (1,979 yds)
Receiving: Kyle Hudson* (469 yds)
Tackles: Kevin Mitchell* (78)
Sacks: Chris Norwell* (3)
Interceptions: Several players tied with 1

Spring Answers: The offensive line is bigger and better -- that much is certain. LT Akim Millington quit Oklahoma after the 2005 season opener because of mounting pressure and family concerns at home in Trinidad. But his head is clear in Champaign, and his teammates have embraced him as a vocal leader. Charles Miles, who moved over from defense midway through last season, will team up with Millington to give the Illini something they haven't had in awhile: large, athletic tackles. … The offense used a lot more I formation this spring, and for good reason. The running game is unquestionably the strength of this team. Senior E.B. Halsey is still around, but it was the Pierre Thomas and Rashard Mendenhall Show during the scrimmages. They bulked up a bit and also look faster. Mendenhall, whose brother Walter is a versatile threat at fullback, still needs to work on his blocking, but he's got an array of moves that will make many a defender miss. … WR Kyle Hudson, the only player that passed for a deep threat in the offense last season, was moved to the outside to take advantage of more one-on-one coverage. He won't be grabbing many from the clouds with his 5-foot-11, 165-pound frame, but Hudson is sneaky good. He also showed a commitment to the team by not missing a single football practice or meeting in order to play baseball, which will probably cost him the Big Ten Freshman of the Year Award in baseball. Don't think Ron Zook and Co. haven't noticed. … JC transfer Antonio Steele isn't a huge linebacker, but he's quick and hits hard. The staff felt he was best-suited for the weak side, so J Leman went back to the middle and Brit Miller shifted to the strong side. Illinois has a pair on the outside who can run, and a between-the-tackles type at his more natural spot in the middle. Then there's Rahkim Smith, who is expected to immediately push for starting time when he arrives from Hargrave Military Academy this summer.

Fall Questions: How do you know your defense has problems? When only Rice and Temple allow more points per game. How do know your defense can't stop the run? When even Rice and Temple shut it down more effectively. In 2005, the Illini gave up nearly 40 ppg, holding only one opponent (San Jose State) under 30 points. On the ground, they gave up a nation-worst 234 ypg. The numbers are almost staggering. Is there any hope? Nearly everyone returns, but only time will tell whether that's a good thing. … Frankly, it all starts up front, where UI's linemen were continually blown off the ball. Illinois finished second-to-last in the country with only 10 sacks, putting plenty of pressure on the secondary, which grabbed a whopping four picks. As a whole, the defense came up with a measly eight turnovers. … Will converted TE Will Gates help out at end? Will inconsistent young talents like Chris Norwell sustain the level of play they've displayed? Can four incoming freshmen improve a dire depth issue in the secondary? If this defense is improved, then why were so many big plays given up again this spring? … And while we're at it, why can the Illini offense only produce big plays against the Illini defense? Does that strike anyone else as troubling? … The offense ranked 107th nationally last year with just 17 ppg. For it to get better, the quarterback has to get better. Incubment Tim Brasic has the job for now, but Isiah "Juice" Williams will make his much-heralded arrival on campus the day after his last high school class. The prep phenom from Chicago can run and throw -- apparently more than 70 yards -- when given the chance. Zook plans on utilizing Williams much like he did freshman Chris Leak at Florida. Not necessarily throwing him into the starter fire, but giving him plenty of time early on to prove himself. Meanwhile, if Brasic wants to prove himself, he needs to start with throwing more TDs than INTs. … The busiest man in central Illinois in the last four years was the always reliable Steve Weatherford, the team's punter. Newcomer Kyle Yelton just turned 18 this spring. The nerves got to Yelton any time he was pressured during scrimmages. If the Illini can't move the ball even when they're punting, they might as well call it an autumn.

Indiana Hoosiers
2006 Schedule
9/2 Central Michigan
9/6 at Ball State
9/16 Southern Illinois
9/23 Connecticut
9/30 Wisconsin
10/7 at Illinois
10/14 Iowa
10/21 at Ohio State
10/28 Michigan State
11/4 at Minnesota
11/11 Michigan
11/18 at Purdue

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 7, Defense: 6, Kicker/punter: 2

2005 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Chris Taylor (740 yds)
Passing: Blake Powers* (2,305 yds)
Receiving: James Hardy* (893 yds)
Tackles: Kyle Killion (91)
Sacks: Victor Adeyanju (6.5)
Interceptions: Tracy Porter* (3)

