Published Saturday, April 20, 2013 at 9:50 pm / Updated at 11:41 pm
FOOTBALL
Spring Look: Big Ten Leaders Division

The World-Herald's Lee Barfknecht previews the Big Ten Leaders Division midway through the spring practice season. Check back Sunday, April 28 for a Legends Division breakdown.

Illinois

Coach: Tim Beckman, second year, 2-10

2012 record: 2-10, (0-8, sixth)

Returning starters: 15 (9 offense, 4 defense, 2 kickers)

What we know: It's ugly. Tim Beckman's first season was so bad that his athletic director had to tamp down speculation about him being fired. Beckman took over a bowl team with a two-year starting quarterback and went 2-10. The lone FBS win was over Western Michigan, which fired its coach, Bill Cubit. Shortly after Cubit was canned, Beckman hired him to coordinate Illinois' offense — the fifth system in the past six years. Cubit is one of five new assistant coaches, a stunning turnover in one year.

What we want to know: With three NFL-caliber defensive linemen departing, can anybody up front make an impact? How many of the 40 players who had never been through a spring practice before March become contributors? How smoothly will quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase pick up the quicker-strike, short-passing offense now used? Can the special teams, which finished 107th in kickoff returns and 118th in punt returns, at least become functional?

Something fun to know: In an effort to maintain a presence in Chicago, the Illini are playing their Sept. 14 game against Washington at Soldier Field. It has been 19 years since Illinois played at the home of the Chicago Bears.

Schedule: Complete 2013 schedule

Indiana

Coach: Kevin Wilson, third year, 5-19

2012 record: 4-8, (2-6, fifth)

Returning starters: 21 (10 offense, 9 defense, 2 kickers)

What we know: Kevin Wilson, in his third season, already is the longest-tenured coach in this division. He's building this longtime doormat smartly in two ways: with a fast-paced offense (the Hoosiers were first in the Big Ten in passing and second in total offense) and better-than-expected recruiting (the 2013 class ranked fourth in the Big Ten). Indiana has the most returning starters in the league and three quarterbacks who have taken significant snaps. Spotty defensive play needs to smooth out for overall progress.

What we want to know: Can Indiana — which lost games last season by one, two, three and four points — learn to win the close ones? Can quarterback Tre Roberson regain his speed after breaking his leg? Will the defense learn to play with the “swagger'' that Wilson preaches? Will Norfolk, Neb., native Jordan Heiderman out of Iowa Western earn a spot in the defensive line? Will Indiana, 17-43 since its last bowl trip in 2007, break that postseason drought?

Something fun to know: Wilson said he will use 15 to 30 minutes of each practice as “a Big Ten period” for his defense to get better at facing power football sets.

Schedule: Complete 2013 schedule

Ohio State

Coach: Urban Meyer, second year, 12-0

2012 record: 12-0, (8-0, first)

Returning starters: 14 (9 offense, 4 defense, 1 kicker)

What we know: In a transition year while learning new systems, Ohio State went undefeated. Scary to think about the future as better personnel arrives and there's no more postseason ban. Urban Meyer continues to gush about junior quarterback Braxton Miller, saying he could have a Michael Jordan-type impact on teammates. More offensive game-breakers have been recruited, and the playbook will be opened much wider. The schedule also softens with no Nebraska and no Michigan State.

What we want to know: Can new defensive talent such as ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington (a combined seven sacks in the spring game) make up for the fact that six of OSU's front seven from a year ago are gone? Will Corey “Philly” Brown live up to Meyer's prediction of him as and become an All-Big Ten wideout? Will a right tackle emerge to join the other four rock-solid starters? Will the good fortune of winning twice in overtime last year continue?

Something fun to know: Meyer said he treats spring practice differently than from most. “The depth chart is set,” he said. “When we're done in the spring, that's how it's going to be in the fall. It changes very rarely. In the fall, we're trying to go win a game.”

