Big Ten Football: Top Spring Practice Battles to Watch For

Andrew Coppens@@andycoppensContributor IFebruary 18, 2014

Big Ten Football: Top Spring Practice Battles to Watch For

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    National signing day is in the rearview mirror, and that means it's time to look forward to the next milestone on the college football calendar—spring football. 

    All over Big Ten country, there are question marks that need to be answered and players to be discovered. What are those question marks and who are those players

    There are plenty of battles to be won or at least get some separation this spring, but some are more intriguing than others. 

    Let's take a look at the biggest battles that are going to occur across the Big Ten this spring. 

    Note: All stats courtesy

Michigan: Quarterback

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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    Changes are afoot for the Michigan offense, as offensive coordinator Al Borges is out and new OC Doug Nussmeier is in. 

    Just what will the Michigan pro-style offense look like under Nussmeier? It's not as if he hasn't run an offense with a mobile quarterback before, but then again, he also enjoys a more traditional QB as well. 

    Does that mean he wants to see more of senior Devin Gardner or more of talented but inexperienced Shane Morris? 

    Only spring will answer those questions, sort of. Gardner, who injured his foot in the regular-season finale against Ohio State, just began running again for the first time in three months. 

    He's likely to be limited this spring, according to, which may not make this a completely fair battle in the spring. However, Nussmeier may get a look at what Gardner is like mentally and what he's like throwing the ball in the pocket. 

    With Gardner's limitations, more reps will go to Morris and early enrollee Wilton Speight. Morris started in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss to Kansas State, completing 63 percent of his passes for 196 yards and one interception. 

    He showed promise but also suffered thanks to the issues in front of him and the lack of a consistent run game. 

    So, spring could be his time to shine and put himself in position to win a starting job. While the battle won't play out fully on the field or in view of the general public, there will be a battle nonetheless. 

Indiana: Quarterback

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    This may seem like a broken record because we've been here before with Indiana and its quarterbacks, but here we are again. 

    Nate Sudfeld had appeared to take over the starting quarterback job after the first few games of the season in 2013, only to see Tre Roberson get back in the mix. 

    Sudfeld finished the year with a 60.2 percent completion rate for 2,523 yards and 21 touchdowns to nine interceptions. Those are not bad numbers for a starter, but as the season went on, he became interchangeable with Roberson. 

    In fact, head coach Kevin Wilson looked to find the hot hand on a game-by-game basis down the stretch. 

    Roberson finished his sophomore year by completing 60.1 percent of his passes for 1,128 yards and 15 touchdowns to four interceptions. He also added 423 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. 

    Indiana has a new offensive coordinator in Kevin Johns, who was promoted from within the staff. He will be familiar with each QB's skill set, but if the Hoosiers are to make another bowl game, they need to determine their starter and stick with him. 

    Part of what hurt them last season was playing musical chairs at quarterback, and someone taking the reins for good this spring would solve that problem. 

Illinois: Quarterback

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Just like Wisconsin losing Jared Abbrederis, the Fighting Illini have to find a new identity on offense without Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback. After four years as a starter, he's gone. 

    For a team that needed everything he could give, there is no bigger deal than finding a capable replacement.  

    It also means that one of the biggest and most intriguing battles in the conference is going to take place in Champaign. 

    The contenders are Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt and soon-to-be sophomore Aaron Bailey. Lunt comes in after a freshman season that saw him complete 61.3 percent of his passes for 1,108 yards and six touchdowns to seven interceptions. 

    It was clear he wasn't going to be the starter following that season, and Lunt, a native of Rochester, Ill., went back home. 

    He may be a great fit for Bill Cubit's offense, but the touchdown-to-interception ratio in his freshman season should give some pause that he isn't going to be the immediate winner. 

    Bailey saw some time in situational duty behind Scheelhaase last year, completing just two of five passes. He is the more mobile of the two quarterbacks, after rushing for 83 yards and three touchdowns. His mobility could be just the wrinkle that Cubit might want to add this season. 

    Watching these two scrap in the spring with likely even reps will go a long way in determining who will start in 2014, and it just may be one of the best battles around the Big Ten too. 

Michigan: Offensive Line

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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    Last season, the only upperclassmen on the depth chart were the starting tackles, Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. Both were seniors and are now gone, and that's a major problem considering how bad the line was in 2013. 

    With Lewan, a first-round NFL draft pick, this line couldn't do anything to help produce a run game. Michigan finished the year 11th in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 125.7 yards per game and besting only Purdue's dismal rush game. 

    The pass protection wasn't much better, finishing 11th with 36 sacks allowed—again just besting Purdue (39) at the bottom of the barrel. 

    If anything good came from the disaster of 2013, it's that plenty of linemen got playing time and saw firsthand what not to do. 

    Names like Kyle Kalis, Erick Magnuson, Graham Glasgow and Kyle Bosch all got massive experience as freshmen or sophomores last year. Clearly it wasn't pretty at all, but if that group can't put it together in the spring, there is a group that will look to take playing time away from them. 

    Mason Cole, a 247Sports' 4-star guard, is an early enrollee who is likely to challenge for playing time this spring. 

    The starting roles up front are far from defined thanks to the lack of production from the group last year, so spring must be about finding the right mix of players along the line to be successful. 

    If Michigan is going to go anywhere in 2014, it all starts up front. 

Wisconsin: Quarterback

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Joel Stave is the starter at Wisconsin, at least that is what head coach Gary Andersen is saying, per Brian Bennett of ESPN. However, in the other breath, he is quick to say that all four quarterbacks will have the opportunity to earn the starting role. 

    Stave started every game for the Badgers last season, completing 61.9 percent of his passes for 2,494 yards and 22 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. 

    Those aren't bad numbers for a game manager, which Stave is expected to be. However, after a 9-4 season, it became clear that to be a true contender, the team needs to have something extra in the pass game. 

    Wisconsin has no shortage of options, with names like Tanner McEvoy, Bart Houston and early enrollee D.J. Gillins. 

    Gillins is exactly what Andersen is looking for in a quarterback; he gives the Badgers a run option at the position. So too does McEvoy and to a lesser extent Houston. 

    Can any of them show enough to unseat nearly two years of experience as a starter in Joel Stave? 

    He seems to perform best with his back to the wall, but this battle is more about what Wisconsin wants at quarterback than who Stave is. 

    Nothing would surprise me in this battle, but keep an eye out for Houston, the former Elite 11 quarterback camp finalist. 

Nebraska: Quarterback

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    Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    This was the spring that everyone in Husker Nation was pointing to at the beginning of last season. Fans all knew that Nebraska was facing life without Taylor Martinez after that season was over. 

    Little did most know that they'd get a glimpse of the future so soon. Just a few games into the season, Martinez went down with a foot issue, the flu and then a season-ending broken foot. 

    It meant figuring out a quarterback rotation between freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. and senior Ron Kellogg III. 

    This spring, Armstrong comes in with experience he didn't think he'd have, but it doesn't mean it was all good. He finished last year completing just 51.9 percent of his passes for 966 yards and nine touchdowns to eight interceptions. 

    He will be competing with redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, the former 4-star quarterback by the 247Sports Composite. He has a ton of potential, but no one in the general public has seen it happen in a collegiate uniform. 

    He isn't all hype, though; you don't get to be a finalist in the Elite 11 quarterback competition on hype alone. He proved it with his arm and his legs, earning the nickname "Johnny Tebow" by some at the competition. 

    Will the experience on the field or the raw talent win out? Expect this one to be one of the more heated battles in the Big Ten this spring. 

    *Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for Big Ten football. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens