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Big Ten spring football: Different challenges for UM, MSU

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Quarterback Wilton Speight and Michigan will wrap up spring practice in Rome, Italy.

It’s nearly four months until college football kicks off again, but Big Ten teams have been working all spring toward next season and things wrap up, for the most part, this weekend.

Five teams finish with their spring games this weekend as Iowa and Wisconsin played on Friday night while Maryland, Penn State and Rutgers play today. Michigan will officially close its spring session with three practices in Rome.

Storylines and questions are plenty around the Big Ten and spring is typically just the first glance at how teams are preparing to head into preseason camp. Expectations will be high in several places, including Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan while the West remains a wide-open race.

Here’s a look at each team in the conference as the offseason looms.

BIG TEN EAST

Ohio State

2016: 11-2, 8-1 Big Ten; Lost to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl (College Football Playoff)

Coach: Urban Meyer, sixth season

Spring summary: They Buckeyes entered spring practice still stinging from their shutout loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoffs. The result was a shakeup in the offensive staff as fired Indiana coach Kevin Wilson was brought on as the offensive coordinator. He’ll need to gel with senior QB J.T. Barrett has they adjust to a young receiving corps and an offensive line that should improve. Defense also has some issues on the back end as Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Malik Hooker are all gone and likely to go in the first round of the NFL draft. Replacing them will be a work in progress.

Penn State

2016: 11-3, 8-1 Big Ten; Lost to Southern California in the Rose Bowl

Coach: James Franklin, fourth season

Spring summary: Many felt the Nittany Lions deserved the spot in the College Football Playoffs that Ohio State got and squandered with an ugly loss to Clemson. But it looks like they’ll be in position to defend their Big Ten championship as they return plenty from last year’s team. Quarterback Trace McSorley and RB Saquon Barkley are back and could both be contending for the Heisman Trophy. WR Chris Godwin needs to be replaced but it appears there are plenty of options waiting in the wings. The biggest question comes up front on defense as a unit that was second in the Big Ten in sacks last season must replace ends Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels.

Michigan

2016: 10-3, 7-2 Big Ten; Lost to Florida State in the Orange Bowl

Coach: Jim Harbaugh, third season

Spring summary: Michigan's spring game didn't end the Wolverines' practice -- they held one additional four-hour practice on Tuesday and will have three nearly two-hour practices in Rome next week. Jim Harbaugh always says he operates on a meritocracy and says all spots are up for grabs. Quarterback Wilton Speight looked a bit shaky in the spring game, but it will take a lot to unseat him in the fall. The offensive line is a work in progress and while the defense lost 10 starters, the pieces — although young for the most part — are there.

Maryland

2016: 6-7, 3-6 Big Ten; Lost to Boston College in the Quick Lane Bowl

Coach: D.J. Durkin, second season

Spring summary: The Terrapins did well to reach a bowl game in Durkin’s first season at the helm but it will get tougher now as an offensive line that couldn’t protect the quarterback last season has a new coach and still aren’t sure who will be throwing the passes. Heralded recruit Kasim Hill will be on campus in time for preseason camp, but spring workouts have been about finding who can bridge that gap and whether they can play well enough to develop Hill slowly. North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson should get the nod though he’s been battling sophomores Max Bortenschlager and Tyrrell Pigrome throughout the spring.

When spring games are on TV, it’s all about not showing off

Indiana 

2016: 6-7, 4-5 Big Ten; Lost to Utah in the Foster Farms Bowl

Coach: Tom Allen, first season

Spring summary: Allen takes over for the fired Kevin Wilson after significantly boosting the defense last season in his first as the defensive coordinator. He’ll be tasked with getting the Hoosiers to improve on the fact they reached their second straight bowl game for the first time since 1991 and he’ll get to do so with a team that will continue to score points as it did under Wilson while continuing to improve on the defensive side of the ball. Linebacker Tegray Scales is a playmaker as the Hoosiers improved to ninth in the Big Ten last season in total defense and scoring defense. Making a similar jump could give the Hoosiers a shot against the big boys in the East.

Brian Lewerke appears to be secure in his starting quarterback slot.

Michigan State

2016: 3-9, 1-8 Big Ten

Coach: Mark Dantonio, 11th season

Spring summary: Not only is Michigan State coming off a massive collapse, one that saw the Spartans go from the College Football Playoffs to a 3-9 mark last season, but it is dealing with bigger issues as three players have been suspended and a fourth, Auston Robertson, kicked off the team, as a result of two separate sexual assault investigations. It’s taken the focus away from a team that is breaking in a new quarterback — sophomore Brian Lewerke — while trying to resurrect a pass rush that disappeared last season. Trying to come up with names to improve that was tough in the spring since practice was closed and figuring out depth charts for a young team likely won’t come until preseason camp.

Rutgers

2016: 2-10, 0-9 Big Ten

Coach: Chris Ash, second season

Spring summary: The Scarlet Knights wrap up spring on Saturday and not surprisingly for second-year coach Chris Ash, the focus has been on the offensive side of the ball. The Scarlet Knights were last in the nation in total offense last season and second-to-last in scoring offense. The result was another change at offensive coordinator as former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill has taken over. Whom he’ll have under center will be the biggest question as Rutgers moves into the offseason. Chris Laviano and Hayden Rettig are gone as the Scarlet Knights will likely turn to Warren native Gio Rescigno, who started the final six games of the season and completed 52.8 percent of his passes for 889 yards.

