Spring Football Notes: Big Ten East
Football is slowly kicking off around the Big Ten, and coaches are getting a chance to see how much their players have grown, both mentally and physically, during the off-season. There are a few position battles that loom large - running back at Michigan State, quarterback at Ohio State - but there are opportunities for change everywhere.
Nowhere is that more true than Michigan State, where several of the team's most productive players are gone. On offense, Connor Cook leads an assembly of talented athletes that will need to replace Jeremy Langford's production (1,522 yards, 22 touchdowns), Nick Hill's team approach as a back-up running back with a starter's mentality, and leading receivers Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery.
For all the mystery as to who will step up, there is little doubt that someone will. Dave Warner had this to say about the running backs: "Delton Williams enters as the guy with the most experience, but we're going into similar situation as we did in 2013, in that it's wide open. You look at the spring as everyone getting equal opportunities, and at end of spring, you have got to whittle it down and see who the best people are, and then L.J. Scott will get his opportunity in the fall.''
Connor Cook, who promised to get the ball more to his running backs in 2015, pointed out Madre London, receiver/tailback R.J. Shelton, and offensive tackle Jack Conklin as the spring's early standouts.
"Madre London, obviously he redshirted last year and didn't really play, but he goes through all the workouts, cruises through it,'' Cook said. "He's fast, he's very agile, a strong guy in the weight room. You see him lifting weights, the stuff he's putting on the leg presses and benching, and then you've got (tight ends) Josiah Price and Paul Lang, other guys stepping up."
The other key position battle is on defense, where both starting cornerbacks at the end of last year - Trae Waynes and Tony Lippett - are gone. Darian Hicks started the first ten games before being benched for Lippett, and he'll be a leading candidate for playing time. But, will he be good enough?
Mark Dantonio is rarely one to be caught off guard. Over the last season, he's been quietly practicing über-athletic backup safety Demetrious Cox at corner.
"I just think he's just scratching the tip of the iceberg really," said Dantonio about the 20-year old. "I think he's got a lot of the ability.... I think he so much wants to please and do well, that sometimes that holds him back. I think sometimes the player has to just let it go a little bit and be able to shrug off the problems if there are (any), but he's about being (on) task. I think that's his nature, and I just think he's going to get better and better and better."
Regardless of if Cox nails down a starting spot, the Spartans will need another starting corner to pair with Cox, R.J. Williamson and Montae Nicholson.
Down in Columbus, Ohio State is rallying around a new slogan, 'The Grind.' They're also trying to sift through a number of young, talented options to replace some established stars, although the position of most interest - quarterback - will see no actual competition in the spring. Cardale Jones gets to have most of the reps to himself, and he'll be throwing to a bevy of new receiving options. Noah Brown, a redshirt freshman, has garnered early praise.
Perhaps the biggest loss for Ohio State was DT Michael Bennett, who was a terror from the inside and a leader in critical moments. However, the line has a realistic chance to improve. Adolphus Washington slides back to the three-technique, which will open him up to showcase his pass-rushing skills against a one-on-one matchup. Washington handled most of the double teams late last year, as part of a sacrifice to open up opportunities for Bennett and the team. In the process, Washington ended up being a noticeable weakness in the run game and stunting his own stats. Now, Urban Meyer may get to plug in a more rugged option - likely either Michael Hill or Tommy Schutt - to protect the linebackers.
Three other Big Ten East schools - Penn State, Rutgers, and Indiana - are still waiting to hit the field. Penn State officially kicks off Friday, Indiana starts on March 26th, and Rutgers on March 30th. Penn State will be looking for clarity on the offensive line, and Rutgers will have a close eye on quarterback. Indiana will have an eye everywhere.
Still, even though the players haven't seen the field, they're already working on the playbook.
"We do basically 15 installs," said James Franklin a month ago. "Offense, defense, special teams, run game, pass game, whatever it may be.... They were able to get two or three of the installs in written form to look at before they left for spring break to have it with them over spring break, and then also video as well. So, for example, Install 1 of the defense may be Cover Two. They'll get that in writing, exactly what the responsibilities were, but then they'll also get film of examples of that coverage as well."
Real-time practice will be especially important for some of the other clubs. Maryland is switching over to a 4-3 defense, replacing a quarterback and three-fifths of the offensive line, and shuffling or replacing much of their defense - with all new terminology.
