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April 11, 2012

Big Ten notebook: New Leaders coaches adjusting

With spring football starting to wind down for teams around the country, coaches and players from the Big Ten Conference spoke with reporters about their teams' progress so far during the Big Ten spring football teleconference on Wednesday.

The second group of teams to speak were from the Leaders Division. Here's a recap of some of the top storylines to come out of Wednesday's teleconference for each school…

OHIO STATE: Meyer looking for playmakers

There's not a single figure in the Big Ten Conference who's made a bigger immediate splash than new Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer.

With his track record of success seemingly everywhere he's coached, Meyer's arrival to Columbus was widely perceived as an instant return to dominance for the Buckeyes.

Through his first few weeks of spring practice, however, Meyer is dealing with some of the same early bumps in the road that all first-year coaches go through. One of Meyer's biggest issues has been the transformation of OSU's offense to fit his spread-out, attacking style.

Last season, the Buckeyes were essentially limited to a one-dimensional, run-first offense that struggled to put up any kind of numbers. Meyer said the biggest issue of the offense right now was finding the playmakers at the skill positions to make his scheme work to its full potential.

"It's a work in progress," Meyer said. "I'm holding out hope that in this last half of the spring, that we're going to put them in situations where they're either going to make plays or they're not. We've had a lot of emphasis on just installation and normal situations, like the play-action passing game and the run game. Now we're really going to sink our teeth into our drop back pass game, so guys have to step up."

Meyer said he's liked what he's seen from quarterback Braxton Miller this spring, but added that Ohio State's passing game was as far behind as anything on the offense.

"The area that we're significantly behind is the actual throw game, and I know they were as well last year," Meyer said. "That's not just the quarterback, that's protection, that's the guys around him. So our emphasis the next couple practices is going to be getting Braxton very comfortable in our passing game."

Fullback Zach Boren said it's been quite the adjustment in terms of picking up Meyer's offense so far. However, he said it's been obvious why Meyer's scheme was so effective at Florida and Utah when he finally got everything in place.

"Just what he expects from you on a daily basis in going out and competing," Boren said of Meyer. "He preaches competitive excellence. You know when you go out there that for every bad rep it costs you 100 good reps. Coach Meyer expects the most of you every single day.

"It's fun going out there and competing, because you know that he's going to be pushing you. He pushes the offense every day, and you just know when he's on the field how intense is that you're going to get better as a football player."

INDIANA: Influx of jucos kicking up competition

Looking for a way to right the ship as quickly as possible this season, Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson turned to the junior college ranks with the hopes of getting some instant contributors, especially on defense.

The Hoosiers added six total juco transfers over the offseason, five of which on the defensive side of the ball, and all are expected to compete for starting jobs this season.

The juco defensive players are linebackers Jacarri Alexander from Iowa Central and David Cooper of Coffeyville (Kan.); safeties Tregg Waters of Glendale (Ariz.) and Ryan Thompson from Itawamba (Miss.); and defensive lineman Justin Rayside from Riverside (Calif.).

The two linebackers and two safeties are all projected to push for starting spots, and Rayside should be an immediate factor up front. Indiana is hoping the new additions can revamp a defense that surrendered an average of 458.7 yards per game, including 243.7 on the ground last season.

"They have helped us out a lot," defensive tackle Larry Black said. "They're learning the scheme and competing and everything, and it just makes our defense better. Especially with linebackers who can run and run around and make plays. It just makes our whole defense work in tremendous order. It's just great."

The sixth juco transfer is quarterback Cameron Coffman of Western Arizona. Wilson said Coffman has provided instant competition for Tre Roberson for the starting quarterback spot this spring.

"Cam is picking up things very nicely," Wilson said. "With the attrition that we had, we certainly needed him… I think Cam has really progressed in the pass game very nicely. We're really pushing Tre in that regard. I think (Roberson) has the skill set to be a complete player. He probably made more plays for us with his feet running around a little bit… He's making some progress, but Cam's very much on his heels."

