Big Ten Football: 5 Teams Having the Best Spring Camp
We're in the home stretch of spring football in the Big Ten, and there's been plenty to talk about thus far. All eyes are—per usual—on the big players in the conference. But with programs like Michigan continuing to show signs of struggling, we wondered about the other end of the spectrum.
There are many things that go into a successful spring camp. Certainly coaches and fans want to see some improvement and maturation from the players on the field. But the overall mentality of the program moving forward can be equally important, as we'll point out.
We're not quite finished with spring football yet, but we're close enough to determine the five Big Ten programs having the best spring camp—and we're giving you a sneak peek.
All in all, Penn State didn't have the most spectacular spring practice we've ever seen. That doesn't mean there isn't any reason to put the Nittany Lions on the list, though. It just might not be for the typical reason.
Penn State's offensive line didn't look very solid at all. Not only did the line give up nine credited sacks, but the running backs weren't finding many open holes through which to run. Both teams in the spring game combined for just 21 yards on the first 16 carries on Saturday.
Another recurring theme was Penn State's continued struggles on third down. The first 12 third-down attempts went unconverted—a stat that is sure to worry Nittany Lions fans.
With a clearly struggling offense, why are we even mentioning Penn State on our list of best spring camps in the Big Ten? If spring is a sign of rebirth, then Penn State should be fitting in nicely.
New head coach James Franklin is quickly shaking off some of the musty mentality at Penn State that handcuffed Bill O'Brien during much of his brief tenure. Now that Penn State is an entire head coaching era removed from Joe Paterno, a little shake up here and there isn't viewed as quite the blasphemous sacrilege it once was.
For instance, Christian Hackenberg won't be the offensive crutch he was for much of 2013. Franklin seems ready and able to implement some (insert Penn State old-timer gasp here) Wildcat formations—and is having a modest amount of success, too.
At the end of the day, Penn State's solid spring camp isn't going to be remembered for its explosion of talent or division title run setup. Instead, it should be remembered for being the first step in what should be a successful new era under James Franklin.
Last season, Michigan State was in the middle of its 13-1 run to championships in both the Big Ten and Rose Bowl Game when defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi called his defense—the top-rated defense in the nation, by the way—just "average."
Halfway through the 2014 spring camp, Narduzzi, the 2013 Broyles Award winner as the nation's top assistant coach, used the same adjective to describe his 2014 defense. If last season was any indication, "average" is high praise coming from Narduzzi.
Despite losing some big names, like Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard, head coach Mark Dantonio and Narduzzi have shown time and time again their ability to reload on defense. In fact, over the past three seasons, Michigan State has finished the season ranked in the top six nationally in total defense.
Combine MSU's sure-to-be solid defense with a continually improving offense, thanks to the return of eight starters from 2013, including quarterback Connor Cook, and there's still plenty of reason for Spartans fans to believe MSU will put up a good title defense fight this fall.
Last season, Minnesota made it clear that it was emerging from the cold, dark days of losing to teams like New Mexico State and FCS South Dakota. But despite an impressive showing, which included another bowl trip, the Gophers still didn't have the firepower to keep up with the rest of the Big Ten down the stretch.
Goal No. 1 for spring camp? Develop some offensive weaponry, or develop any passing weaponry. Mitch Leidner has all but secured the No. 1 spot at quarterback for 2014, but the spring game this last Saturday wasn't everything we had hoped to see from the passing game.
Four quarterbacks combined for 168 passing yards—far short of what we would want to see from a team like Minnesota—and Leidner was 7-of-15 for 74 yards and an interception.
It's not all about the passing, though. The running game featured Rodrick Williams this spring, who led all backs with 52 yards on nine carries. Despite the emergence last season of David Cobb (thanks in large part to an injury that sidelined Williams), add in a pretty solid performance from freshman running back Berkley Edwards, younger brother of former Michigan standout and third overall NFL draft pick wide receiver Braylon Edwards, and you suddenly see a Minnesota team that head coach Jerry Kill is developing not only to compete, but to win.
Those wins may not equal a Big Ten title in 2014, but it's probably safe to say that the days of the Gophers being a perennial doormat are in the rearview mirror.
One of the most...interesting...headlines from spring camp thus far is probably Bo Pelini's choice of companion when coming out onto the field prior to the Cornhuskers' spring game. Kitty cats aside, there were plenty of other takeaways from Nebraska's spring of football.
First, Pelini's reputation seems to be (mostly) healed after last season's dust-up involving leaked tapes of seemingly private conversations. In just a few short months, Pelini went from Nebraska public enemy No. 1 to a guy who, by and large, has the support of his team, his school and his fanbase.
The antics with the cat certainly didn't hurt matters.
The offense edged the defense, 55-46, in a modified scoring format, and we learned a few new things about Nebraska along the way—while also having a few things confirmed.
Confirmed? Nebraska's running game is good. Imani Cross had 100 yards and a touchdown on just six carries. Ameer Abdullah didn't play, but we know how good he is. Put the two together in 2014 and opponents will have their hands full.
Something new? There's an attitude of fun surrounding Nebraska's football program that, to be honest, defies the expectations of the Pelini years. The coaches announced players by their Twitter handles and the team even competed in a goalpost throwing contest.
And again, the cat.
Confirmed? The passing game has a ways to go. Tommy Armstrong, as if to reinforce some fears, threw an interception on the very first play of the game. But something new to take away from his performance was his ability to bounce back. Perhaps he's growing into his skin as a starter, after all.
Something new? Last season's defensive struggles early on may have been an anomaly. A pair of interceptions should make secondary coaches happy, while giving up a few big plays on the ground really isn't a surprise given Cross' explosive playmaking abilities.
Confirmed? After this spring, it's safe to say Nebraska will be a front-runner in the new West Division in 2014.
With 2014 Heisman hopeful Braxton Miller nursing an injury and taking the role of an observer, we really didn't get a look at the complete 2014 Buckeyes. We could still delve into all the ins and outs, all the X's and O's and all the stats to tell you what to expect come next fall, but it might be best to take a different direction when talking about Ohio State spring camp.
To be honest, a lot of people in Columbus expected to be still recovering from a post-national championship hangover. The Buckeyes headed into the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game riding a 24-game win streak. Michigan State was all that stood in between Heaven-sent Urban Meyer and superstar Braxton Miller and that long-awaited shot at another BCS Championship.
Not only did Ohio State lose to MSU, but the Buckeyes failed to win the resulting trip to the Orange Bowl against Clemson. After all of that, a different kind of hangover might have been expected this spring.
Instead, Ohio State looked loose and, perhaps more importantly, hungry for the start of the 2014 season. Renewed focus on the future has taken hold in Columbus and players are no longer worried about a lengthy win streak or the massive pressure of national expectations.
Add in a pretty typical (for Ohio State) attendance of over 61,000—which included everyone in the standing, not just fans—and it's clear that there's no shortage of excitement for 2014.
It's far too soon to call Ohio State an East Division favorite, especially with a still-struggling secondary and an offensive line that offers more questions than answers. But Urban Meyer is one of those rare coaches who can build a team into more than the sum of its parts. Dismiss the Buckeyes at your own peril and expect them to be in the Big Ten—and College Football Playoff—hunt come November.
Follow @davidrluther on Twitter!