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March 1, 2007

Spring Football Team Capsules: Big Ten

Spring Practice dates
Spring Team Capsules:

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Only three Big Ten teams will have the same starting quarterback in 2007 that opened the season in 2006.

Not coincidentally, those three teams Michigan (Chad Henne), Purdue (Curtis Painter) and Penn State (Anthony Morelli) should finish in the upper half of the standings.

Two freshmen and one sophomore emerged as starters during last season and hope to lead their teams to new heights. Illinois has a dynamic playmaker in Juice Williams, albeit one whose accuracy (39.5 percent) must improve. Indiana's Kellen Lewis wound up a Rivals.com Freshman All-American. At Northwestern, an offense that had been shaky at best found some legs under C.J. Bacher, who passed for more than 200 yards in each of his five starts.

The departed QBs could be a Big Ten "Mt. Passmore." Gone are longtime starters Troy Smith at Ohio State, John Stocco at Wisconsin, Bryan Cupito at Minnesota and the Drews, Stanton of Michigan State and Tate of Iowa. Look for fresh faces in all of those places.

Here's a quick look around the Big Ten as spring practice draws near:

Big Ten Spring Capsules
Spring practice starting date: March 27
Spring game: April 21
Top returner: LB J Leman. The senior led the Big Ten in tackles with a whopping 152, nearly two more tackles per game than his closest pursuer.
Player on the verge: RB Rashard Mendenhall. The junior finished 10th in the league in rushing with 640 yards, but he was first in average yards per carry (8.2). With Pierre Thomas gone, Mendenhall figures to get more chances.
Impact newcomer: WR Arrelious Benn. The freshman out of Washington, D.C., should immediately help QB Juice Williams raise that 40 percent completion rate.
The big question: Can Juice deliver? Williams had some sensational games and some abysmal performances in his first season. Benn is a big target, and Mendenhall is a game-breaker. The defense should be solid, so improvement for the Illini rests on Williams' shoulders.
Spring practice starting date: March 20
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: WR James Hardy. The 6-7 junior didn't play in two non-conference games both of which the Hoosiers lost and still led the Big Ten in touchdown receptions with 10.
Player on the verge: WR Nick Polk. The sophomore was second among conference freshmen in receptions per game. He should improve on his numbers - 32 receptions for 326 yards - with Jahkeen Gilmore gone.
Impact newcomer: DE Fred Jones. The three-star prospect out of Georgia steps in at a need position for the Hoosiers. He had 14 sacks in only seven games his senior season in high school.
The big question: Who will emerge in the secondary? Both starting safety spots are up for grabs, and there isn't a lot of experience in the front seven either.
Spring practice starting date: March 7 (AP says March 1)
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: DE Bryan Mattison. The senior, son of Florida co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, was honorable mention all-conference with 59 tackles, including 6.5 sacks.
Player on the verge: S Marcus Wilson. The 6-4 sophomore appeared in all 13 games and had 21 tackles and an interception in a backup role. He showed he is more than ready to step forward with Marcus Paschal and Miguel Merrick moving on due to graduation.
Impact newcomer: DE Adrian Clayborn. The buzz coming out of practices last year was that the redshirt freshman, a former four-star prospect out of Missouri, was an absolute terror as a pass rusher. Both starting DEs return, but Clayborn will be in the rotation, especially on obvious passing downs.
The big question: Is Jake Christensen ready? The sophomore takes the reins from longtime starter Drew Tate. Christensen made one start last season and led the Hawkeyes past Northern Illinois. Christensen was 19 of 30 for 256 yards and two touchdowns against the Huskies.
Spring practice starting date: March 17
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: RB Mike Hart: We could have given the nod to Rivals.com first-team All-America offensive tackle Jake Long or star quarterback Chad Henne, but Hart gets the nod for his steadiness. Hart almost never fumbles and rushed for at least 91 yards in each of his regular-season games last year.