BIG TEN WEST

Wisconsin

2016: 11-3, 7-2 Big Ten; Beat Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl

Coach: Paul Chryst, third season

Spring summary: The Badgers wrapped things up with their spring game on Friday night and have spent the bulk of the time looking to fill holes at some key positions. On offensive the focus has been at left tackle as Ryan Ramczyk is off to the NFL while replacing running back Corey Clement has been a battle between sophomore Bradrick Shaw and transfer Chris James. Things are in more flux over on defense as DB coach Jim Leonhard takes over as the third defensive coordinator in three seasons. He’ll have to replace outside linebackers Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt, who had 11.5 sacks last season. Senior Garret Dooley will likely fill one of those spots at OLB while the race for the other spot is a crowded one.

Northwestern

2016: 7-6, 5-4 Big Ten; Beat Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl

Coach: Pat Fitzgerald, 12th season

Spring summary: Some believe the Wildcats could be in a position to win the West and after spring practice concluded earlier this month, it appears there are plenty of weapons on both sides of the ball to make that happen. Wide receiver Austin Carr, the Big Ten Receiver of the Year in 2016, is gone but there are options to step in, including junior Flynn Nagel and Oregon transfer Jalen Brown. Junior QB Clayton Thorson could be primed for a breakout season in 2017 after throwing for more than 3,100 yards and 22 touchdowns last season, and he’ll always have senior RB Justin Jackson behind him. The defense has solid depth and it will be counted on to replace LB Anthony Walker Jr.

Iowa

2016: 8-5, 6-3 Big Ten; Lost to Florida in the Outback Bowl

Coach: Kirk Ferentz, 19th season

Spring summary: The Hawkeyes finished on Friday and the spring was a chance to get acclimated to plenty of changes on the offensive side of the ball. Brian Ferentz was promoted from offensive line coach to offensive coordinator while Ken O’Keefe is back to coach quarterbacks. Tim Polasek takes over the offensive line and Kelton Copeland was hired as wide receivers coach. At the helm will be a new signal-caller as sophomore Nathan Stanley appears primed to take over after backing up C.J. Beathard last season. The defense also has some holes, namely at CB as former Thorpe Award winner Desmond King is off to the NFL.

Nebraska

2016: 9-4, 6-3 Big Ten; Lost to Tennessee in the Music City Bowl

Coach: Mike Riley, third season

Spring summary: After an impressive second season under Mike Riley, the Cornhuskers will have some changes as QB Tommy Armstrong is gone and former UConn coach Bob Diaco comes in to take over as defensive coordinator, installing a 3-4 defense. That defense was kept under wraps in the spring game so determining how much the Huskers defense will change likely won’t be known until the fall. As for the quarterback battle, Tulane transfer Tanner Lee had a good spring game but will keep battling through preseason camp with redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien, who completed 11 of 17 passes for 134 yards a touchdown in the spring game.

Former Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck has taken the reins at Minnesota.

Minnesota

2016: 9-4, 5-4 Big Ten; Beat Washington State in the Holiday Bowl

Coach: P.J. Fleck, first season

Spring summary: Is there any other storyline than the whirlwind that is P.J. Fleck? Well, the intense former Western Michigan coach is sure to fire up the fan base but he’s got work to do to keep the Golden Gophers in the mix out West and reach their sixth straight bowl game. The offensive line was banged up in the spring as former Ohio State offensive coordinator Ed Warinner takes over to coach that unit. Quarterback will also be a focus as fifth-year senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft battled in the spring and will continue to do so through preseason camp. Defensively, the Gophers have solid linebackers but holes to fill in the secondary.

Illinois

2016: 3-9, 2-7 Big Ten

Coach: Lovie Smith, second season

Spring summary: The Fighting Illini were done with spring practice back in early March, so they’ve been finished for a while as they try to improve on a last season when they finished No. 13 in the Big Ten in scoring offense and 12th in scoring defense. Needless to say, there’s plenty of work to be done. On offense, finding a quarterback will be tough with Wes Lunt gone. Junior Chayce Crouch is a running QB who has been battling a shoulder injury while sophomore Jeff George Jr. is also in the mix. The Illini are waiting on the status of junior college transfer Dwayne Lawson, who played at Virginia Tech in 2015 before heading to junior college. However, he’s still working on grades and there’s no guarantee when he might be in Champaign. On defense, the big hole to fill is at end as Dawuane Smoot, Carroll Phillips and Gimel President are all gone.

Purdue

2016: 3-9, 1-8 Big Ten

Coach: Jeff Brohm, first season

Spring summary: If Jeff Brohm can match the success he had at Western Kentucky he’ll be loved in West Lafayette. But getting the Boilermakers back to respectability will be no easy task. There are some strengths at both linebacker and running back as Brohm tries to breathe life into the program. Senior Danny Ezechukwu, senior Ja’Whaun Bentley and sophomore Markus Bailey have shown they can be productive linebackers and they’ll need to carry a unit that was last in the Big Ten last season in scoring defense. Markell Jones and D.J. Knox, both juniors, are a solid 1-2 punch at a fairly deep running back position, but getting the offensive line to come together will be a work in progress.