Spring Answers: Folks, James Hardy is about to be unleashed. So if you don't know his name already, get to know it. Thought he was good when he led the Big Ten in receiving as a freshman last year? Well, now he's not worried about a nagging hamstring or tendinitis in his Achilles. And he's also not worried about basketball, which he gave up to concentrate solely on the pigskin. Oh, and he's 6-7, strong and has great hands and quick feet. He made a catch this spring that head coach Terry Hoeppner swears only 10 people in the entire world could've caught. Keep that in mind the next time you find the Hoosiers on television and your first instinct tells you to change the channel. … Should we take anything away from spring games? Probably not. But it's hard to ignore the line QB Blake Powers put up: 33 of 51 for 659 yards and five touchdowns. Not only does Powers continue to improve, but the receiver corps is seriously looking like it could go eight deep. All of the usual suspects are back, plus a pair of impressive redshirt freshmen in Andrew Means and Chris Banks. If Powers gets some protection, those Big Ten secondaries better look out. … So could the Hoosiers actually be better on the ground after losing their top two rushers? That can't be truly answered until the fall, but the early signs certainly point that way. IU ranked last in the conference in rushing anyway, so maybe a breath of fresh air is what's needed. Hoeppner loves converted receiver Marcus Thigpen, who once clocked 4.29 speed and can create some real mismatches. If he gets out into the open field, good luck. Three good-looking redshirt freshmen, led by Demetrius McCray, are also in the mix.

Fall Questions: Hoosiers fans, before you go out and start saving money for the bowl trip -- is that even legal in Bloomington? -- keep in mind a couple of things. Much of the offense's potential (and remember that it wasn't a high-scoring group last year) hinges on the play of an inexperienced line with question marks all over. A three-year starter returns at center, but that's about the only certainty. In fact, several of the seven incoming freshmen are going to be asked to play right away. When is that ever a good formula? … It doesn't look any better on the other line. It'll be up to inexperienced players to revive an ineffective pass rush there, while at linebacker the losses of Kyle Killion and John Pannozzo leave much to be desired. IU might need to count on newcomers -- like JC transfer Vernon Smith -- when they arrive this summer. Suffice it to say, it's going to be a proving ground for a whole lot of defensive players wearing the crimson and white. Remember, this a front seven that gave up 215 ypg on the ground and a defense as a whole that gave up 32.8 ppg, ranking it 104th in the country. Lowly Illinois was the only conference opponent not to score at least 38 points against the Hoosiers last season. Hoeppner is saying and doing all of the right things to help make this program relevant, but no one is going to take Indiana seriously until embarrassing stats like that are taken care of.

Iowa Hawkeyes
2006 Schedule
9/2 Montana
9/9 at Syracuse
9/16 Iowa State
9/23 at Illinois
9/30 Ohio State
10/7 Purdue
10/14 at Indiana
10/28 Northern Illinois
11/4 Northwestern
11/11 Wisconsin
11/18 at Minnesota

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 7, Defense: 7, Kicker/punter: 2

2005 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Albert Young* (1,334 yds)
Passing: Drew Tate* (2,828 yds)
Receiving: Clint Solomon (800 yds)
Tackles: Abdul Hodge (158)
Sacks: Ken Iwebema* (7)
Interceptions: Jovon Johnson and Adam Shada* (3)

Spring Answers: In this space last May, the Iowa running game and defensive line not only fell into the "Fall Questions" category -- they were the questions. The Hawkeyes were still searching for a No. 1 back and the entire D-line was lost to graduation. Fast forward a year and what do you have? A tailback coming off a 1,300-yard season and a defensive line that helped anchor the No. 3 rushing D in the Big Ten. Albert Young didn't miss a beat this spring and may be a serious All-American candidate. The line? They all return. In fact, there's not a senior in the two-deep and only two juniors. Quarterbacks across the Midwest will be seeing plenty of these guys the next couple of years. … He certainly wasn't on the two-deep going into the spring, but center Rafael Eubanks has worked himself into the mix on the offensive line. The redshirt freshman impressed the coaches enough that he might even start. He'll battle with senior Mike Elgin. … With the gaping holes left by Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge, there's some uncertainty at linebacker. However, the one sure thing is Mike Humpal, whom defensive coordinator Norm Parker says is ready for stardom. He's not huge, but he's got a constant motor.

Fall Questions: Who replaces wide receivers Clint Solomon and Ed Hinkel, who were seemingly around Iowa City for eight or nine years? They stretched defenses, extended drives and were such a security blanket for QB Drew Tate. So what now? Herb Grigsby and Calvin Davis are OK, but both are upperclassmen and neither has shown he has what it takes to be a No. 1 receiver. If a few guys don't come through, then Young will be staring down plenty of defenders at the line of scrimmage. And they'll be coming fast if the O-line suffers any injuries. The group is extremely thin. … With the exception of Humpal, is anything set at linebacker after the loss of Greenway and Hodge, who combined for a mere 314 tackles last season? Not at this point. Ed Miles will move back inside to Greenway's old spot, but was seriously pushed by JC transfer Bryon Gattas this spring. At Hodge's position, Mike Klinkenborg and Zach Gabelmann are dead-even. … The competition at cornerback isn't as hot, but questions do remain. Antwan Allen and Jovon Johnson were four-year starters. And while Adam Shada and Charles Godfrey did see plenty of time in 2005, the results were mixed. Then again, the whole secondary was a bit shaky last season. So maybe some new blood won't be the end of the world.