Schedule: Complete 2013 schedule

Penn State

Coach: Bill O'Brien, second year, 8-4

2012 record: 8-4, (6-2, second)

Returning starters: 16 (8 offense, 6 defense, 2 kickers)

What we know: Bill O'Brien was a borderline miracle worker in his first season, taking a team hammered with NCAA sanctions and going 8-4. But the senior class that was the backbone of that showing — particularly quarterback Matt McGloin and linebacker Michael Mauti — is gone. The 2013 recruiting class was capped at 15 (10 fewer than normal), and the Nittany Lions have to get down to 65 total scholarships (20 under the limit) by 2014 to meet the imposed guidelines. Roster management is crucial.

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What we want to know: Can highly touted true freshman Christian Hackenberg win the quarterback job this fall over sophomore Steven Bench and juco transfer Tyler Ferguson? Is All-Big Ten tight end Kyle Carter (dislocated wrist and torn ligaments versus Nebraska) fully recovered? Will the Nittany Lions, needing to limit contact in the spring and the fall to avoid injuries, be hardened enough when game action starts? Can a Big Ten team survive with special teams often manned by “run-ons,” what O'Brien calls walk-ons?

Something fun to know: All-Big Ten guard John Urschel might be the nation's largest math instructor. The 6-3, 300-pound fifth-year senior and master's candidate teaches “Trigonometry and Analytical Geometry'' to undergrads three time a week.

Schedule: Complete 2013 schedule

Purdue

Coach: Darrell Hazell, first year, 0-0

2012 record: 6-7, (3-5, fourth)

Returning starters: 16 (5 offense, 9 defense, 2 kickers)

What we know: Despite reaching a bowl game, Purdue cut ties with the overmatched Danny Hope to start anew with Darrell Hazell, who set a Kent State record with 11 wins last season. Hazell, a wide receiver in his playing days, previously worked from 2005 to '11 at Ohio State under Jim Tressel. So Hazell will try to blend his offensive tendencies with what he learned under Tressel about building a team through defense and special teams. There is talent here, but the pieces often don't seem to fit together.

What we want to know: Which of the three quarterbacks (senior Rob Henry, redshirt freshman Austin Appleby, true freshman Danny Etling) will claim the job, which won't be filled until two weeks into fall camp? Could the defensive line be better, as Hazell thinks, even without All-Big Ten tackle Kawann Short? Will Hazell's open practices in the spring and his plans to keep some open in the fall create enough interest in the program to bring back the fans who stayed away last fall?

Something fun to know: During winter workouts, the Boilermakers wore T-shirts with “5%” printed on them. Hazell said it stood for giving 5 percent more on every exercise and getting 5 percent better every day.

Schedule: Complete 2013 schedule

Wisconsin

Coach: Gary Andersen, first year, 0-0

2012 record: 8-6, (4-4, third)

Returning starters: 17 (8 offense, 7 defense, 2 kickers)

What we know: The only FBS team in the country that has won its conference the past three seasons will try for No. 4 with a new coach. Gary Andersen came from Utah State after Bret Bielema unexpectedly left for Arkansas. A fair number of Badger fans don't mind changing from a coach who childishly engages in Twitter fights with fans to one who called every player at Utah State to personally tell them say he was leaving. Athletic Director Barry Alvarez did his homework here. Andersen has pushed the right buttons.

What we want to know: Even with four quarterbacks in spring camp, will 6-foot-6 dual-threat juco transfer Tanner McEvoy jump into the competition this fall? Will the change from a read-and-react 4-3 defense to an attacking 3-4 alignment help Wisconsin do better than 105th nationally in turnovers forced? With a senior class that is large (27) and talented (12 potential NFL draftees), will the Badgers topple Leaders favorite Ohio State? Will ex-Husker aide Bill Busch help get the special teams righted?

Something fun to know: Badger fans should get used to hearing “On Wisconsin.” The team will sing the school fight song after every game this season, win or lose and road or home. Andersen called it “a sign of respect” for fans who spend the money to attend.

Schedule: Complete 2013 schedule

Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht

lee.barfknecht@owh.com    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.

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