Joe Coughlin

Spring Lessons From Each Big Ten Program

Created on May. 07, 2013 1:27 AM EST

Spring is done.

It's that quick and that relatively painless for college football games. A few headlines, a few injury scares, some position battles, and then: poof! It's college football's version of the Dark Ages for three months. 

The final Big Ten spring football games wrapped on April 27, and at the end of each game, every coach said something like: "I like what we did this spring. We have plenty to work on before Game 1 against [enter non-conference opponent here] and our guys are working hard for that."

But the sound byte won't tell you much, so I scoured some tape, some features, some stats and some blogs and put together a little rundown of at least one lesson learned (sometimes two, aren't you lucky?) from each spring session. 

Melvin Gordon Could Be ‘Next’

James White is an outstanding back with power, speed and durability. After he gained 840 yards and scored 12 TDs a year ago, a reasonable assumption would be White was the heir apparent to Montee Ball.

Not so fast — well, actually, very, very fast.

Speedster Melvin Gordon — who isn’t a new name after picking up one-third of his 2012 rushing yards (643) in the Big Ten title game — is showing he deserves as much playing time as his counterpart.

With White out of the spring game, Gordon picked up 74 yards on the ground with a score, and another 40 yards receiving.

Two of the best backs in the league are on the same team. A fight for playing time will be a good problem to have — so will the improving passing offense under new coach Gary Andersen, who has pushed passing extensively all spring.

QB Problems At Penn State

The big news for Penn State actually came after the spring game April 20. After starting quarterback candidates Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson matched each other’s play in the scrimmage, most recaps centered on a building quarterback quandary.

Bench solved that a few days later when he decided to transfer (destination: unknown), telling he felt he was behind JUCO transfer Tyler Ferguson on the depth chart despite backing Matt McGloin in 2012.

Bench’s departure leaves the job for Ferguson; however, highly touted recruit Christian Hackernberg — a 6-foot-4, 4-star (ESPN) talent — isn’t even in Penn State pads yet. He could get his shot.

The backfield is even more crowded one level deeper as redshirt frosh Akeel Lynch made his move for playing time with a stellar spring game, collecting 83 yards and a score on 13 totes. He will likely get playing time behind and with Zach Zwinak and potentially ahead of Bill Belton.

UM QB Gardner Is A Leader

It wasn’t just about what he did — lead a purposely bland offensive performance — but what he said that mattered.

Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner said, “It felt like my team,” to the press after the scrimmage in which he completed 11-of-16 passes for 146 yards and a score. 

The Wolverines unveiled their new pro-set, but that’s about all, with Gardner calling it “very vanilla” afterward.

The rising senior started the final five games with Denard Robinson out with an injury. He went 3-2 and lost in a bowl game to South Carolina, but more importantly, picked up 126 passing attempts and did plenty on the ground, too. He played in a back-and-forth overtime game with Northwestern and went to Ohio State and hung tough. He picked up plenty of game experience and is ready for action.

If nothing else, Gardner knows what he’s doing — even if Michigan doesn’t want you to.

Iowa DT Davis Could Be A Star

Carl Davis has had a disappointing career at Iowa so far.

The defensive tackle redshirted in 2010 and dislocated his knee twice in 2011. Last season, he was still dealing with the injury’s aftermath, telling The Gazette it was a “mental block. … I was just nervous getting around piles and stuff like that.” And now? “I just play,” he said.

Davis has been a revelation at spring camp and shined in the spring game April 27, finishing with three sacks and two batted passes. He’s the right size at 6-foot-5, 315 pounds, and adds agility and huge arms that give him leverage and make him disruptive from the line forward.

The D-line will be a strength for the Hawkeyes, and Davis could make it go.

Nebraska’s Defense Is Green

An experienced Nebraska offense did work to its counterpart in the annual spring game, scoring on six straight possessions at one point. Offenses racked up more than 700 yards, the Red squad gave up 8.5 yards a play and there were no forced turnovers.

This was a defense that gave up 145 points in the final two games in 2012, including 70 in the Big Ten title game to run-happy Wisconsin.

After the game, Huskers’ coach Bo Pelini was asked about the defense: “I think our defense has potential to be very good, but it is going to require a lot of hard work between now and then.”

Red flag.

Déjà Vu In East Lansing

If we’re talking Michigan State football, we’re talking defense first — whether the players and coaches like it or not.

There were five scores in the spring game; two came from the defense. The quarterbacks combined to go 23-of-54, and there were 91 rushing yards.

The takeaway? The Spartans' defense may be the best it's been in a long time. The secondary is extraordinary with experience and depth.