Michigan Wolverines
2006 Schedule
9/2 Vanderbilt
9/9 Central Michigan
9/16 at Notre Dame
9/23 Wisconsin
9/30 at Minnesota
10/7 Michigan State
10/14 at Penn State
10/21 Iowa
10/28 Northwestern
11/4 Ball State
11/11 at Indiana
11/18 at Ohio State

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 6, Defense: 8, Kicker/punter: 2

2005 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Mike Hart* (662 yds)
Passing: Chad Henne* (2,526 yds)
Receiving: Jason Avant (1,007 yds)
Tackles: David Harris* (88)
Sacks: LaMarr Woodley (7)
Interceptions: Leon Hall* (4)

Spring Answers: The Wolverines tend to take a rather conservative approach to the spring, so you never figure out too much from Ann Arbor. Lloyd Carr again decided not to have a real spring game and the new coordinators, Mike DeBord on offense and Ron English on defense, didn't exactly display an array of radical scheme changes. … However, the attitude of the defense should be noted. The players can't stop talking about how much more intense and physical the practices have become under English, whose motivational tactics seem to have sparked a desire to attack the ball and force more turnovers. We'll see if it translates to the fall. … Junior Chris Graham is a returning starter at linebacker, but that title might not be applicable for very much longer. It's safe to say senior Shawn Crable was the star of the spring. If he keeps playing like that, then there's no question he will start on the outside. … Everyone knows how dangerous Steve Breaston is as a returner, but what happened at receiver last year? Sure, he excels more at short routes, but 291 yards and two TDs? With Jason Avant in the NFL, the Wolverines should expect more -- and they might just get it. The fifth-year senior looked sharp this spring and seemed to have a new focus at receiver. Maybe he won't be just a return specialist after all. … Traditionally, the key to a solid UM run game has been a solid fullback. Carr thinks he might have one in senior Obi Oluigbo, who has never started a game in his career. The coaches took notice of his play this spring, though. He might be a pleasant surprise.

Fall Questions: We know Mike Hart was never really right healthwise, but there's still no excuse for a Michigan team to rank ninth in the Big Ten in rushing. Too many times the Wolverines were unable to run out the clock when they were sitting on the lead. Well, Hart has said he's going to take better care of his body and backup Kevin Grady has become leaner and more conditioned. When healthy, they are lethal, but it'll take more than that. Michigan lost three starters off the O-line and there are some concerns. … Tackle Jake Long moved over to the left, dropped 20 pounds and looks good. But what about that right side? Mike Kolodziej was surprisingly ineffective at tackle in the spring, so Carr wants to move Ruben Riley there. For that to happen, though, 311-pound Alex Mitchell needs to follow Long's lead and lose some weight. The bottom line is the Wolverines need to get better up front. And developing some depth would help. … Speaking of depth, what happens if Chad Henne goes down? Capable backup Matt Gutierrez got sick of waiting and transferred to Idaho State. Antonio Bass was supposed to be the new backup, but he had knee surgery and might not play at all. Right now the top option is redshirt freshman Jason Forcier, who struggled for much of the spring. The line's job just became even more important. … Who gets the starting cornerback spot opposite Leon Bass? It could turn out to be the most closely contested battle of August. Converted receiver Morgan Trent might be the slight favorite because he gained some experience last year by playing nickel back occasionally. However, redshirt freshman Johnny Sears and sophomore Charles Stewart, who was primarily a special teams contributor in '05, are right there with him.

Michigan State Spartans
2006 Schedule
9/2 Idaho
9/9 Eastern Michigan
9/16 at Pittsburgh
9/23 Notre Dame
9/30 Illinois
10/7 at Michigan
10/14 Ohio State
10/21 at Northwestern
10/28 at Indiana
11/4 Purdue
11/11 Minnesota
11/18 at Penn State

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 6, Defense: 6, Kicker/punter: 1

2005 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Javon Ringer* (817 yds)
Passing: Drew Stanton* (3,077 yds)
Receiving: Jerramy Scott* (722 yds)
Tackles: Eric Smith (101)
Sacks: Clifton Ryan* (3)
Interceptions: Sir Darean Adams* (3)