Player on the verge: OG Justin Boren: Rated as the No. 1 center in the 2006 recruiting class by Rivals.com, Boren earned playing time as a true freshman despite battling an ankle injury early in the season. He should win a starting job somewhere on the line likely at guard this fall.
Impact newcomer: OT Steve Schilling: This former five-star prospect was rated by Rivals.com as the No. 2 guard in the 2006 recruiting class. After sitting out a redshirt season last fall, Schilling should compete for the starting spot at right tackle.
The big question: Will opponents learn how to run against the Wolverines? Michigan loses several top players including All-America defensive tackle Alan Branch from a defense that stopped the run better than any other team in the nation last year.
Spring practice starting date: March 20
Spring game: April 21
Top returner: S Otis Wiley. He is the only player to appear in the top 10 in the conference in tackles (seventh with 94) and passes defended (tied for fifth with 10)? The 6-2 junior from Flint is a top candidate for All-Big Ten honors in 2007.
Player on the verge: WR T.J. Williams. The sophomore will get plenty of opportunities with leading receiver Matt Trannon and Jerramy Scott lost to graduation. Williams posted 25 receptions for 281 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Impact newcomer: DT Antonio Jeremiah. He is the highest-rated prospect in the Spartans' signing class. This high four-star player has tremendous upper-body strength and great hands, which help him to get off blocks and make plays.
The big question: How will the coaching transition go? The Spartans will convert from John L. Smith's spread offense to more of a balanced attack that utilizes a fullback and halfback under Mark Dantonio. The nice thing is Dantonio has a bevy of talented backs, including Javon Ringer and Jehuu Caulcrick.
Spring practice starting date: March 21
Spring game: April 7
Top returner: DE William Van DeSteeg. As a sophomore Van DeSteeg racked up 10 sacks, good for second in the Big Ten and 21st nationally. With more help on the other side, he's poised for another huge season.
Player on the verge: RB Jay Thomas. The sophomore's speed and versatility will make him invaluable in coach Tim Brewster's spread offense. In limited duty last season, Thomas averaged more than 6 yards per carry.
Impact newcomer: DE Raymond Henderson. The transfer from Tennessee brings size (6-6, 255) to the defensive end position that Minnesota has not had in years. He's a former Rivals.com four-star prospect.
The big question: Who will take over for Bryan Cupito? The longtime starting QB is gone, and redshirt freshman Adam Weber - a former three-star prospect - could be a good fit in offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar's system.
Spring practice starting date: March 26
Spring game: April 21
Top returner: RB Tyrell Sutton. The former three-star prospect backed up his Rivals.com Freshman All-America honors with a stellar sophomore season. Sutton continued to be an all-around threat with 1,000 yards rushing and 261 receiving, tied for the lead among conference running backs.
Player on the verge: DE Corey Wootton. The massive sophomore (6-7, 275) had a major impact in his first season. He led the Wildcats in tackles for loss (nine) and sacks (4.5), and was second on the team in interceptions with two.
Impact newcomer: K Stefan Demos. The ninth-ranked kicker by Rivals.com in the class of 2006 redshirted last season. However, Demos could handle both the place-kicking and the punting duties in 2007.
The big question: How good is C.J. Bacher? Once the California native took over at QB, the Wildcats offense got in gear. He started the final five games and passed for 200-plus yards in each. The Wildcats won twice and should have won three times under Bacher, but Northwestern blew a 38-3 third-quarter lead against Michigan State.
Spring practice starting date: March 29
Spring game: April 21
Top returner: LB James Laurinaitis: He picked off five passes and was named a Butkus Award finalist in his first year as a starter. What can he do for an encore?
Player on the verge: RB Chris Wells: Rivals.com's No. 3 prospect in the 2006 recruiting class offered glimpses of his potential last year while backing up Antonio Pittman. Wells now will be the focal point on offense now that Pittman, Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith and nearly the entire receiving corps are all gone.
