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2014 Big Ten College Football Spring Practice Preview

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2014 Big Ten College Football Spring Practice Preview

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Andrew Weber - USA TODAY Sports

As winter thaws into spring, the college football season gets underway with the start of spring practices. All across the country, optimism is at an all-time high as programs work to improve on their previous season’s shortcomings and find greater success in the following fall. The Big Ten is getting ready to (or has already) open up spring practices across the conference with some very pressing questions to answer for 2014.

While 2013 was a banner year for some like the Michigan State Spartans who won the conference title and captured the Rose Bowl trophy, there are plenty of programs looking for bounce back campaigns in 2014. For some, like the Ohio State Buckeyes, this spring will be about capitalizing on their opportunities for greatness. Others, like the Penn State Nittany Lions, will be trying to build on small successes. And still others, like the Purdue Boilermakers, will be trying to put the memories of a dreadful 2013 campaign behind them for good.

Whatever their motivation, each program opens spring practice with specific areas of need to improve on before the start of the 2014 season next fall. How well they answer these needs in spring can go a long way in determining how ready a team is to compete for the conference title (or more) when the season kicks off. Teams that struggle to effectively improve themselves during the spring will be behind their competition when things get serious in September and likely spell trouble for any hopes they had of being a competitor in 2014.

So with spring rapidly on its way and teams preparing to knock off the rust to prepare for the 2014 season, we preview each team’s biggest question to answer in spring practice.

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Illinois Fighting Illini

tim beckman
Matthew O'Haren - USA TODAY Sports

Spring Practice Starts: March 5

Spring Game: April 12

Biggest Question: Who will step up in passing game?

Nathan Scheelhaase finished his collegiate career in 2013 by leading the Big Ten in passing but now the Illinois Fighting Illini need to find the next signal caller to lead the offense. Wes Lunt, formerly of the Oklahoma State Cowboys, seems like the early favorite but he will have to beat out backups Reilly O’Toole and Aaron Bailey to be the starter next fall.

Whoever wins out will have to find a new target to throw to as well as Illinois loses their top two receivers from 2013, Steve Hull and Miles Osei. Junior college transfer Geronimo Allison is likely to get a featured role in the offense early to provide some immediate help, but others will need to step up in 2014.

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Indiana Hoosiers

kevin wilson
Pat Lovell - USA TODAY Sports

Spring Practice Starts: March 8

Spring Game: TBA

Biggest Question: Can the defense carry its weight?

The Indiana Hoosiers have been one of the highest scoring teams in the conference in recent memory. Unfortunately, their defense has found ways to give up more points than even their high-powered offense can score. New defensive coordinator Brian Knorr has the unenviable task of turning around the Big Ten’s worst defense in 2014. If he can make them even average next fall, Indiana will be a very dangerous team.

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Iowa Hawkeyes

kirk ferentz
Kim Klement - USA TODAY Sports

Spring Practice Starts: March 27

Spring Game: April 26

Biggest Question: Who steps up on defense?

Last season, the Iowa Hawkeyes were led on defense by a trio of senior linebackers in James Morris, Anthony Hitchens, and Christian Kirksey who served as the heart and soul of the team. With them now gone, it’s time for Iowa to try and find some new leaders on defense. Guys like Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman, and Travis Perry will have first crack at the open jobs but will have to take some major steps forward during the spring to prove they are ready.

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Maryland Terrapins

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Mark L. Baer - USA TODAY Sports

Spring Practice Starts: March 1

Spring Game: April 11

Biggest Question: Can their playmakers get healthy?

When healthy, the Maryland Terrapins might have one of the most talented groups of wide receivers in all of college football. But staying healthy was a major issue for the Terps in 2013 with standout playmakers like Stefon Diggs and Deon Long suffering broken legs among a rash of other injuries. Diggs and Long won’t be on the field for spring practice, in all likelihood, as they continue to rehab for the fall but developing some durable depth behind them should be a major point of emphasis for Maryland this spring.

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Michigan Wolverines

brady hoke
Matthew O'Haren - USA TODAY Sports

Spring Practice Starts: February 25

Spring Game: April 5

Biggest Question: What will the offense look like?

Brady Hoke has talked about bringing a pro-style offense to the Michigan Wolverines since he was hired but has run some kind of hybrid offense that doesn’t seem to do much of anything particularly well. With a new offensive coordinator on staff that is 100 percent pro-style, will the Wolverines finally make the transition to a more traditional attack? If they do, will Devin Gardner remain under center or have his athletic talents utilized elsewhere while Shane Morris takes the reins of the huddle in 2014?

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Michigan State Spartans

mark dantonio
Gary A. Vasquez - USA TODAY Sports

Spring Practice Starts: March 25

Spring Game: April 26

Biggest Question: Can the defense reload?

The Michigan State Spartans rode one of the best defenses in the country to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl Game win in 2013. This spring, they’ll have to see if that defense can repeat that success in 2014. The team will have to replace standouts like Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, and Denicos Allen, and spring practice will be the place for coaches to identify the likely successors. Can the Spartans field another elite defense next fall?

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Minnesota Golden Gophers

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Troy Taormina - USA TODAY Sports

Spring Practice Starts: March 4

Spring Game: April 12

Biggest Question: Is Mitch Leidner the starting quarterback?