"As I told them, they weren't going to master [the 4-3] in one day," said coach Randy Edsall. "But I was pleased with how they attacked it. There's some good things to teach off of."
And yet, the projected starters at tailback and quarterback won't play. Caleb Rowe is healing his knee and Wes Brown is recovering from labrum surgery. It's not all gloom and doom for Maryland, though. Their offensive line - coached by Greg Studrawa, formerly of LSU - has been an early strength. It's likely that three of their starters will be highly touted redshirt freshmen.
Last but not least, Michigan will be transitioning to a hybrid defense, replacing a quarterback, and changing a culture. Outside of the recent suspension of Graham Glasgow and the retirement of Jack Miller, returns have been positive. In fact, they've been excellent.
"The level of focus and the want to do well - you give them a coaching point and they are right there hanging on it. Every day drill by drill we're improving different facets as we go. They all want to be good."
That was Jim Harbaugh talking this week about his quarterbacks, but he could have meant any part of the team. The amount that the roster has bought in, amidst position changes, different schemes, and almost all new faces on the coaching staff, is rare to see. And yet, Harbaugh says that he wants to continue leaving his own imprint on the football culture.
"Well, it's very early for that, to say what the culture is going to be. It'll be what it is, what it becomes."
Hitting the Links Is Thankful For The Opportunity
This Eleven Warriors article looks at what Cardale will be working on as he leads the team through spring practices. There are only a couple, but they stand to improve his performance markedly.
This is a striking blow to the San Francisco 49ers - who lost Patrick Willis to retirement last week - and it's also a blow for fans who loved watching Borland play. But this is a great choice for someone who weighed his options and looked out for his well-being.
Jordan, a 6'0", 205-pound running back/safety, will follow in his brothers' footsteps. From the film, I like this kid a lot. He's high-effort, and honestly has some Tyrann Mathieu play-making ability in him. If the Mathieu comparison is too rich, then Jordan Kovacs is a more realistic ceiling - someone who walked on and grabbed a starting leadership role on defense. With the effort and relentlessness Jordan plays with, he's not one to bet against.
Washington went 8-6 in Chris Petersen's first season, and they faced drastic losses on the offensive line and in the front seven, including star linebacker Shaq Thompson. Now, they'll be without their starting quarterback for the foreseeable future.
Most recently with Connecticut, Darrell Perkins was part of a Big East-leading defense in 2012.
Sankey will be just the eight SEC Commissioner. Before working in the SEC, he was in fact the commissioner of the Southland Conference in Division I, FCS.
FSU will be loaded again, and given how much Clemson loses on defense, they have the inside track in the ACC. Their magic last year in the second half seemed to be attributable to Jimbo Fisher's ability to find schematic solutions and motivate his players; against a tricky but mostly manageable schedule in 2015, the Seminoles' only real threat is the Tigers.
Learning on the field - rather than a classroom - is a good way to blend the smarts that players need and the instincts that follow. Players often looked hesitant last year, from much of the secondary to Derrick Green and obviously Devin Gardner. Harbaugh's approach will hopefully lead to a more instinctive, capable football team, as well as a more conditioned one.
This pulls out some of the more two-sided stats from NFL Draft prospects. On the second page, the interview with former Notre Dame cornerback Cody Riggs was interesting. Players (like Jack Miller) are starting to think more about life beyond football, but there will be questions about why.
A theme underneath all of this is Brady Hoke putting out fires that, it was increasingly apparent, were caused by the lack of growth by his players as much as because of depth or attrition problems left by Rich Rodriguez. This article does a great job of pointing to burned redshirts that were genuinely necessary, but I'm not convinced that Jarrod Wilson needed to play as a freshman. He could have developed his understanding of scheme while riding the bench.
The starting quarterback, Rimington Trophy-winning center, starting tailback and leading receiver are all gone from a team that lost 5 games. Still, optimism is high.
This was an entertaining interview with Jacoby Boren, who breaks down the various strengths of Ohio State's linemen in things other than football.
Believe it or not, Fournette is already the most experience player in LSU's backfield. He'll take the incoming freshmen under his wing and try to teach them how to be successful.
Pat Narduzzi is already at work with his Fourth Quarter Program. Pitt already had some good raw talent; people may be surprised at the defense that steps out on the field against Bo Pelini and Youngstown State.
Michael Vick, Michael Crabtree, Michigan's Steve Hutchinson, and Herschel Walker are some of the inclusions.
Chris was a lot of fun to watch.