The offense may be the worst, with no quarterback stepping up, the lack of a running game and no tight ends.

Ohio State Is Diversifying Its Offense

The Buckeyes have worked hard in the off-season on their passing game and concentrated on the area once again in the spring game.

That’s kind of the point of the spring game, though. With Braxton Miller wearing a “Don’t Touch” jersey, any pass rush was a mirage. Plus, we all know what Miller can do on the ground. In this game, he fired the ball 25 times, making all the throws he had to with 16 completions, two scores and 217 yards.

Any advancement to Miller’s passing game is going to work wonders on the Buckeyes’ entire offense. If defenses don’t know what’s coming, Miller will be more effective leading the offense.

Plus, Urban Meyer wants to be the best … at everything. Despite OSU being the top offense in the league, it wasn’t the top passing squad. Meyer wants it all.

Biggest B1G QB Debate In Bloomington?

Tre Roberson is back for the Hoosiers, but will he be ready to deliver behind center?

It’s a major question for Indiana, which must hand the ball to somebody this fall. It has plenty of options.

Roberson is the most dynamic, but coming back from a broken leg, the runner/passer may not yet be there, especially since there are capable candidates standing next to him.

Junior to-be Cam Coffman was 18-of-24 for 234 yards, two TDs and a pick in the spring game, proving he could still do it after 10 started games in 2012. Nate Sudfield was 14-of-16 for 187 yards and a score, showing he deserves consideration with a near-perfect effort. Roberson was 7-of-18 for 64 yards, showcasing his healthy wheels in a game situation.

All made plays and made their relative case. It’s going to get hot.

Wildcats Fly Under Radar

Chances are if Northwestern held a spring game, it would have been a fundamental slugfest and gone highly unnoticed by the national media. But there was no spring game, so it really went unnoticed.

But expect more of the same in Evanston: a versatile and speedy run game, plenty of rotation and steady play.

And between eight and 10 wins.

Boilers' Hunt, Holmes Ready to Break Out

Akeem Hunt showed signs a year ago. While rushing only 42 times, the Purdue tailback collected eight yards a carry. He appears ready to do the deed full time.

Hunt was the clear MVP of the spring game, piling up 134 yards on 19 carries on a day dominated by defense (final score: 14-0). He showed all the signs of a top back and will help whomever the Boilermakers choose to put behind center.

In a similar mold, TE Gabe Holmes seems poised for a breakout campaign. Blessed with size, the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder gained 74 yards on four catches in the spring game. The emergence of Holmes would be a welcome addition to a team who will struggle on offense. Holmes could be a nice safety valve for Purdue's young QB.

Signs Of A Gopher Passing Game … Seriously!

Repeating Minnesota’s passing stats from 2012 isn’t necessary. They were bad. But for kicks, here’s what they were in the Big Ten: 146 yards per game; 8 TDs, 12 INTs, 51.6 completion percentage. The yardage was good enough for worst in the league.

But in the spring game — played April 27 as the last of the season — the 8,000-plus fans saw something rare: the chains moving.

Returning starter Phillip Nelson, a dual-threat guy, was 10-for-10 to start en route to a 13-of-17, 179-yard, one-score performance. He also picked up 40 yards on the ground. Counterpart Mitch Leidner was 9-of-15 for 112 and two TDs.

Gophers fans can hope Leidner’s presence and capabilities have pushed Nelson, who showed touch and accuracy in the spring game.

Redshirt senior Derrek Engel caught five balls for 74 yards and a TD, while James Harbison, back from an ACL repair, had five catches for 52 yards and a score. And multiple news sources, including, were impressed with the tight end play.

Scheelhaase Is The Man At Illinois, Which Won’t Help

If there was a quarterback competition, it may have been answered in April.

Nathan Scheelhaase was the MVP of the spring and led his Blue squad to a victory in the spring game April 12, while backup Reilly O’Toole threw four interceptions in one half.

O’Toole’s progression hasn’t been what Illinois thought and for what it’s worth, Scheelhaase has stepped up as a leader. But there’s plenty of reason to think it won’t matter. Illinois was last in the Big Ten in offense a year ago and 11th in turnovers, leaving much to be desired with the returning talent.

New offensive coordinator Bill Cubit will try to stabilize the ship, but there may be no righting it in 2013. In the spring game, Scheelhaase was an efficient 24-of-32, but only for 210 yards (8.75 yards/reception). It’s a glimpse of things to come under Cubit, who is aware of Sheelhaase’s weak arm and will use short, direct routes.

It could be a long fall in Champaign.

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