Big Ten spring storylines


Thanks in large part to the biggest “free-agent signing” in college last year, Wisconsin staked its claim to a win in the first-ever Big Ten championship game.  With Russell Wilson one-and-done in Madison, however, the conference generally and the Leaders (chuckle) division specifically are up for grabs yet again.

The only certainty for the 2012 race to Indianapolis?  Ohio State won’t be involved, thanks to its well-publicized NCAA issues.

The story of the conference headed into the spring is, of course, a pair of newcomers.  Bill O’Brien takes over a Penn State football program tainted by the Jerry Sandusky child-sex abuse scandal, while Urban Meyer returns to his home-state Buckeyes after hitting the pause button on his coaching career following the 2010 season.

Below are a handful of Big Ten storylines we’ll pay at least some attention to this spring:

Leg up in the Legends?
While Michigan State claimed the division’s spot in the first Big Ten title game, it will likely be its in-state rival that will carry the frontrunner tag heading into the upcoming season.  And why not?  All Brady Hoke did in his first year at Michigan was lead the Wolverines to the most wins (11) since 2006, taking an immense first step in erasing the stench left behind by the RichRod regime.  Beginning in the spring, though, Hoke must find and identify new playmakers at the wide receiver position.  Additionally, Denard Robinson must find a way to reduce his turnovers, although a second year in the same system could very well alleviate that issue on its own.  Fortunately — and by “fortunately” I mean “get down and thank the Good Lord Greg Robinson is not around” — the defense is in the very capable hands of Greg Mattison and, even with some attrition in the trenches, should be a strength of the 2012 edition of the Wolverines.

Monumental change in Happy Valley
For the first time since Lyndon Baines Johnson was sitting in Oval Office, a head coach not named Joe Paterno will direct the Nittany Lions football program through spring drills.  Charged with the task of replacing a coaching legend is Bill O’Brien, who will not only be taking over a program rocked by scandal over the past several months, but will be a head coach for the first time at any level of football.  With O’Brien at the helm, one will actually watch the Nittany Lions field a (gasp!) modern style of offense, replete with passing and excitement and the like.  While keeping some continuity on the defensive side of the ball by retaining Larry Johnson Sr. cannot be understated, all eyes in the spring will be on the number of footballs piercing the Happy Valley air.  Just who will be doing the majority of the flinging remains to be seen; Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden will once again battle for the starting job, with Paul Jones possibly getting himself into the mix as well.  While that crucial battle will begin in the spring, it likely won’t be finished until deep into summer camp.

(Insert “Urban development/renewal” pun here)
Penn State’s not the only Big Ten school preparing to cannonball into 21st century offensive football.  Urban Meyer will bring his version of the spread offense to the Buckeyes, implementing the new system after bringing an SEC mindset to the recruiting game.  Unlike the Nittany Lions, however, there is no question who will be the new offense’s triggerman as true sophomore-to-be Braxton Miller has all of the tools to flourish under the tutelage of Meyer and his offensive coaching staff.  Certainly there are other questions that need answered — filling holes on the offensive line chief among them — and there’s no postseason to play for, but the foundation laid by Meyer & Company this spring will certainly benefit the program in 2013 and beyond.  Provided another sabbatical is not in the offing, of course.

Uncertainty under center
Just because Wisconsin and Michigan State met in the first Big Ten title doesn’t make them the favorites for a return engagement in the second.  A big reason why?  Replacing the talent and experience lost at the quarterback position.  The Badgers, of course, will be looking for a replacement for Russell Wilson, and could very well turn its attention to the East Coast yet again for a QB solution; UW is reportedly one of the handful of schools Danny O’Brien is considering as he transfers from Maryland.  The Spartans, on the other hand, will definitely look from within for a replacement for Kirk Cousins, who started the past three seasons and was widely considered MSU’s heart and soul.  Barring an unexpected development, Andrew Maxwell,  a four-star member of the Spartans’ 2009 recruiting class, is Cousins’ heir apparent.  Whether he’s ready for his new, more visible role remains to be seen.

North Carolina formally announces hiring of ex-Tennessee RBs coach Robert Gillespie

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The latest addition to Larry Fedora‘s North Carolina coaching staff has been confirmed.

Following up on reports that surfaced earlier this month. UNC announced Wednesday that Fedora has hired Robert Gillespie. While not confirmed by the football program in the release, it’s expected Gillespie will serve as the Tar Heels running backs coach, a position he’s held for most of his coaching career.