WISCONSIN: New coaches fitting in

After winning two straight Big Ten titles, Wisconsin has had to start over a bit this offseason after losing six members of its coaching staff.

Following the Badgers' loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl, offensive coordinator Paul Chryst left to take the head coaching job at Pittsburgh. Chryst then took linebackers coach Dave Huxtable with him to be his new defensive coordinator.

Chryst also snagged offensive line coach Bob Bostad to be his new offensive coordinator at Pitt (though he soon left Pitt to go to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), and then picked up tight ends coach Joe Rudolph to join his staff.

Wisconsin also lost receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander, who left for a job at Arizona State, and safeties/special teams coach DeMontie Cross, who left for Kansas,

Head coach Bret Bielema said the departures were obviously a blow to his staff, but he said just like when he lost three assistants prior to last season, his team would be fine with its new coaches filling their shoes.

"I think the coaches that we've brought in right now have kind of just made everybody that much more energized," Bielema said. "They want to prove their success as assistant coaches, and as a head coach it's rejuvenated me. I think what we'll do is try to take a one-game approach. I know that's not what everyone wants to hear, but we really do take that approach."

Bielema said he actually pushed the start of spring practice back a week and a half to allow more time for his staff to get to know each other and get on the same page before hitting the practice field.

"On the same account, I'm not trying to make them come in and be a cookie cutter of what we've done in the past," Bielema said. "Everybody's got their own set of DNA, and I expect them to come in and have their way of doing things and have their own input into what's going to be done. But I do take a lot of pride in trying to establish in their mentality why we've been able to have success and educate them to some of the past techniques we've used at Wisconsin."

Running back Montee Ball said the transition has been a strange to say the least, but said new offensive coordinator Matt Canada's style doesn't stray too far from what made the Badgers such a potent offense under Chryst.

"Obviously it's a big adjustment because we were all really settled in with Coach Chryst's offense," Ball said. "Coach Canada came in here with the same mindset, and he changed up the terminology of a couple plays, but really he has the same mindset of what Coach Chryst had, which is to attack the defense and keep it on them."

PENN STATE: Nittany Lions turning the page

After one of the most tumultuous seasons and offseasons in college football history, Penn State is getting a fresh start this spring under new head coach Bill O'Brien.

O'Brien, previously offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots who replaced the legendary Joe Paterno and interim coach Tom Bradley, said the only focus for the Nittany Lions this spring has just been getting back to football again.

"I'd say that players wherever I've been are very resilient, whether it's a coaching change or whatever it may be," O'Brien said. "Players are players, and they love to be down on the field and playing football. They love to be in the weight room lifting weights and in winter conditioning. It's been fun to be around these guys because they work extremely hard and they're really taking to our coaching and the tempo that we want, and it's getting better every day."

Defensive tackle Jordan Hill said O'Brien and his staff made it easier to regroup and restart as a team by reaching out to the players from the very beginning.

"It started before spring ball actually started," Hill said. "It happened when we started our leadership program. It was just getting around all our new strength coaches and all our new coaches and stuff like that. It was a good change at that moment. Now getting into spring ball, we've really had just that extra kick to get out there and get back to hitting each other again."

Like any coaching change, O'Brien said there are still plenty of kinks for Penn State to work out before the season starts.

"Everything is new," O'Brien said. "The terminology's new, the coaching styles are new, the tempo might be different, different things that we stress might be different than what they stressed before. I mean, I have no idea, all I know is that it's new. That's what change is about, and these guys have embraced it, and they're doing the best job that they can right now."

PURDUE: Boilermakers finally have QB depth

No team in the conference has been more devastated by injuries over the past couple years than Purdue, particularly at the quarterback position.

This spring, however, the Boilermakers find themselves in an entirely different situation in that regard. At the moment, Purdue has three quarterbacks with starting experience on its roster, and all three of them are expected to be fully healthy by the time fall camp rolls around.