Spring Answers: If you're looking for a sleeper, there might just be something brewing in East Lansing. We're not going to get crazy and predict a national championship run, as CB Demond Williams recently did. Visits from Notre Dame and Ohio State and trips to Pittsburgh, Michigan and Penn State should take care of that talk. Still, there's plenty of reason for optimism. … For one, QB Drew Stanton is in total control of this offense. Coming through on a promise he made to head coach John L. Smith, Stanton did not throw a single interception in any spring practice or scrimmage. Not one. … New WR coach Blaine Bennett coached some prolific receivers in his five years at Purdue, but he said this group at MSU is better than any he had there. Matt Trannon is showing better hands and is a better route-runner, but is still just one of 11 legitimate threats for playing time. JC transfer Devin Thomas and speedy early enrollee T.J. Williams automatically entered into the discussion with their play this spring. … At tailback, redshirt freshman A.J. Jimmerson only added to what was already a loaded backfield. Unlike the departed Jason Teague, Jimmerson has that same home run-hitting ability owned by teammate and good friend Javon Ringer, who Smith happens to think will be the best back to ever play at State. And don't forget about junior Jehuu Caulcrick. … A pair of defensive position changes looked like strokes of genius this spring. Senior Greg Cooper is making more plays at corner than he ever did at free safety, while many of the worries MSU had on the interior of the line were eased with the play of new tackle Clifton Ryan. … It took all of a couple weeks for Nehemiah Warrick to win the starting job at strong safety. Nicknamed Nemo, he is the cousin of Peter Warrick and was a receiver until making the move to defense last year while in junior college. It's difficult to describe the way he has rubbed off on his defensive teammates with his attitude and hard-hitting ways, but the coaching staff can't stop raving about his infectious style.

Fall Questions: There are still reasons to hold off on the Sparty Kool-Aid. First of all, this is still the team that dropped six of its final seven games and missed a bowl game for the second straight year. Let's not forget that. … The defense swears it's better. They say the secondary is improved and that the new wristbands will cure all of the missed signals and coverage breakdowns. So the plan is to step up the aggression and start blitzing from everywhere. There's apparently even depth at linebacker for a change. … Can we believe in this group yet? They gave up 410 yards a game in 2005, including 245 through the air. The search for a decent pass rush and some playmakers at end did not go well this spring. And depth on the D-line is still a big question mark. … You knew we had to get to the kicking game at some point. The wretchedness of last year's effort was just too overwhelming to overlook. How bad was it? Two now-departed kickers combined to make just 5 of 16 attempts, none of those five from longer than 32 yards out. It truly affected the way the Spartans ran their offense, and often forced Stanton into doing things he normally wouldn't need to do on third down in opponents' territory. So is it going to get any better? Walk-on Todd Boleski undoubtedly has a big leg, but was also inconsistent in scrimmages. The job likely will fall to incoming freshman Brett Swenson. If he's just average, they might name a campus street after him. … The last question is simple: Will the Spartans ever finish the job? It's not like last year's collapse -- from 4-0 and a win at Notre Dame to 5-6 and a nice Christmas visit home -- was anything new. Under Smith, MSU is 10-3 in August and September and just 2-10 in November and December. What more is there to say? Time to get it done, guys.

Minnesota Golden Gophers
2006 Schedule
8/31 at Kent State
9/9 at California
9/16 Temple
9/23 at Purdue
9/30 Michigan
10/7 Penn State
10/14 at Wisconsin
10/21 North Dakota State
10/28 at Ohio State
11/4 Indiana
11/11 at Michigan State
11/18 Iowa

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 6, Defense: 6, Kicker/punter: 2

2005 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Laurence Maroney (1,464 yds)
Passing: Bryan Cupito* (2,530 yds)
Receiving: Ernie Wheelwright* (568 yds)
Tackles: John Pawielski (86)
Sacks: Steve Davis* (6)
Interceptions: Several players with 1

Spring Answers: You'll hear plenty of talk about Minnesota emphasizing the pass only because of the rare uncertainty surrounding the running game. Don't discount the continued improvement of QB Bryan Cupito, though. He looked outstanding throughout the spring and is now the unequivocal leader of this team. … The Gophers didn't have to go far to find the replacement for Outland Trophy-winning center Greg Eslinger. Turns out he lived only a guard's length away. Standout RT Tony Brinkhaus is sliding down to take over a position he hasn't played since middle school. Brinkhaus, who fits right into the mold of the athletic Minnesota center, struggled through an initial adjustment period. Soon after, though, he picked up on the position so well that Cupito was calling him Greg Eslinger Jr. after the spring game. … It might be too early to put the secondary in the answers category, but we like what we're hearing about the changes made by new position coach Craig Bray. Brought in to help a unit that gave up 257 passing yards per game in 2005, Bray has altered the concepts, reads, techniques -- nothing is off limits. Unlike the 8-yard cushion of old, Minnesota will now utilize plenty of press coverage to jam the receiver at the line. It probably goes without saying, but the players greeted the new aggressive style with open arms. There was also one notable position shift, as senior Trumaine Banks moved to free safety after starting three years at cornerback. It should tell you how confident the coaches are in redshirt freshman CB Keith Massey.

