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May 17, 2007

Big Ten: What we know, what we don't

The Big Ten is looking for an identity come the 2007 football season.

Your league would be, too, if it lost four guys who were the face of their respective programs.

It sounds like a law firm, and together they laid down the law in the league. Smith, Stanton, Stocco and Tate are gone, in one fell swoop. It means relief if you're an opponent who has been riddled by the well-armed foursome over the past few years. It could mean trouble for the four schools that lost their longtime starting quarterbacks.

The team with no question at quarterback is Michigan. That's a big reason while you'll see the Wolverines atop every preseason prognostication for the Big Ten.

Here are the spring questions that have been answered and remain unanswered around the conference:


ILLINOIS
From: Jeff Johnson at OrangeandBlueNews.com
1) What's the biggest question that was answered? "That freshman five-star receiver Arrelious Benn is as good as the hype he got before enrolling at Illinois in January. The Washington, D.C., prep standout made plays catching and running the ball, and could be that superstar receiver Illinois is looking for."
2) What's the biggest question that remains unanswered? "Sophomore quarterback Isiah Williams improved his passing skills as the spring went on, but still has a ways to go in terms of accuracy and making better decisions with the ball. Illinois will have to go with "Juice" because they don't have anyone behind Williams who is close to being ready to play. The offensive line struggled all spring against a very good defense, but junior Xavier Fulton moved from defensive end to left tackle and earned most improved offensive player honors at the end of drills. Left tackle was a big question heading into spring, and Fulton may be the answer there."

INDIANA
From: Andrew Romey of Peegs.com/Inside Indiana
1) What's the biggest question that was answered? "The biggest question IU answered was probably its rotation at offensive line. That was a huge problem for them last spring and last fall. There was no steady first-team unit at offensive line, and the coaching staff looks to have found one now in Ben Wyss, Charles Emerson, Rodger Saffold, Pete Saxon and John Sandberg. All of those guys have played considerably in their careers as well. There's depth behind them, too, with James Brewer, Cody Faulkner and a couple of other guys."
2) What's the biggest question that remains unanswered? "The question that remains unanswered is who will assert himself at safety. The loss of Jerimy Finch really hurt IU because he probably would have been the starter from the second he got on campus. Without him, the coaching staff was forced to move Nick Polk over to defensive back from receiver. Polk joins Austin Thomas, Brandon Mosley and Joe Kleinsmith. Thomas looks to be the other starter with Polk after Mosley played with the first team for a little while in the beginning of spring drills."

IOWA
From: Blair Sanderson at HawkeyeReport.com
1) What's the biggest question that was answered? "Who will take over for Drew Tate at quarterback? Sophomore Jake Christensen headed into the spring as the favorite and only cemented that role during the 15 practices. While redshirt freshmen Rick Stanzi and Arvell Nelson showed flashes of their potential throughout the spring, Christensen's leadership, poise and knowledge of the offense continue to separate him from the others."
2) What's the biggest question that remains unanswered? "Who will start on Iowa's offensive line? Coming into the spring one of the biggest position battles was along the offensive line. According to coach Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes legitimately have 10-12 players fighting for five spots. Iowa played around with several starting lineups throughout the spring, moving players around looking for the best fit. Things were further complicated when one of the candidates, Rob Bruggeman, went down with a torn ACL. He probably will miss the season. Three starters are more or less set. Left tackle Dace Richardson, center Rafael Eubanks and Seth Olsen - perhaps the top all-around lineman - should have spots. Olsen can play either right guard or right tackle. The other two spots remain wide open, and the position battle will continue right into fall camp."

MICHIGAN
From: Chris Balas of TheWolverine.com
1) What's the biggest question that was answered? " Justin Boren at center is the biggest question answered. He played there and played well, solidifying the spot. Most position battles on defense will go into the fall, including the "other" corner. Johnny Sears just didn't step up as hoped, creating an opportunity for freshman Donovan Warren."
2) What's the biggest question that remains unanswered? "The kicking game is still up in the air, and there were so many injuries that nothing was really settled. Middle linebacker is also an area of concern. Redshirt freshman Obi Ezeh might get an opportunity there this fall."

