Spring football: Michigan's QB, more burning Big Ten questions
Freshman QBs Tate Forcier, Denard Robinson will battle to run Michigan's spread
Unlike UM, Ohio State is set at QB with Pryor but must fills holes at WR, RB, LB
A new era begins at Purdue, Minnesota looks to break out, Paterno pads record
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany offered a bit of bright news last week during an otherwise gloomy economic period for big-time college sports. In an interview with The (Champaign, Ill.) News-Gazette, Delany revealed business is booming for the Big Ten Network.
The network may be the only media company in the country that's actually hiring people instead of whacking jobs. "It's doing fine," Delany told the paper. "In fact, they're adding a little bit of personnel. They are quite a bright spot in the overall pantheon of the media story. They're profitable. They have more than met their advertising goals for the year."
With so many dedicated fans watching their teams and keeping the network afloat, the conference needs to reward them with some better football. Between Michigan's slide and an 1-6 bowl record, 2008 wasn't exactly a banner year for Big Ten football. But these things are usually cyclical, so the conference should perk up this year. As spring football commences, it looks like Ann Arbor, Mich. will serve as ground zero during the impending upswing. After all, things can't get much worse than last year's 3-9 debacle.
Does Michigan have a quarterback who can run coach Rich Rodriguez's spread offense?
Previously at Tulane and West Virginia, Rodriguez found quarterbacks (Shaun King and Pat White) who could make his offense hum. In Rodriguez's first season at Michigan, we learned just how much having the correct -- or incorrect -- triggerman means to a spread team. Shuffling between drop-back passers Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan, Michigan ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring offense, total offense and passing offense.
Enter Tate Forcier, the third in a line of quarterbacking brothers from Southern California. As a high school senior in San Diego, Forcier threw for 3,424 yards and rushed for 783 yards. He enrolled at Michigan in January and will split snaps evenly during spring practice with Sheridan and junior David Cone. Conventional wisdom suggests either Forcier or fellow freshman Denard Robinson -- who won't arrive until June -- should win the job.
"Nick is obviously the most experienced, but Tate is a quick learner," Rodriguez said this week. "We didn't bring him here, didn't sign him and Denard to stand in the background. They are going to get every opportunity to win the job." Regardless of who wins the job, Michigan fans can rest assured the signal-caller will play behind a vastly improved offensive line.
Will this be Joe Paterno's final season at Penn State?
With Florida State's Bobby Bowden in danger of losing wins because of NCAA sanctions, Paterno, 82, seems to have a comfortable lead on the Division I-A wins list. If his lead looks insurmountable at the end of 2008, will that prompt him to retire? Or will Paterno, who currently boasts 393 wins, take a crack at breaking former Grambling coach Eddie Robinson's all-time record of 408?
After Paterno staved off attempts to oust him a few years ago, he turned the program into a sustainable national power again. If he feels up to it, two seasons should be more than enough to win 16 more games. In 2009, the Nittany Lions will have to replace their top three receivers and star defensive end Aaron Maybin, but the program has plenty of talent. Brett Brackett will try to replace some of the catches Deon Butler, Derrick Williams and Jordan Norwood made last season, and Jerome Hayes, who missed chunks of 2007 and 2008 because of an ACL tear in each knee, should help ease the sting Maybin's departure caused.
Can Ohio State keep rolling despite losing so many key players?
The Buckeyes lost their leading rusher (tailback Beanie Wells), leading receivers (Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline) and leading tacklers (linebackers James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman). So how can they expect to make a fifth consecutive BCS bowl? Because history suggests they should. Ohio State has notched double-digit wins and made a BCS bowl in six of coach Jim Tressel's eight seasons.
That's because Tressel has stockpiled top recruits, which all but ensures Ohio State always has quality players waiting in the wings. This year, Dan Herron (452 rushing yards, six touchdowns in 2008) should take over for Wells. Meanwhile, sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor will likely throw more to senior Ray Small and sophomore DeVier Posey. Another intriguing possibility is sophomore Jake Stoneburner, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound sophomore receiver/tight end hybrid who could be a matchup nightmare for defenders. On defense, senior Austin Spitler should have a chance to take over for Laurinaitis, but sophomore Etienne Sabino could also make a push. If Sabino doesn't win the middle linebacker job, he could compete with fellow sophomore Andrew Sweat for Freeman's old spot.
Which team will be the surprise of 2009?
In 2007, Illinois rebounded from a 2-10 season and went to the Rose Bowl. Last year, Northwestern started off 5-0 and finished the regular season 9-3. So who will it be this year?
How about Minnesota? The Golden Gophers won seven of their first eight games last year before losing their last five. That's after going 1-11 in coach Tim Brewster's first season in 2007. Brewster's infectious optimism made players want to come to Minneapolis even after that miserable season. This spring, first-year offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch will try to design an offense that better suits the Gophers' current personnel. Incumbent quarterback Adam Weber will be limited in spring practice because of surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, which should give freshman MarQueis Gray -- Brewster's highest profile recruit -- to work with the first team.
Is there new Hope at Purdue?
Indeed. His name is Danny Hope, and his first act after taking over for retired Joe Tiller was to try to turn West Lafayette, Ind., into Florida's northernmost city. In Hope's first recruiting class, 14 of 20 signees hailed from Florida. If you read SI.com's analysis of the nation's recruiting hotspots, you know Florida produces more BCS-level talent than any state in America. You also know that Indiana, which contains three BCS schools, produced only 86 BCS-conference signees between 2004 and 2008.
Two of the Floridians Hope lured to Purdue -- defensive end Antwon Higgs and tailback Al-Terek McBurse -- are already enrolled, and McBurse could have a chance this spring to earn some of the carries now available after the departure of Kory Sheets, who rushed for 1,131 yards as a senior. McBurse should get plenty of work, because presumed starter Jaycen Taylor is still limited to non-contact drills as he recovers from an ACL tear that cost him his 2008 season. Meanwhile, sophomore Justin Siller and senior Joey Elliott will compete to replace quarterback Curtis Painter at quarterback.
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