Fall Questions: Considering one of Minnesota's 1,000-yard rushers is in the NFL (Laurence Maroney) and the other is in junior college trying to become eligible (Gary Russell), perhaps we'll start with the running game. It has, after all, been the heartbeat of the offense during Glen Mason's nine-year tenure. If Russell, who is not currently enrolled at UM, doesn't become academically eligible, the Gophers will lose a combined 2,500 yards rushing and 28 TDs from last season. True, junior Amir Pinnix has always been solid when called upon, but how much pounding can the 195-pounder take if Russell isn't beside him? For this system, two quality backs are needed and the jury is still out on Justin Valentine and JC transfer Brylee Callender. And if a right guard doesn't emerge from a group of three redshirt freshmen, will that prove disastrous to the ground game? … And what happens if the team commits to pass more, but nobody but Ernie Wheelwright and Logan Payne catches anything? Those two are the only ones with any college experience after the graduations of Jared Ellerson and Jakari Wallace and the unexpected transfer of Micah Rucker to Eastern Illinois. Eric Decker? Mike Chambers? Anyone? … Can the defense improve upon its 90th national ranking? Depth is still an issue from front to back -- no question about it. Sophomore stud DE Steve Davis is the only returning starter on the line and the Gophers are banking on several newcomers to arrive in August and be able to play right away. At that time, Alex Daniels and Mike Sherels will duke it out at middle linebacker and the secondary will almost certainly look a little different than it did in the spring. JC transfer Duran Cooley is expected to earn a starting safety spot and fellow newcomers Josh Robertson and Daron Love have a chance to make things interesting.

Northwestern Wildcats
2006 Schedule
8/31 at Miami (Ohio)
9/9 New Hampshire
9/16 Eastern Michigan
9/22 at Nevada
9/30 at Penn State
10/7 at Wisconsin
10/14 Purdue
10/21 Michigan State
10/28 at Michigan
11/4 at Iowa
11/11 Ohio State
11/18 Illinois

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 8, Defense: 8, Kicker/punter: 1

2005 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Tyrell Sutton* (1,474 yds)
Passing: Brett Basanez (3,622 yds)
Receiving: Shaun Herbert* (862 yds)
Tackles: Tim McGarigle (156)
Sacks: 4 players with 2
Interceptions: Marquice Cole* (5)

Spring Answers: The Wildcats have not identified their quarterback, but there sure are a lot of candidates at wide receiver after the graduation of Jonathan Fields and Mark Philmore. Luckily, the staff doesn't have to choose just one. Ross Lane put up more than 100 yards in the Sun Bowl and continued to impress this spring, along with fellow sophomore Rasheed Ward. The wild card might be Brandon Horn, who is expected to return after a year-long suspension. Then there's Shaun Herbert, who caught the fourth-most passes (79) in school history last year. And did we mention Tyrell Sutton and Brandon Roberson, probably the best set of receiving running backs in the country? … All-American Zach Strief graduated, but Northwestern still has five starters back. That's because two-year starting center Trevor Rees, who sat out the 2005 season with academic reasons, returned to his spot in the middle. The development allowed the 6-5 Austin Matthews to shift to his more natural spot at right tackle. … LB Nick Roach has spent his career nicked up, banged around and often unable to play. Even when he started last year, he was never really 100 percent. Well, he's not only a picture of health this spring, but he's also taken on the primary leadership role of the defense. Now just cross your fingers, Wildcats fans. … We'll give you two more positive developments from a defense that desperately needs them. Eric Peterman made a smooth transition from wide receiver to cornerback and could break into the starting lineup. And in the muddled interior of the line, sophomore John Gill seems to be progressing a lot faster than all the others. In fact, he's even drawing comparisons to former Wildcat and current NFLer Luis Castillo.

Fall Questions: Coach Randy Walker didn't plan on naming a starting quarterback after spring practice and that plan held true to form. In fact, he might not even name one at the end of preseason practice. In the race to replace record-setting QB Brett Basanez, redshirt sophomore C.J. Bacher might have the slightest of an edge, since he has the best arm and is in his third year in the system. But with redshirt freshman Mike Kafka and Andrew Brewer, it's truly a three-way battle. Walker, for one, said it's likely they'll all play early in the season. But someone will emerge at some point, right? … On defense, who's the lucky guy that gets to replace the NCAA's all-time leading tackler, Tim McGarigle? He was the true heart of the defense and replacing his intensity on and off the field will be quite a task. At the moment, it looks like Demetrius Eaton has the advantage over Mike Dinard in that middle spot. However, if Chris Jeske can successfully return from back surgery, you'd have to believe he could eventually take over. The former Illinois high school player of the year was the gem of Walker's recruiting class two years ago. … DT Barry Cofield also graduated to the NFL and his replacement will have big shoes to fill and plenty to prove -- no matter whether it's redshirt freshman Adam Hahn or redshirt sophomore Matt Clark, who has been slowed by ankle problems the past two years. … How many teams in Division I-A gave up more yards last year than the 480.4 per game yielded by the Cats? The answer to that is zero. And how many starters return to the field this year? The answer to that is eight. So wait, is that a good thing? The answer to that comes this fall. Every young team can say they're "a year better." But until we see them perform against someone other than their teammates, do we ever really know? … We do know kicker Joel Howells needs to improve upon his 11-for-21 accuracy or run the risk of being booted off the field by a true freshman.

