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Friday, March 16, 2007
Spring look around the Big East

By Joe Starkey
Special to

How will West Virginia improve its defense? Who will win the quarterback jobs at Pittsburgh and UConn? What will Steve Kragthorpe do in his first year at Louisville? Our Big East notebook addresses those questions and much more.

Cincinnati Bearcats
Spring practice starts: March 27
Spring game: April 21
Spring keys: Can they pass? New coach Brian Kelly brings his high flying offense from Central Michigan. He'll find out soon enough whether he has the personnel to make it work immediately in the Queen City. Who throws it? Junior Dustin Grutza has been unable to seize the quarterback job despite starting the majority of the games the past two years. He'll have to fend off sophomores Tony Pike and Craig Carey. What about the defense? New coordinator Joe Tresey will put his stamp on a unit that played some great games under head coach Mark Dantonio last season.

Connecticut Huskies
Spring practice started: March 13
Spring game: April 14
Spring keys: Who wins the quarterback battle? Coach Randy Edsall has conducted a QB merry-go-round the past two years, unable to find an adequate replacement for Dan Orlovsky. The candidates this year are junior D.J. Hernandez, junior college transfer Tyler Lorenzen and sophomore Dennis Brown. Who blocks? UConn's top offensive player, tailback Donald Brown II, could become a nationally prominent player if the offensive line improves. At least two spots are up for grabs. Warmer now? Spring practice should be a lot smoother in the new Mark R. Shenkman Training Center. It sure beats trying to evaluate players and establish a passing game in the ice, wind and cold of Storrs.

Louisville Cardinals
Spring practice starts: March 30
Spring game: April 20
Spring keys: What's the new guy like? Steve Kragthorpe, hired away from Tulsa, is reputed to be much more easy-going than perpetually uptight Bobby Petrino. Time will tell whether that's a good thing for the program. Who's ready on defense? The Cardinals lost seven starters, including three of their top four tacklers. There is no shortage of talent waiting in the wings, including cornerback Woodny Turenne, a highly touted junior-college transfer. Airing it out? Kragthorpe's first big move was convincing quarterback Brian Brohm to return for his senior year. The coach has a great reputation for working with QBs; Louisville might throw even more than it did under Petrino.

Pittsburgh Panthers
Spring practice starts: March 17
Spring game: April 14
Spring keys: Who replaces quarterback Tyler Palko? Blue-chip recruit Pat Bostick won't join the fray until fall. His competition will include Palko's former backup, junior Bill Stull and redshirt freshman Kevan Smith. Stull's experience in the offense gives him an early edge. Linebackers, anyone? Pitt's entire starting linebacker corps is gone, including the Big East's leading tackler, H.B. Blades. Coach Dave Wannstedt has switched ultra-athletic sophomore Dorin Dickerson from tailback/receiver to linebacker to help fill the void. Healthy up front? Injuries to ends Doug Fulmer and Chris McKillop and tackle Nick Williams crushed an already thin defensive line last season. If those three are back at full strength --tackle John Malecki also is coming off shoulder surgery -- the unit should improve measurably.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Spring practice starts: March 24
Spring game: April 21
Spring keys: Put it up? Tailback Ray Rice will put up big numbers again, but it's time to upgrade the passing game. Junior quarterback Mike Teel, coming off an inconsistent season, needs to build on his late-season rapport with wide receivers Kenny Britt and Tim Brown. Britt is an emerging star. The replacements? Several key contributors, including fullback Brian Leonard, center Darnell Stapleton, tight end Clark Harris, linebacker Devraun Thompson and defensive lineman Ramel Meekins, are gone. Staying humble? Coach Greg Schiano must keep his team level-headed amid its newfound success.

South Florida Bulls
Spring practice starts:March 20
Spring game: April 14
Spring keys: Smooth transition? Several coaches left the program, forcing head coach Jim Leavitt to promote from within and hire some outsiders. This is a critical time to mesh and implement systems, particularly for new offensive coordinator Greg Gregory, who was promoted to replace Rod Smith. Is the Ford running? Quarterback Matt Grothe won't have to lead the team in rushing again, especially if five-star recruit tailback Mike Ford -- who originally committed to Alabama -- establishes himself early. Who replaces linebacker Stephen Nicholas? Sophomore Chris Robinson has the inside track, but it might take a committee.

Syracuse Orange
Spring practice starts: March 21
Spring game: April 21
Spring keys: 1. Mr. Robinson? After a year of grooming under Perry Patterson, sophomore Andrew Robinson should be ready to hit the ground running, er, passing. He has some talented receivers to throw to. Dig in on 'D'? Syracuse has been shredded the past two years. Head coach coach Greg Robinson handed over the coordinator duties to linebacker coach Steve Russ, who'll need to work in replacements at every linebacker spot. On the block? Several talented offensive line prospects, including redshirt tackle Adam Rosner, will look to crack a unit that needs radical upgrades.

West Virginia Mountaineers
Spring practice starts: March 5
Spring game: April 7
Spring keys: Defense, anyone? Major improvements are needed on a defense that came up small in big games and couldn't get to the quarterback. Expect a variety of new blitzes to be installed this spring. Holy Mozes, who snaps? All-American center Dan Mozes leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the Mountaineers' vaunted rush offense. Junior Mike Dent will have every opportunity to fill it. WVU also must overcome the loss of legendary line coach Rick Trickett, who left for Florida State. Who backs up Steve Slaton? One of the candidates is Jason Gwaltney, who once was a higher-ranked tailback prospect than Slaton. Gwaltney left WVU under less-than-ideal circumstances but has returned.

Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.