The quarterback picture got a little clearer for the Minnesota Golden Gophers when Philip Nelson announced he would be transferring this offseason. That paves the way for Mitch Leidner to be the guy in 2014 but he has to prove that he’s ready to lead the passing attack this spring. He completed just 55 percent of his throws during the 2013 regular season and half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl loss as the Gophers finished with the worst passing attack in the Big Ten last season. If Leidner hasn’t developed his ability to pass the football, young QBs like Chris Streveler or Dimonic Roden-McKinzy could make a push to take his spot.

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Nebraska Cornhuskers

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Bruce Thorsen - USA TODAY Sports

Spring Practice Starts: March 8

Spring Game: April 12

Biggest Question: Can Tommy Armstrong take control of the team?

The Nebraska Cornhuskers will turn to Tommy Armstrong Jr. as their No. 1 QB this spring to replace the departed Taylor Martinez. When coming on in relief of the long-time starter last season due to injury, Armstrong showed great maturity and playmaking ability. But this spring, he needs to show that he’s continuing to develop as a passer and display a deeper knowledge of the playbook. If he is going to take the mantle of starting quarterback in 2014, Armstrong needs to show that he’s ready for it this spring.

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Northwestern Wildcats

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David Banks - USA TODAY Sports

Spring Practice Starts: February 26

Spring Game: April 12

Biggest Question: Can the team stay healthy?

After a rough 2013 campaign, the Northwestern Wildcats will still be feeling the effects of an injury-riddled season this spring. 11 players, including starting running back/returner Venric Mark, are expected to be held out of spring practice as they continue to rehab from their various injuries. Add in the fact that Northwestern has no early enrollees from their latest recruiting class, and the Wildcats will be extremely short-handed for spring ball this year. The ability to get through the spring without further injury will be a huge key in a bounce-back campaign in 2014.

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Ohio State Buckeyes

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Robert Mayer - USA TODAY Sports

Spring Practice Starts: March 4

Spring Game: April 12

Biggest Question: Who will step up at offensive line?

While the Ohio State Buckeyes are a heavy favorite to win their division once again in 2014 thanks to the return of quarterback Braxton Miller, they will need to start sorting out their offensive line during the spring. The Buckeyes lose four starters from 2013 with Taylor Decker as the lone holdover. He’ll be moving from right to left tackle this spring and will need to assert himself as the leader of the group with four new faces making their way into the starting lineup. While Miller is an excellent quarterback with elite playmakers around him, Ohio State won’t do anything in 2014 without a solid offensive line in place.

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Penn State Nittany Lions

james franklin
Matthew O'Haren - USA TODAY Sports

Spring Practice Starts: March 17

Spring Game: April 12

Biggest Question: How will James Franklin shape this team?

Franklin takes over the Penn State Nittany Lions with plenty of work to do in order to put his stamp on the program for the 2014 season. Not only are there new playbooks with new terminology but there’s also the structure of practices and expectations of the coaching staff that have to be ironed out and presented to the team. Depending on how quickly the Nittany Lions adjust to their new leadership, the sooner they can get to work on finding more success on the field in 2014.

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Purdue Boilermakers

darrell hazell
Jeff Hanisch - USA TODAY Sports

Spring Practice Starts: March 6

Spring Game: April 12

Biggest Question: What is this team’s identity?

The Purdue Boilermakers were terrible across the board in 2013, finishing near the bottom of the country in almost every major statistical category. They started to find some rhythm late in the year with Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey but the team has to establish who they are as a team this spring. Head coach Darrell Hazell would like that identity to be a tough identity that can go toe-to-toe with the rest of the Big Ten. Getting there starts in spring ball.

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Rutgers Scarlet Knights

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Jim O'Connor - USA TODAY Sports

Spring Practice Starts: March 25

Spring Game: April 26

Biggest Question: Who will step up and lead this offense?

While the Rutgers Scarlet Knights have a veteran quarterback on the roster in Gary Nova, head coach Kyle Flood has made no secret that it’s an open competition for under center this spring. Nova’s got the edge due to his experience but his issues with turnovers could open the door for Mike Bimonte, Blake Rankin, or Chris Laviano to make a push this spring. Whoever wins will need some help from their receivers which had five players catch at least 28 passes last season but none of which gained more than 573 yards. Having a consistent, go-to, big-play receiver emerge would be a huge boost to the passing offense and help Rutgers make a smoother transition to the Big Ten.

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Wisconsin Badgers

gary andersen
Jeff Hanisch - USA TODAY Sports

Spring Practice Starts: March 7

Spring Game: April 12

Biggest Question: Who will step up at receiver?

The Wisconsin Badgers have relied heavily on Jared Abbrederis to carry the load in the passing game the last few seasons but will need to find a new go-to receiver now that Abbrederis has graduated. Further complicating matters, tight end Jacob Pedersen, second on the team in receiving in 2013, is also gone. Wisconsin added plenty of talent with five receivers signed in the 2014 recruiting class but none of them will be enrolling early. That puts pressure on Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright to take charge of the receiving corps this spring and show some ability to lead in 2014.