Ohio State Buckeyes
2006 Schedule
9/2 Northern Illinois
9/9 at Texas
9/16 Cincinnati
9/23 Penn State
9/30 at Iowa
10/7 Bowling Green
10/14 at Michigan State
10/21 Indiana
10/28 Minnesota
11/4 at Illinois
11/11 at Northwestern
11/18 Michigan

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 8, Defense: 2, Kicker/punter: 1

2005 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Antonio Pittman* (1,331 yds)
Passing: Troy Smith* (2,282 yds)
Receiving: Santonio Holmes (977 yds)
Tackles: A.J. Hawk (121)
Sacks: Hawk and Mike Kudla (9.5)
Interceptions: Donte Whitner (2)

Spring Answers: With nearly all the skill-position talent back on offense, there wasn't exactly a lot to answer in the spring. But we're still going to tell you about the endless supply of tailbacks. With 1,300-yard rusher Antonio Pittman resting a nagging hamstring, we were able to see just how deep this group goes. Maurice Wells looked excellent, while fellow sophomore Erik Haw wasn't far behind. Then there's 225-pound early enrollee Chris Wells, the kind of big back the Buckeyes have been missing the last few years. Running backs coach Dick Tressel insists the true freshman reminds him of Jim Brown. So we think he might turn out OK. … Redshirt freshman WR Brian Hartline and junior TE Marcel Frost look like they will help out in the passing game more than was originally expected. Frost is a beast with the ball and Hartline simply caught everything that came his way. … The healthy return of redshirt sophomore LB Marcus Freeman was a welcome sight at a position that lost all three starters. His season-ending knee injury in the opening game hurt the Buckeyes more than most realize. In the team's losses to Texas and Penn State, another intimidating presence roaming around the middle might've been the difference. In addition, the first sighting of early enrollee Ross Homan and JUCO transfer Larry Grant still has the staff buzzing. Throw in James Laurinaitis, John Kerr and the versatile Curtis Terry and suddenly the Bucks are back to being six- or seven-deep at linebacker. And that's before three blue-chippers make their debuts this August. … True sophomore DE Lawrence Wilson is another reason for optimism on this decimated defense. He's beefed up from 225 pounds when he arrived in Columbus to 270 now. Wilson is also tough and smart and has the pass-rushing abilities that remind many of Will Smith.

Fall Questions: Ohio State lost two NFL draft picks on the O-line in C Nick Mangold and LG Rob Sims. Former LT Doug Datish is sliding over to the middle full-time, but we're not completely certain how he'll adjust since he was injured this spring. And the coaches are still waiting for the massive Steve Rehring (6-8, 330) to turn it up a notch at left guard. For now, he's dropped behind Tim Schafer. … The back seven on defense didn't just get hit hard by graduation and early departures -- it got driven into the ground with a sledgehammer. All seven starters -- not to mention a pair of starting ends up front -- are gone off what was a dominating unit. Yes, it's Ohio State. Yes, there's plenty of talent waiting in the wings. But nine starters are still nine starters (especially when a whopping six are drafted). The young linebackers look good, but it'll be awhile before they can make up for the production generation by the trio of A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and Anthony Schlegel. At this point, only Freeman is sure to start, but at least there's some experience there. In the secondary? Not so much. With four career starts, 18-year-old sophomore Malcolm Jenkins is the wily veteran at corner. Fifth-year senior Antonio Smith is a nice story, but do we really know how this former walk-on will handle starting duties? The safeties are undoubtedly athletic, but there's very little experience outside of Brandon Mitchell. If this team's national title expectations are going to be fulfilled, the defense will certainly have to grow up quickly. An early September trip to Austin looms. … K Josh Huston filled in nicely last year after the graduation of the immortal Mike Nugent. It was assumed Ryan Pretorius, who learned to kick by playing rugby in the South African hometown of Gary Anderson, would be the next in line. Then Aaron Pettrey came along and hit a 59-yard field goal to win the kicking scrimmage this spring. Now, there's suddenly a close competition. Like always, Ohio State will play its share of close games this fall. The kicking battle might be one worth monitoring this August.

Penn State Nittany Lions
2006 Schedule
9/2 Akron
9/9 at Notre Dame
9/16 Youngstown State
9/23 at Ohio State
9/30 Northwestern
10/7 at Minnesota
10/14 Michigan
10/21 Illinois
10/28 at Purdue
11/4 at Wisconsin
11/11 Temple
11/18 Michigan State

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 5, Defense: 4, Kicker/punter: 2

2005 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Tony Hunt* (1,047 yds)
Passing: Michael Robinson (2,350 yds)
Receiving: Deon Butler* (691 yds)
Tackles: Paul Posluszny* (116)
Sacks: Tamba Hali (11)
Interceptions: Alan Zemaitis (6)