Head coach Danny Hope said it's been a nice turn of events this spring to have three guys - Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve and Rob Henry - all competing for the starting job.

"We've been able to even it out," Hope said. "The last couple years, the quarterback position has really been a challenge. The 2010 season, we had four or five different starting quarterbacks throughout the course of the season… We come into the spring this year in a little bit different situation where we have a starter back (TerBush) who was successful and won in post-season play, and Robert Marve back who is healthy now has got a lot of playing time. And then Rob Henry's still recovering from ACL surgery and has gotten very little reps throughout the course of spring ball, but we know he'll be ready to go for fall camp."

Just prior to Purdue's season opener last year, Henry - initially the projected No. 1 - was lost for the season with an ACL injury. Marve, who would have been the No. 2, was still recovering from an ACL injury he suffered in 2010 and wouldn't be healthy to play again until midseason.

That left TerBush as the next man in line. Then a sophomore, TerBush had a decent season, throwing for more than 2,000 yards, completing 62 percent of his passes and not throwing an interception in his final four games.

Marve eventually saw some snaps late in the year when the Boilermakers started to use a bit of a two-quarterback system. He returns for an extra season of eligibility after being awarded a medical redshirt for 2010 the season.

Hope said keeping Marve in the mix would be a big addition for UP's overall quarterback depth and competition.

"I think it's huge for us for a lot of reasons," Hope said. "For one, competition always brings the best out of everyone. And Robert's a great talent. He came into some games last year in some key points and brought some things to the field and competed and was a big factor."

With three unique and experienced weapons at their disposal, Hope said don't be surprised if the Boilermakers don't mix things up a bit to utilize their quarterback talents.

"It's very unique, but I think it's also opportunistic for us because the last couple years we've had a commitment and plan to play more than one quarterback for different reasons and also to maximize on different talents," Hope said. "We haven't had a healthy quarterback pool to execute that part of the plan, and so having all these guys back I think is great, because we can use these guys in a lot of different ways. I think it gives us a lot of great options and opportunities for this upcoming season from the offensive schematic standpoint."

ILLINOIS: Scheelhaase very much a part of Beckman's plans

If there were any questions about where quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase fit into new Illinois head coach Tim Beckman's plans moving forward, they were put to rest on Wednesday.

Beckman said he's been nothing but impressed with what he's seen from Scheelhaase so far this spring, both on the field and in the locker room.

"He's done a spectacular job, there's no question about it," Beckman said. "That's one of the things you don't realize when you're watching tape and you haven't been around these players, is the leadership capabilities Nathan has. He works extremely hard, he studies the game outside of just being in meetings and doing it on his own. He really tries to make himself and this football team better. He's very blessed talent-wise. Nathan's got great arm strength, and he runs the ball extremely well.

"But the thing that you don't realize as a football coach until you're around him is his leadership capabilities. He's done a fabulous job with that and getting this better each and every day."

Scheelhaase said it's been a bit of an adjustment getting used to Beckman and learning his style and schemes, but it hasn't taken long for him to buy into Beckman's vision for the Fighting Illini.

"It's an interesting process for sure as a player," Scheelhaase said. "Coach Beckman and his staff did a great job of making sure they communicated to us as players that they wanted to know us both on and off the field, which is great. That made the transition pretty smooth. But there are a whole lot of changes. There's a new mentality. It's the way you do things, the time you show up for meetings, all those things switch up, and obviously the X's and O's and schemes, there is a big shift."

A big reason why Illinois' players have been able to transition so well to Beckman and his staff is the way Beckman made it a point to get to know them on and off the field from Day 1.

"I think the most important thing is building trust," Beckman said. "If the players don't know you and aren't around you and you're not around them, then it's pretty hard to build trust. So that's one of the things that this coaching staff when we came we said that we needed to do.

"To build a successful program, you've got to build trust with your players, with them believing in you and you believing in them. We don't leave any stone unturned, and we tell it exactly how it is."



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