MICHIGAN STATE
From: Matt Dorsey of SpartanMag.com
1) What's the biggest question that was answered? "The biggest question that was answered this spring is whether quarterback Brian Hoyer is ready to step in and fill Drew Stanton's shoes. Hoyer had a very strong spring, and the new staff was impressed with his physical skills and leadership ability. Hoyer has quietly bided his time the past few years as Stanton's understudy. Now he is ready to show why he was rated one of the top 15 quarterbacks in the nation coming out of high school. Hoyer's performance this spring should quell any thoughts that the Spartans' passing attack will take a step backward due to Stanton's departure."
2) What's the biggest question that remains unanswered? "The biggest question that remains unanswered is whether the defense will be able to play at the level required to win in the Big Ten. New defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi came to Michigan State highly respected. He has promised a hard-hitting, attacking-style defense similar to those he was known for at Cincinnati. The defense seemed to respond well this spring to Narduzzi's system and his enthusiasm. The only question is whether it has the talent to make it work against some of the high-powered offenses it will face next fall."

MINNESOTA
From: Matt O'Connell of GopherIllustrated.com
1) What's the biggest question that was answered? "The biggest question answered was how the team would react to the new staff. With the exception of Mike Dunbar and Everett Withers, the staff - including the head coach - was a group of almost complete unknowns. From Day One the team bought in to the new enthusiasm that Brewster and his coaches have brought to every aspect of their jobs. From high energy practices, to coaches dancing during warmups, to bringing back former Gophers greats to address the team, everything that Brewster has done the team has loved. That enthusiasm has spilled over to the team and has shown in a much more aggressive style of play, especially on defense. It remains to be seen if it will carry over to the fall, but so far everyone involved in the program is buying what the new staff is selling. That could lead to big things."
2) What's the biggest question that remains unanswered? "The biggest question still to be answered is who is going to play quarterback. Neither Adam Weber nor Tony Mortensen seemed to grasp the offense and run away with the position during spring ball. Weber, a redshirt freshman, showed that he was the more mobile of the two. He looked comfortable running the option and taking off when the pocket closed. Mortensen has the bigger arm and was slightly more accurate, but not by much. The junior has some game experience, so that could give him an edge right now. The dark horse candidate is going to be true freshman Clint Brewster (Tim Brewster's son). Brewster ran the spread offense at Mullen High School and will have a shot to compete with the other two when he arrives on campus in June."

NORTHWESTERN
From: Louie Vaccher at WildcatReport.com
1) What's the biggest question that was answered? "Will Andrew Brewer make a smooth transition from pass thrower to pass catcher? Brewer proved this spring that he will be a weapon at wide receiver in Northwestern's offensive attack next season. Brewer started three games at quarterback for the Wildcats in 2006, but he was moved to wide receiver after the season because C.J. Bacher nailed down the starting job. A tremendous athlete, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Brewer may be too big for cornerbacks to handle and too fast for linebackers to cover as a slot receiver. In scrimmages this spring, he ran with the ball, caught the ball and even threw the ball on double passes. Brewer's diving touchdown catch on the opening series was the highlight of the spring game. Unfortunately, the stinger Brewer suffered on the play kept him on the sideline for the rest of the day.
2) What's the biggest question that remains unanswered? "Who will handle kicking and punting for the Wildcats? Redshirt freshman kicker/punter Stefan Demos battled a strained hip flexor throughout spring practice and clearly wasn't himself. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald would prefer not to have one player handle kickoffs, place-kicking and punting, but he may not have a choice if Demos is the best at all three jobs. Demos is battling two other place-kickers and three other punters for the starting jobs next year. Of those seven guys in the mix, Demos is the only one on scholarship, and just one - Amado Villarreal - has kicked in a college game."