Spring Answers: For anyone wondering if QB Anthony Morelli can adequately replace Michael Robinson, let's not forget that a short eight months ago people were wondering if Robinson could even adequately play the position. That turned out all right. Even though he's thrown just 33 passes in two years, Morelli displayed all the tools this spring. The speed, precision and consistency of his tight spirals -- even on deep balls -- was a sight to behold. Assistant Jay Paterno said he wasn't sure if Penn State has ever had a quarterback with a stronger arm or a quicker release. Not only that, but Morelli's coaches and teammates rave about his demeanor in the huddle. … The return of the entire receiving corps certainly doesn't hurt his development. It already looks like he has a nice connection with Jordan Norwood. Plus, one of the nicer sights of the spring was a fully healthy and blazing Derrick Williams, whose broken arm cost him the last half of his freshman season. … You know about the starting linebackers: Paul Posluszny, Tim Shaw and Dan Connor. But they're only a part of the reason this group is as strong as any in the country. Check out the guys behind the trio. Sean Lee was a beast in the Orange Bowl and fellow sophomore Tyrell Sales filled in admirably during Connor's absence at the beginning of the season. And the coaches rave about freshman Jerome Hayes, who they were extremely reluctant to redshirt last season. … At a position of need, senior Jim Shaw stepped in this spring and scooped up a defensive end spot. He started just one game at tackle last season, but he'll now be starting plenty on the edge.

Fall Questions: The skill-position players are in place, but what about that O-line? Tackle Levi Brown is a heck of an anchor, but he's also the only returning starter. The right side is especially unsettled. At tackle, will it be John Shaw or Chris Auletta? At guard, will it be Greg Harrison or Robert Price? All could stand to be a little more consistent. … The defensive line was hit hard, too. Three of four starters from that solid front wall have departed and the Lions will have to count on an influx of freshmen to contribute. Can Jim Shaw, likely starting end Josh Gaines and whoever ends up at tackle get even half the pass rush Tamba Hali, Jay Alford and Co. produced? Might the Nittany Lions make the change to the 3-4 defense to take advantage of personnel? They dabbled with it this spring and Joe Paterno hasn't ruled it out. … But how does Penn State plan on replacing the 180 games of experience the secondary lost to graduation? All four starters are gone and it won't be a seamless transition. At the corner spots formerly occupied by Alan Zemaitis and Anwar Phillips, sophomore Justin King and Tony Davis have plenty of talent, but King returns after playing receiver for much of last year and Davis didn't really play much of anywhere. Senior Donnie Johnson will be serviceable at one safety position, but at the "hero" spot it's not clear whether it'll be senior Nolan McCready or a host of younger players. Oh, did we mention that trip to South Bend on the second week of the year?

Purdue Boilermakers
2006 Schedule
9/2 Indiana State
9/9 Miami (Ohio)
9/16 Ball State
9/23 Minnesota
9/30 at Notre Dame
10/7 at Iowa
10/14 at Northwestern
10/21 Wisconsin
10/28 Penn State
11/4 at Michigan State
11/11 at Illinois
11/18 Indiana
11/25 at Hawaii

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 7, Defense: 4, Kicker/punter: 0

2005 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Jerod Void (696 yds)
Passing: Brandon Kirsch (1,727 yds)
Receiving: Dorien Bryant* (960 yds)
Tackles: Bernard Pollard (92)
Sacks: Rob Ninkovich (8)
Interceptions: Pollard (3)

Spring Answers: By all accounts, this program is going to trot out its best offensive line since the 2000 Rose Bowl season. The Boilermakers did lose center Matt Turner, but Robbie Powell has moved over from guard. That, in turn, frees up a starting spot for Uche Nwaneri, a 2004 starter who is rejoining the team. … When starter Kory Sheets sprained his ankle midway through spring drills, the team found out just how deep it is at tailback (sounds strange, doesn't it?). While on the recruiting trail, Purdue told junior college prospect Jaycen Taylor it wanted a player who could contribute right away. Well, running backs coach Joel Thomas said Taylor turned in one of the best springs he'd ever seen from a JC player, so we can only assume they got their wish. They were also thrilled with tailback/fullback Anthony Heygood and feel like they have another JC transfer (Dario Camacho) arriving in August that is every bit as good as Taylor. … Boilermakers fans can stop fretting about the status of WR Kyle Ingraham. The 6-9, two-year starter is currently taking classes at St. Mary's University in his hometown of San Antonio, but plans on re-enrolling at Purdue in June. He's a kid who underwent four surgeries in a matter of 18 months and just needed to get away, clear his head up and recharge his batteries back home. He'll be fine. And when Selwyn Lymon and JC transfer Roberto McBean join the fray in August, the receiving corps will be more than fine. Lymon was one of the biggest recruits of the Joe Tiller Era two years ago, but didn't meet the NCAA's freshman eligibility requirements. … At a position of dire need, true sophomore Brandon King at least eased a few of the worries by locking down one of the cornerback spots. Making his spring debut, King was named newcomer of the year on defense.

