- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Believe it or not, spring football in the Big Ten is just around the corner. Several teams moved up their spring practice dates, and three of them -- Maryland, Michigan and Northwestern -- will take the field next week.
Spring ball is all about development, and some position groups need to make significant strides before the summer.
Here are five ...
Illinois' defensive line: Coach Tim Beckman kept his defensive staff in place for what should be a make-or-break season in Champaign. Coordinator Bill Cubit's presence should stabilize the offense despite the loss of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, so the season likely hinges on whether the defense improves. There are some nice returning pieces at linebacker, but the line needs a boost after Illinois finished last in the Big Ten and 116th nationally against the run. Lineman Paul James, who originally signed with Illinois in 2013 but delayed his enrollment until January, is among those who will take the field this spring. There's plenty of competition throughout the line, and while help arrives this summer with Jihad Ward and others, Illinois needs some linemen to emerge right away.
Michigan's offensive line: Despite a first-round draft pick at left tackle (Taylor Lewan), Michigan's front five struggled mightily during the 2013 season, as young players didn't blossom quickly enough and the team couldn't consistently run the ball between the tackles. Coordinator Al Borges took the fall, but line coach Darrell Funk and his group will be under the microscope when the Wolverines begin spring practice Feb. 25. Michigan started nine different linemen in 2013 and used five lineup combinations. As tackles Lewan and Michael Schofield both depart, every position is up for grabs this spring. It will also be interesting to see how new coordinator Doug Nussmeier makes an impact on the line.
Minnesota's quarterbacks: At least nine Big Ten teams will have true quarterback competitions this spring, but arguably none has as much mystery as Minnesota. Philip Nelson's transfer following the season creates a wide-open race between Mitch Leidner, Chris Streveler, Conor Rhoda and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy, a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback who enrolled mid-year and will participate in spring practice. Leidner is the only quarterback with college game experience, appearing in 10 games last fall and recording 1,026 yards (619 passing, 403 rushing). Perhaps Leidner separates himself, but no matter what, Minnesota wants a clearer picture coming out of the spring.
Ohio State's linebackers: Coach Urban Meyer has made it very clear that Ohio State's linebacker play has fallen short of program standards. Meyer singled out the linebacker position in the 2014 recruiting class, saying on national signing day, "Far too many mistakes have been made in either lack of development or whatever, and it's just not where we need to be." Ohio State loses by far its best linebacker in Ryan Shazier, so there's pressure on returnees such as Curtis Grant, Joshua Perry and Camren Williams, as well as newcomers such as five-star prospect Raekwon McMillan, a mid-year enrollee who will be on the field this spring. Meyer said there are no redshirt plans for McMillan or the other three linebackers in the 2014 class.
Wisconsin's wide receivers: The Badgers' quarterback competition likely will garner more attention, but whoever emerges under center will need more options in the passing game. Jared Abbrederis has been Wisconsin's wide receiving corps for the past two season, and he'll be playing in the NFL this fall. You can only get by so much with pass-catching tight ends and running backs, so receivers coach Chris Beatty and his group need a strong spring session. Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe and Alex Erickson lead the returnees, but Wisconsin needs young players such as speedster Robert Wheelwright to emerge. Help is on the way this summer as several promising recruits arrive, but Wisconsin can't pin its hopes exclusively on incoming freshmen.