Impact newcomer: RB Brandon Saine: Chris Wells and Maurice Wells are the only returning scholarship running backs, so Saine and Daniel Herron could see immediate playing time as true freshmen. Saine is bigger and faster than Herron and probably has the better chance to play early.
The big question: Who's going to replace Smith? The three candidates - junior Todd Boeckman, sophomore Rob Schoenhoft and redshirt freshman Antonio Henton have combined to throw just 11 career passes.
Spring practice starting date: March 31
Spring game: April 21
Top returner: LB Dan Connor: Connor earned Rivals.com third-team All-America honors last year and was a finalist for the Bednarik Award that goes to the nation's top defensive player. The Nittany Lions will need even more production from him now that 2005 Butkus Award winner Paul Posluszny is heading to the NFL.
Player on the verge: RB Austin Scott: After rushing for 110 yards and two touchdowns in an Orange Bowl victory over Florida State two seasons ago, Scott hurt his knee last spring and missed the entire 2006 season. Scott is returning to action this year and could emerge as the Nittany Lions' main running back now that Tony Hunt has departed.
Impact newcomer: DE Aaron Maybin: The Nittany Lions are looking for a new starter at defensive end now that Jim Shaw has finished his senior year. Maybin will have a tough time cracking the starting lineup, but this redshirt freshman and former four-star prospect should work his way into the Lions' rotation of pass rushers.
The big question: Will Anthony Morelli take the next step?: Morelli's disappointing junior season ended with an encouraging performance in an Outback Bowl victory over Tennessee. Penn State's hopes of contending for a Big Ten title depend on whether this former five-star quarterback prospect finally lives up to expectations.
Spring practice starting date: March 21
Spring game: April 21
Top returner: QB Curtis Painter. The junior ranked fourth in the nation in passing yards with nearly 4,000. He passed for 22 touchdowns. The Big Ten lost a lot of marquee quarterbacks, but Painter and Michigan's Chad Henne are among the best in the nation.
Player on the verge: DE Cliff Avril. The senior moved from linebacker to end during last season and maintained a high level of productivity (six sacks). He may get more attention with All-Big Ten DE Anthony Spencer gone, but at least he'll have more experience at the position.
Impact newcomer: WR Derrick Sherman. There's always room for another receiver in the Purdue offense, and the three-star signee out of Cincinnati is a solid prospect with a good frame and good speed.
The big question: Will the defense improve? Not only were the Boilermakers last in the Big Ten in total defense, they were 114th nationally. The five teams worse than them went a combined 18-44. The good news is nine starters return. The bad news is nine starters return.
Spring practice starting date: March 13
Spring game: April 21
Top returner: RB P.J. Hill: The Rivals.com national freshman of the year rushed for at least 100 yards in seven of his first eight games last season. The return of Hill and Michigan's Mike Hart should spark plenty of debate over who's the better back.
Player on the verge: OT Jake Bscherer: This sophomore could have the unenviable task of replacing Rivals.com first-team All-American and future first-round draft pick Joe Thomas. Rivals.com rated Bscherer as the No. 4 offensive tackle in the 20006 recruiting class. The emergence of Bscherer and the arrival of true freshman Josh Oglesby the top offensive tackle in the 2007 recruiting class should give Wisconsin an outstanding offensive line for years to come.
Impact newcomer: QB Allan Evridge: This Kansas State transfer will compete with Tyler Donovan for the right to replace John Stocco as the Badgers' starting quarterback. Donovan may have a slight edge after starting two late-season games in place of an injured Stocco, but Evridge also will have a shot to win the job.
The big question: How good is this program?: Wisconsin went 11-1 last year without playing Ohio State in the regular season. The Badgers also missed out on an invitation to a BCS bowl. Is this an elite team? We may not know for sure until the Badgers face Ohio State and Michigan on back-to-back weeks in November.

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