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Big Ten Look-In

   by ASA - 08/22/2006

Ron Zook’s second session of fall practices as head coach at Illinois has seen an emphasis on the running game. But which back will handle a majority of the running duties remains to be seen. The Illini ran the ball on nine of the first 10 plays and 36 times overall in their annual intrasquad scrimmage. Backups Rashard Mendenhall and Charles Bailey saw the most action with 11 and 10 carries, respectively, and also performed the best. Mendenhall covered 75 yards in his 11 attempts while Bailey, who was recruited as a defensive back, tallied 67 yards.

“We feel like we’re going to be a much better running team this season and we wanted to make that point early on,â€쳌 Zook told the Decatur Herald and Review.

Seniors E.B. Halsey and Pierre Thomas have split time at tailback over the last three seasons and won’t want to give up their playing time without a fight. Halsey ran five times for 47 yards in the scrimmage while Thomas sat out with a minor injury.

Wide receiver James Hardy, Indiana’s top weapon on offense, has been cleared to play following an offseason of turmoil. Hardy, who is entering just his sophomore season, was one of the best wideouts in the conference last year, pulling in 61 passes for 893 yards and 10 touchdowns. He was arrested May 19 on charges of domestic battery but has been practicing with the team since the beginning of fall sessions. Hardy was recently cleared to play in Indiana’s season opener Sept. 2 against Western Michigan by the university.

Hardy could team with junior quarterback Blake Powers to form one of the best quarterback-wide receiver tandems in the Big Ten this year. Powers is coming off a record-setting year in which he eclipsed the school record with 22 touchdown passes.

Two of the biggest holes to fill in the Big Ten conference will be the linebacker vacancies left by all-conference selections Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge. Greenway and Hodge finished first and second, respectively, in the conference in tackles last year and will not be easily replaced.

The lone holdover from last season’s starting trio, Edmond Miles, is a preseason second-team All-Big Ten pick and will help with the younger ‘backers. One of those ‘backers, Mike Humpal, is being looked upon as a more than adequate replacement for Greenway. Humpal saw action in all 12 games and made 25 tackles.

“The guy is super smart,â€쳌 defensive coordinator Norm Parker told the Daily Iowan. “He’s a hard-working guy and I think he’s going to be an outstanding player.â€쳌

If Chad Henne and Mike Hart are to have the years that are expected of them, a few holes along the offensive line will need to be filled. The Wolverines lost two first-team All-Big Ten selections along with a second-team pick to graduation. For Michigan to rebound from its out-of-character 7-5 season a year ago, these holes will need to be filled.

The line will be anchored by left tackle Jake Long with Adam Kraus and Mark Bihl expected to start at left guard and center, respectively. That leaves the right side of the line wide open. Fifth-year senior Reuben Riley has played all five line positions at one point and is expected to hold down one of the two right-side spots. Depending on what position Riley settles in at, the final spot on the O-line will come down to up to five players.

Michigan State
A big cause of Michigan State’s fall from grace after last season’s 4-0 start could be attributed to a lack of aggressiveness from the defensive secondary. Junior-college transfer Nehemiah Warrick could be the answer to that problem.

Warrick, a first-team junior college All-American last year, will replace last year’s leading tackler, Eric Smith. A few weeks of spring practices seem to be enough to convince the coaching staff and his teammates that he will be up to the task.

“I think our attitude has changed once they put (Warrick) at safety,â€쳌 bandit SirDarean Adams told the Detroit Free Press. “Once he got in the mix, our whole attitude just changed.â€쳌

The Gopher running attack has been among the nation’s best under head coach Glen Mason, boasting two 1,000-yard rushers in each of the last three seasons. With Laurence Maroney moving on to the NFL and Gary Russell ruled academically ineligible, Minnesota might be in danger of not having even one 1,000-yard rusher.