Fall Questions: Until he wins a big game with all the pressure on his back, we can't put QB Curtis Painter in the answers category quite yet. He has a cannon for an arm and the coaches were pleasantly surprised with his decision making this spring. With that said, Painter threw just three TDs despite starting the last half of 2005. In addition, his accuracy wasn't great and he tended to throw passes too high, which can often lead to interceptions. … Despite returning 11 starters (including three future NFL draft picks), the Purdue defense flat-out stunk last season, ranking 100th in the country by giving up 430.7 yards per game. So while there might be worse things than losing seven starters, there are still plenty of questions. The front of last year's media guide called Purdue the "Den of Defensive Ends," but that den is mighty bare these days. Only Anthony Spencer has any proven talent, and it's not like he's much of a threat to rush the quarterback. Both starting tackles are gone, as well. … But that pales in comparison to the situation in the secondary. Last year, the Boilers ranked among the nation's very worst by surrendering 287.3 yards per game through the air -- and now they're dealing with the loss of three starters. Can sophomore SS Torri Williams, who broke his leg last year and is currently slowed by a back injury, ever get healthy? Tiller said recently he used to think Williams had a chance to be the best safety he'd seen since Rod Woodson. … The turmoil surrounding last year's team was well-documented. Finger-pointing between players. Locker room cancers who made their beefs with the coaches very public. High expectations spiraled into a six-game losing streak. Everyone around the program says the problems have been resolved and the selfish elements have been weeded out. Boilers fans better hope so.

Wisconsin Badgers
2006 Schedule
9/2 at Bowling Green
9/9 Western Illinois
9/16 San Diego State
9/23 at Michigan
9/30 at Indiana
10/7 Northwestern
10/14 Minnesota
10/21 at Purdue
10/28 Illinois
11/4 Penn State
11/11 at Iowa
11/18 Buffalo

2005 overall record:
Conference record:

Returning starters
Offense: 3, Defense: 8, Kicker/punter: 2

2005 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Brian Calhoun (1,636 yds)
Passing: John Stocco* (2,920 yds)
Receiving: Brandon Williams (1,095 yds)
Tackles: Dontez Sanders (95)
Sacks: Nick Hayden* (5.5)
Interceptions: Roderick Rogers and Jack Ikegwuonu* (3)

Spring Answers: The kid they call "Big Shifty" made an unexpected move up the depth chart at tailback. He probably won't start, but walk-on Dywon Rowan did push Jamil Walker out of the No. 2 spot. Listed at 5-9 and 243 pounds, Rowan loves contact and obviously runs with power, but he is also surprisingly elusive and quick. Big Ten defenders might not recognize him, but they better get ready to wrap him up. … The UW offensive line doesn't miss many meals. Among the starters, Outland contender Joe Thomas is the lightest at 306 and Marcus Coleman is the shortest at 6-5. These guys are massive. But much like Rowan, they are more mobile than you'd think. Thomas and freshman All-American Kraig Urbik are proven, and if there are any doubts about Eric VandenHeuvel, consult the Auburn D-line and check back with us. Depth is a legitimate concern with the loss of three starters, but the coaches don't seem all that worried about the big uglies. … The staff certainly isn't concerned with the linebacking corps. It's another spot where starters were lost, but optimism is high. In fact, many UW insiders think the starting three of Jonathan Casillas, Mark Zalewski and DeAndre Levy might be the most athletic trio the program has ever produced. With their speed, these guys can make plays from sideline-to-sideline as well in the backfield. Then there's MLB Elijah Hodge, who was a beast this spring and would probably start at most Big Ten schools. Not here. Zalewski is that good.

Fall Questions: How effectively can former TB Brian Calhoun be replaced? Remember, he was not only a great runner, but also one of the team's best receivers. With Booker Stanley booted off the team, the Badgers are left with a redshirt freshman (P.J. Hill) with no game experience and a junior (Walker) and a walk-on (Rowan) with little game experience. Expected starter Hill, forced to miss last season after breaking his leg in preseason practice, at least has history behind him. Since 1990, Wisconsin's first-year starters at this position have averaged 1,700 yards and 16 TDs. … QB John Stocco is back, but his receiving corps is as barren as a keg on a late Saturday night in Madison. The Badgers lost their top seven pass catchers from 2005, which leaves Marcus Randle El as the top statistical returner. That's no joke. Randle El played in five games, caught one pass for 29 yards and is the leading receiver. So it wasn't exactly surprising to see all the dropped balls and QB-WR miscommunication that marred spring practice. UW better hope the three freshmen can contribute immediately. … The situation at tight end isn't any clearer. After losing both tight ends to the NFL, the Badgers turn to a former linebacker (Andy Crooks), a former defensive end (Travis Beckum) and a former quarterback (Sean Lewis). So what happened to the offense formerly known as 34-points-per-game? Even the backup QB position hasn't been claimed. Wisconsin needs some answers by September. … It sounds strange to say after last year, but the D might actually carry the offense at times this season. The Badgers could stand to get better against the run, but cornerback is really the only possible worry spot on what should be a much-improved defense. Jack Ikegwuonu and Allen Langford have some starting experience at corner, but the depth consists of a pair of walk-ons.

Brett Edgerton is a researcher for ESPN. He can be reached at