Big Ten Football Spring Preview: Legends Division

Kim Klement- USA Today Sports

It’s February, which means college football coaches across the nation are scattering to piece together their final touches to their recruiting classes and begin to finalize their roster for spring practice.

National Signing Day is February 6, and albeit some huge names still on the board, many high-profile prospects have already enrolled at school and are preparing for fall.

Not only has it headlined some big-time recruits, but the Big Ten Conference returns a significant amount of starting players as a whole.

As we inch our way to April, here’s an early preview of how each team in the Legends Division may look by the time spring ball arrives.

Legends Division

1. Iowa Hawkeyes (4-8, 2-6 Big Ten last season)

What didn’t go wrong with Iowa in 2012? Half of its roster was plagued with injuries, it received poor play at the quarterback position – which was thought to be a strength – and the defense performed below expectations.

However, there is a bright side here: Despite some key senior losses, the Hawkeyes return nine players on defense and two offensive linemen – Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal – who were out with season-ending injuries by Week 7.

Although the offense left much to be desired last season, there’s reason to believe that it will be much improved. A healthy quarterback battle between sophomore Jake Rudock and incoming freshman Nic Shemonic will be fun to watch play out.

Kirk Ferentz is one of the highest-paid coaches in the country. If he doesn’t prove that he can bounce back from last year’s titanic struggle, then his contract will undoubtedly be up in the air.

2. Michigan Wolverines (8-5, 6-2)

The Wolverines have a lot working to their favor and should be right in the thick of things for the Big Ten this fall.

A lot of this has to do with the unexpected return of left tackle Taylor Lewan, who was projected to be a first-round selection in the 2013 NFL Draft. He, along with players like QB Devin Gardner – who played very well in limited time under center – and a strong group of defensive backs, will help Michigan look for its first conference title since 2004.

We can also expect five-star running back Derrick Green to make an immediate impact on the field. There’s no telling how Fitzgerald Toussaint will come back from injury and the backfield is pretty depleted as it currently stands. He is just one of many from the Wolverines’ No. 1 recruiting class that will see playing time in 2013.

It may be difficult for most Michigan fans to comprehend, but the departure of Denard Robinson is great for this program. He never was a fit for Brady Hoke’s spread and made things predictable when he went in as a running back.

3. Michigan State Spartans (7-6, 3-5)

Michigan State returns 15 starters this year, but loses some primetime players at key positions.

Top playmakers Le’Veon Bell and Dion Sims are headed to the draft. William Gholson has decided to leave a year early, too, and Andrew Maxwell returns under center but does not have his job secured by any means.

This leaves the Spartans with some pretty question marks entering spring, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Bell accounted for 38.4 percent of Michigan State’s total yards, while Sims ended 36 receptions for 475 yards and two touchdowns even after missing a chunk of the season with an ankle injury.

4. Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-7, 2-6)

Offensively, Minnesota has a lot of positives to look forward to. This includes the return of dual-threat quarterback MarQueis Gray, leading rusher Donnell Kirkwood, and a solid receiver corps.

Gray missed an extended amount of time due to several injuries in 2012. His presence was greatly missed, as backups Philip Nelson and Max Shortell were not nearly as effective.

Kirkwood came less than 100 yards short of a 1,000-yard performance last season, and if he can continue to improve and become more consistent, that number should be easily attained this year.

The Golden Gophers bring back every wide receiver and will add three-star Drew Wolitarsky from the California recruiting pool, who owns the state record for receptions (279) and should be an immediate contributor.

5. Nebraska Cornhuskers (10-3, 5-3)

What you saw in the Capital One Bowl will likely be a carbon copy of how the 2013 Nebraska Cornhuskers will look – explosive on offense and lacking on defense.

The Huskers return nine players to an offensive unit that scored nearly 35 points per game. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is coming off career-highs in every single category, and should be even more dynamic with a balanced running attack and strong offensive line.

However, the defense will field four returning starters and will have to plug in some young, inexperienced players in order to find some sort of an identity.

Spring practice will give us the chance to check out some big-time defensive recruits that could determine whether or not Nebraska improves from last season. Guys like Maliek Collins, Randy Gregory, and A.J. Natter should contend for starting positions on the defensive front.

6. Northwestern Wildcats (10-3, 5-3)

Northwestern is coming off one of the best years in program history – if not the best – and could be even more dangerous to fellow division foes this upcoming fall.

Returning to the roster are most of the Wildcats’ top players, including quarterbacks Trevor Siemien and Kain Kolter. Both did an outstanding job in Pat Fitzgerald’s versatile system, which utilizes Kolter’s speed and Siemien’s passing accuracy.

If it weren’t for two fourth-quarter collapses against Nebraska and Michigan, Northwestern would have been the Legends Division champs. But this is what you’ll get with a young team, and they’ll continue to learn how to finish games.

We know the offense will be good. If the Wildcats’ secondary – which brings back nearly everyone – can improve from last year (No. 84 in NCAA), then the cats will once again be division contenders.

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