Normally in spring practice, everything is positive. Everyone is undefeated and coaches are more than happy to run through a list of players that are “competing” and “working on fundamentals” during this period of organized, yet regulated, team activities. But that’s not the real world, where injuries and depth concerns loom large along with program stability and ticket sales.
Below, we’ve got some worst-case spring practice scenarios for the Big Ten. Some are serious, many are not, but all of the potential topics would not be good news if they surfaced at the end of April when the final spring games are done.
|Nobody steps up on the defensive line: As a defensive coordinator, Tom Allen helped oversee drastic improvement on the defensive side of the ball last season. In his first season as head coach, Allen has plenty of experience returning on that side of the ball in the back seven, but the defensive line is wide open. While starting spots don’t need to be settled this spring, you want to see a couple players emerge as true threats or else there could be a step backward in 2017.|
|The OL struggles: A lot of attention will be on Maryland’s quarterback battle this spring, and rightfully so as it’s a somewhat important position. What I’d pay more attention to, however, is the offensive line. Simply put, Maryland’s line is going to be very young. There’s potential there, but not much experience, and when sharing a division with teams like Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State, an inexperienced offensive line could be a death sentence. If the offensive line struggles in the spring, it would be a bad sign going forward.|
|Key players defect to Italy: In case you forgot, Michigan will hold three of its 15 spring practices in Rome. Not Rome, Georgia, or Rome, New York, we’re talking about the original one. In Italy. While Michigan has plenty of question marks heading into 2017, it could have even more if any of its players decide they like Italy so much while there that they refuse to leave. College kids love pizza, and now they’re going to be in the home of it. I don’t think Jim Harbaugh thought this through.|
|People jump to conclusions: There is a sexual assault investigation taking place at Michigan State. One that involves three players and a staff member. The three players have been suspended and will not play in Michigan State’s spring game. Since the investigation is ongoing and no charges have been filed, Mark Dantonio is yet to name the players involved in the investigation. They will not participate in the spring game, as will other players who have been suspended or are possibly injured. We’re likely to see some junior detective work following the spring game, which would not only be irresponsible, but could hurt players who have nothing to do with the current investigation.|
|A QB controversy emerges: J.T. Barrett had a “down season” in 2016. He had some accuracy problems, and the big play was absent from Ohio State’s passing game. I don’t think that was Barrett’s fault as much as it was a group of receivers who were talented but didn’t really have the ability to separate over the top. As you’d expect, the Buckeyes have plenty of talent on the roster at QB this spring with guys like Joe Burrow, Dwayne Haskins, and Tate Martell all competing to serve as Barrett’s backup. And as long as that’s all they’re competing for, Ohio State’s offense should be fine, even with key players to replace and a new offensive coordinator in Kevin Wilson. The absolute worst thing that could happen to Ohio State’s offense is a situation like we saw a couple of years ago where multiple guys enter the season getting snaps.|
|Saquon Barkley gets hurt: Penn State had a breakthrough season last year. Things started out poorly, but the Nittany Lions finished really strong and ended up in the Rose Bowl, losing an absolute classic to USC. As it enters the 2017 season, Penn State has higher expectations and plenty of questions to answer, but I still think Saquon Barkley is the most important part of this team. He’s also one of the most unheralded great running backs in recent memory, as he just never seems to get the attention he deserves. So no matter what happens with Penn State this spring -- nobody really steps up at linebacker or on the defensive line -- as long as Barkley gets through the spring healthy, things should be fine.|
|Janarion Grant suffers a setback: Rutgers went 2-10 last year, and 0-9 in the Big Ten. It lost its conference games by an average of 30 points per game last season. There’s a lot of work to be done here, and it’s not going to be done during a couple of weeks in the spring. Still, my biggest concern would be wide receiver Janarion Grant suffering a setback with his ankle. Grant played in only four games last season before breaking his ankle. The play in which Grant broke his ankle showed why losing him was such a blow, as he broke free for a 76-yard reception, breaking three tackles along the way. He’ll be a limited participant this spring, and it makes sense because having Grant at 100 percent heading into 2017 will be key for Rutgers on both offense and special teams. He’s the biggest playmaker the Knights have.|
|Illinois is fear free: Illinois is in an odd position compared to the rest of the Big Ten. It’s already finished with spring practice. Nobody died, and there were no major injuries suffered. That’s a win.|
|No one emerges as a threat at WR: Iowa’s going through a lot of turnover on offense, both on the field and the sideline. There will be a new quarterback, and that new quarterback will be taking plays from a new offensive coordinator in Brian Ferentz. Ferentz will be tasked with trying to get more out of an Iowa passing attack that was lacking last season, and while play-calling might have had something to do with it, the bigger problem may have been a clear No. 1 option at receiver. Matt VandeBerg will miss the spring with a foot injury, but that opens the door for guys like Jerminic Smith, Devonte Young, Ronald Nash or Adrian Falconer to step up. Somebody needs to.|
|There aren’t enough elite days: The only thing P.J. Fleck likes saying more than “Row the boat” is the word elite. I would estimate that elite appears on an average of 2.3 times per sentence. He’s going to bring a different kind of vibe and energy to the Minnesota program this year, and spring practice will be the first time his new players will get a real idea of what it’s like to play for Fleck. It’ll be interesting to see how the players react to Fleck being Fleck. Most players seem to flock to his energy, but there will be some that will be turned off by it.|
|A tough transition to a 3-4 defense: Fifteen practices won’t be enough to install a new defense and familiarize your players with it, but it’s important that new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco at least lays the groundwork in Nebraska’s new 3-4 look. That not only includes installing the defense but finding the right personnel for it, as most of the players on the roster had different responsibilities in a 4-3 than they will in the 3-4. Diaco’s challenge this spring will be maximizing the time allotted to prepare his defense for the summer and fall camp before the season begins.|
|It turns out Anthony Walker really did leave Evanston: OK, so Walker truly is gone, and Northwestern knows that. It also knows that replacing one of the most productive players in school history is not going to be easy. Walker was a phenom in this Northwestern defense, seemingly making every tackle, rushing the passer, forcing fumbles, and dropping back into coverage. Nate Hall will likely be the guy tasked with trying to replace Walker in the middle, and he had a good season last year as an outside linebacker. His ability to transition to a new role could make replacing Walker a bit easier for every single player on the defense.|
|The OL and DL suffer injuries: The hiring of Jeff Brohm was one of my favorite moves any school made during the offseason because I’m a huge fan of what Brohm can do for an offense. That being said, Brohm is taking over a team that needs a lot of work, and this won’t be a quick turnaround in West Lafayette. Especially if the Boilermakers experience any injuries in the trenches. Purdue’s roster is a bit thin on both the OL and the DL, so it will be imperative to get through the spring with everybody in one piece. If not, it will only slow down the team’s ability to rebuild.|
|No leader emerges on defense: Jim Leonard is Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator. He’s Wisconsin’s third defensive coordinator in three years, and he’s taking over a unit that lost a lot of key players in T.J. Watt, Vince Biegel, Leo Musso and Sojourn Shelton. It’s not just the talent that needs to be replaced, but the leadership qualities of those players. Look for guys like T.J. Edwards or D’Cota Dixon to step up and take on that role this spring.|