OHIO STATE
From: Kevin Noon at BuckeyeGrove.com
1) What's the biggest question that was answered? "Will the Buckeyes have any defensive tackles? The fear of losing Quinn Pitcock, David Patterson and Joel Penton to graduation had many Ohio State fans worried about the interior defensive line going into the 2007 season. The outlook is a good one with the play of Todd Denlinger, Doug Worthington, Dexter Larimore and Nader Abdallah. Both Larimore and Abdallah were singled out by players and coaches as a pair who had great springs. They should be able to be a big part of Ohio State's defensive plans. Denlinger is the most experienced of the four tackles. Worthington brings a tremendous upside since moving inside from his defensive end position. He made the move midway through the season when Pitcock and Patterson both suffered bumps and bruises.
2) What's the biggest question that remains unanswered? "Who will be the quarterback, Todd Boeckman or Rob Schoenhoft? Each was looking to separate himself from the pack of quarterbacks in the spring. With the spring now in the books, neither was able to make a big push. Boeckman was 6-for-14 in the spring finale for more than 100 yards. Schoenhoft split time between the Scarlet and the Gray teams to go 7-for-15 for 83 yards and a touchdown (to Brandon Smith). Redshirt freshman Antonio Henton was looking to make his mark, too. With only one full season in the system under his belt, Henton had some struggles throughout the spring. In the spring game he was lit up for three interceptions in splitting time between the two squads."

PENN STATE
From: Nate Bauer of BlueWhiteIllustrated.com
1) What's the biggest question that was answered? "The biggest question answered is whether the defense will be able to recover from the loss of linebacker Paul Posluszny and defensive tackles Jay Alford and Ed Johnson. This Penn State team is absolutely loaded with depth, even though most of it is inexperienced.

Redshirt freshman Navorro Bowman is fighting Tyrell Sales for the open linebacker spot. Jared Odrick, Chris Baker, Ollie Ogbu and Phil Taylor will all see time at the tackle positions."
2) What's the biggest question that remains unanswered? "Where to even start. Will Austin Scott be able to pick up where Tony Hunt left off? We heard tons of great things about Scott last season while he was redshirting on the scout team. But his performance in the Blue-White game did little to alleviate any fears Penn State fans have going into the season. Sure, he was playing with a second-string offensive line, but he still showed the same indecisiveness that has defined his career to this point.

Can Anthony Morelli lead this team? Nobody knows. He seems confident, he acts confident, but this is the same cast of characters that absolutely could not score points last season against good competition. Whether they'll be able to do it this fall is anybody's guess.

Will Joe Paternoloosen the reins on this offense? Last season was about as excruciating as it got for many Penn State fans. Blessed with an absolutely ridiculous defense, Paterno unveiled an offense about as exciting as watching moss grow. Will he utilize the weapons he has this year?"

PURDUE
From: Brian Neubert at GoldAndBlack.com
1) What's the biggest question that was answered? "I'm not sure there was one, because many of the questions Purdue came into spring with don't appear to be completely answered. But any questions about converted running back Anthony Heygood's ability to play linebacker and solidify a starting position are no longer a concern. He had an amazing spring and may be the team's best linebacker right now."
2) What's the biggest question that remains unanswered? "Purdue might have two. Middle linebacker is kind of up in the air, because the presumed starter - Dan Bick - has been battling injuries. Also, the left side of the offensive line lost two multi-year starters and the replacements may not be decided until game day."

WISCONSIN
From: Paul Day at BadgerBlitz.com
1) What's the biggest question that was answered? "The safety situation. After graduating four safeties, the Badgers were in need of finding capable bodies to fill the two-deep heading into the fall. The Badgers satisfied that, although they have three DBs coming in this fall that could compete for one of the spots. Making the two deep are sophomores Shane Carter (FS) and Aubrey Pleasant (SS), while sophomore Kim Rosyton (FS) and redshirt freshman Jay Valai (SS) are the backups. But it seems there might be another shift during fall camp. Coach Bret Bielema hinted that Rosyton, a reserve CB last season, might be moved again - to strong safety in the starting lineup alongside Carter.
2) What's the biggest question that remains unanswered? "The quarterback situation. Senior Tyler Donovan, who has been in the program five years, and junior Allan Evridge, a K-State transfer, left the spring game still neck-and-neck. Both played fairly well in the spring game, which takes this battle into fall camp."

Bob McClellan is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.




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