Junior Amir Pinnix, who ran 32 times for 206 yards in his first collegiate start last year, was expected to move into the starting role but Minnesota’s first football scrimmage left questions as to who would start. Other possibilities include Brylee Callender, Jay Thomas and linebacker-turned-running back Alex Daniels.

“I don’t think there is a No. 1 right now,â€쳌 offensive coordinator Mitch Browning told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “If we were going to start today, I think it would be a tossup.â€쳌

Northwestern has gone through a difficult transition following the death of head coach Randy Walker. One of Walker’s final plans was to switch to a 3-4 defensive alignment, a plan that new head coach Pat Fitzgerald plans to follow through on.

The biggest problem with this sort of transition as that the talent doesn’t match the scheme. While the Wildcats will continue to recruit for the 3-4 alignment, for now, Northwestern will play a majority of downs in the 4-3 while mixing in the 3-4 to throw off opposing offenses.

Ohio State
The Buckeyes are being touted as the early favorites to take home a national championship this year after being tabbed No. 1 in the Preseason Coaches Poll. While Ohio State certainly has the offense of a national championship contender, the defense remains suspect after losing nine starters from last season’s fifth-ranked defense. Five of the last six national champions had defenses ranked in the top-10, so if the Buckeyes want to bring home their second national crown in five years, they better hope the new starters learn quickly.

Some of the hardest holes to fill will come in the linebacking corps after all three starters from a year ago were drafted. Expected to start are sophomore James Laurinaitis, who replaced an injured Carpenter late in the season; senior John Kerr, a transfer from Indiana who made only 12 tackles last year; and sophomore Marcus Freeman, who didn’t play at all last year due to injury.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,â€쳌 defensive coordinator Jim Heacock told ESPN. “Uncertainty is a factor in a situation like this. You don’t know how guys are going to respond in the heat of the battle.â€쳌

Penn State
Replacing the top offensive player in the conference is never an easy task but Penn State may have found the right guy to take over for Michael Robinson. Anthony Morelli, who was rated the No. 12 prospect in the nation as a high school senior, has ridden the bench in his first two years at University Park. Penn State’s hopes of repeating last year’s magical season hinge directly on Morelli justifying his prep accolades.

The Nittany Lion offense will operate a little differently this year as Morelli doesn’t possess the mobility that the ultra-versatile Robinson did. Morelli is more of a traditional pocket passer and the offense will reflect that.

“The great thing about him is he has great arm strength, but he also has a really quick release,â€쳌 quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Those two things combined allow you to do some things in the pass game.â€쳌

The injury bug has firmly bitten the Purdue linebacking corps but the injuries don’t appear to be serious. Dan Bick, the projected weak-side starter, had offseason shoulder surgery but his shoulder continued to nag him through spring practices and into the fall. But the injury won’t keep Bick off the field as he will play through the pain.

“I don’t think he’ll ever be completely well until the season is over,â€쳌 head coach Joe Tiller said. “But he wants to play and I want to see him play.â€쳌

Cliff Avril, who is competing for the strong-side position, is having his practice time monitored due to a lingering back ailment. Avril has practiced through the pain and has even seen time at defensive end.

With the departure of Brian Calhoun to the NFL and the dismissal of Booker Stanley due to disciplinary reasons, the Badgers need a running back to step up and become the next 1,000-yard rusher in Wisconsin’s long line of 1,000-yard rushers. The position remains open and will need to be filled by a quality back if the Badgers are to succeed this year.

Quarterback John Stocco lost both of his starting wideouts to the NFL and will need a running attack to open up the passing game. P.J. Hill surfaced as the starting back following spring practices but hasn’t fully recovered from a broken leg suffered last year. Other candidates include junior Jamil Walker, senior Dywon Rowan and freshman Lance Smith. The Badgers will need one of these candidates to step up if they want to duplicate last season’s 10-3 mark.

Stocco underwent minor knee surgery last week but has quickly recovered. He was seen walking the sidelines at practice without crutches, a brace or wrapping. If Stocco can continue to progress at this rate, he should be good to go for the season opener.

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