“We are excited to welcome Robert and his family to Chapel Hill,” Fedora said in a statement. “He has a well-earned reputation as a great offensive coach and recruiter, and he has a wealth of experience working with running backs at a very high level. We are happy to have him join our staff as we get into the bulk of spring practice.”

Gillespie fills the hole created by the departure of Gunter Brewer, who left as the Tar Heels’ wide receivers coach for a job with the Philadelphia Eagles earlier this month. It’s expected that Luke Paschall, currently the running backs coach, will assume Brewer’s role with receivers.

Gillespie, a former Florida running back, spent the past five seasons as the running backs coach at Tennessee. He was originally retained by new UT head coach Jeremy Pruitt before parting ways with the football program shortly after National Signing Day.

In addition to UT, Gillespie has spent time on coaching staffs at South Carolina (2006-08), Oklahoma State (2009-10) and West Virginia (2011-12). He was the running backs coach at each of those stops.

Report: Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa’s thumb injury ‘just a sprain’

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It appears Alabama can breathe a sigh of relief on the injury front.

Tuesday, after the reigning national champions had put the finishing touches on its first practice of the spring, Nick Saban confirmed that quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had suffered an unspecified injury to the thumb on his LEFT (throwing) hand.  It was expected that the quarterback would travel to Birmingham for further evaluation of the injury.

While there’s been nothing official yet from the football program or head coach,, citing unnamed sources, writes that the injury “is believed to just be a sprain and he should be able to return to practice in at least a limited capacity at some point soon.”

Until then, Jalen Hurts will take the majority of the reps as the Crimson Tide continues its march through their 15 spring practice sessions.

The rising true junior Hurts, who has started every game but one the past two seasons, and the rising true sophomore Tagovailoa, the national championship game hero who replaced Hurts at halftime of the overtime win, are engaged in a competition for the starting job that, barring a post-spring transfer, is expected to extend into summer camp.  That said, most observers outside of the UA football program fully expect Tagovailoa, because of his proficiency in the passing game relative to Hurts, to earn the job at some point before the Tide opens the defense of their title against Louisville in Orlando Sept. 1.

John Calipari takes page out of Nick Saban’s playbook by warning of (rat) poison

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One’s a dot, two’s a line and three’s a trend as the old adage go and it appears rat poison for college players is now a burgeoning trend.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday ahead of Kentucky’s NCAA tournament game against Kansas State, Wildcats coach John Calipari took a page straight out of Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin’s playbook by warning his team of drinking the media “poison” the past few days.

“My challenge is making sure these kids don’t drink that poison. That poison being we have an easy road. There are no easy roads in this tournament,” said Calipari. “If they drink that poison, we’ll be done Thursday. If they don’t drink the poison, it’ll be a dog fight Thursday — let’s see what happens. Sometimes you wonder why they’re (the media) trying to paint that picture with my team — probably because they’re young and they know they don’t know better.”

Ok then.

At least the term Calipari is using isn’t out of thin air given that Saban infamously ranted on his team buying into the media’s discussion of being a good team as “rat poison” last season. For the record though, the rant by the basketball coach was prompted by a question that didn’t at all involve Kentucky having an easy path to the Final Four but was rather about team and individual goals.

It’s not often you think of Saban as a trendsetter but it seems he was certainly ahead of the curve when it came to labeling media talk as poison.

Harbaugh hits primetime again as Michigan announces spring game under the lights

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Jim Harbaugh is already getting a series on Amazon Prime but now the Michigan head coach is also getting the primetime treatment.

The Wolverines announced on Tuesday that the annual spring game would take place under the lights at Michigan Stadium this year and would be televised live in primetime on the Big Ten Network.

Gates will open to the game two hours prior to kickoff and the maize and blue faithful may try to do their best to get to Ann Arbor early because the school is going to screen an episode of the Amazon series  “All or Nothing: The Michigan Wolverines” prior to the game. This will be the second time in three years that the school will go under the lights to play their spring game at night but obviously the first time there’s a documentary series that will be screened prior to the Wolverines taking the field.

The game may be worth tuning in for to see Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson in action with his new team after arriving in the offseason. The NCAA still has not ruled on whether he will be immediately eligible in 2018 but he is expected to go through spring drills with the team either way, starting this week when practices begin on Friday.