Michigan Wolverines: Shane Morris

The unofficial start of summer begins this holiday weekend, but we're dreaming about the fall. With that in mind, we're looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/involved in a time-travel mishap, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. Our next stop in the series is the Michigan Wolverines.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funchess
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesA lack of depth at the position makes Devin Funchess an invaluable asset to Michigan's offense.
Devin Funchess, WR, Jr.

It's tempting to pick the other Devin here and go with quarterback Devin Gardner. And maybe that would be the smarter call. But Brady Hoke keeps insisting that Shane Morris has made progress and is catching up to Gardner, so the Wolverines could weather a prolonged absence from Gardner. Depth is a much more pressing issue at the position Funchess plays. After losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo to graduation and Jake Butt to injury, Michigan has few other experienced receiving options. Freddy Canteen turned heads this spring but is still just a true freshman, while other players such as Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh must prove themselves. Funchess caught 49 passes for 748 yards and six touchdowns last fall, and the converted tight end is a matchup nightmare, especially in the red zone. His playmaking skills would be sorely missed.

Frank Clark, DE, Sr.

The Wolverines are building talent and depth along their defensive line, but Clark is still the best playmaker up front. He led the team with 12 tackles for loss last season while adding 4.5 sacks. The 6-foot-2, 270-pounder has elite athleticism and is looking for a major breakthrough season as a senior. Michigan has other options at defensive end, including Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley. But Clark has a chance to be the leader for an improved defensive line that could be the key to the entire defense.
The last time Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Michigan's Devin Gardner shared a field, the two quarterbacks combined for 10 touchdowns and 747 yards of offense in a wildly entertaining shootout at Michigan Stadium.

It proved to be the end of Gardner's season, as a foot injury sidelined him for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and the first part of spring practice in March. Miller went on to suffer his first two losses under coach Urban Meyer. He injured his throwing shoulder in the Orange Bowl and underwent surgery in Feb. 21, limiting his throwing in spring practice.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesShoulder surgery limited Ohio State's Braxton Miller, but the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year is still finding ways to improve.
Both quarterbacks have delivered record performances for their teams. Miller owns back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year awards and could become the league's first three-time winner this fall. Gardner has been a quarterback of extremes -- prodigiously productive in some games, bafflingly bad in others.

The final chapter for both players arrives this fall. Before that lies a pivotal summer.

Miller's first priority is to return to full strength. But some of his most important work in the coming months will be in the film room.

"In the digital age we live in, video is so easy to come by, so he can study whoever he wants," Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman told ESPN.com. "Preferably, let's study us first and figure out the ins and outs of our offense. And then when you have extra time or want to take a break from that, let's study some defenses that we'll face this season. And beyond that, the next in the pecking order is why don't you study some other offenses, study some other quarterbacks."

Two quarterbacks Herman wants Miller to study likely will compete with him for national honors in 2014: Florida State's Jameis Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and national champion, and Oregon's Marcus Mariota, who might be the best pro quarterback prospect in the college ranks this season.

"What are those guys doing really well?" Herman said. "Is there anything you can glean from watching them on the field that might help your game?"

Herman had a similar plan for Miller last summer, encouraging him to watch Clemson's Tajh Boyd -- "That kid was a really good player," Herman said.

[+] EnlargeQuarterback Devin Gardner #98 of the Michigan Wolverines
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan QB Devin Gardner, coming off a foot injury, struggled in the spring, but still looks on track to start the season opener.
Gardner went through most of the spring at less than 100 percent and struggled in the spring game, completing just 2 of 10 passes with an interception. He's still learning the offense under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, and head coach Brady Hoke praised his consistency for much of the session.

But Hoke still discusses Michigan's quarterback situation by mentioning two names -- Gardner and sophomore Shane Morris. Many question whether Michigan's quarterback competition is real or imagined. Gardner has 16 starts at quarterback, while Morris has just one (the bowl game).

But unlike Miller, Gardner has to confirm himself as the top option when preseason camp begins in August.

"He has an advantage," Hoke told ESPN.com. "I wouldn't make that mistake. Because of the experience, playing a lot of snaps, being in a lot of big games. But at the same time, Shane, how he handled himself in the bowl game, how he was composed and how he approached the game, is encouraging."

Hoke wants both quarterbacks to not only retain what they learned in the spring but grow as leaders this summer.

"The message is we can't accept the players how they are right now," Hoke said.

The same applies to Miller, as good as he has been at times the past two seasons. His approach to rehab and film study will determine whether he -- and potentially Ohio State -- takes the next step in 2014.

"He's on fire right now, doing a great job with it from what I understand," Herman said. "The things that he is now able to talk to me about on the phone when I'm out on the road recruiting or when I see him in the building, you can tell he's poured himself into it, which is good."

Big Ten lunch links

May, 9, 2014
May 9
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Fourteen Big Ten programs combined to produce four first-round NFL draft picks. Louisville, Northern Illinois and Buffalo together had five. Eleven of 32 came from the SEC. Discuss.
  • A big night at the NFL draft for Michigan's Taylor Lewan, who landed with the Titans at No. 11 to lead off a better opening day for the league.
  • Ohio State's defensive duo, Ryan Shazier at No. 15 to the Steelers and Bradley Roby at No. 31, went to the Broncos.
  • And Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard found a home with the Bengals at No. 24.
  • Michigan’s other offensive tackle, Michael Schofield, has used a family struggle as his motivation to prepare for this draft.
  • Former Indiana receiver Cody Latimer went to New York to hear his name called at the draft. He’s still waiting.
  • Also waiting, defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hagemen of Minnesota, which hasn’t had a player drafted since Eric Decker in 2010. And the wait is almost over, too, for Wisconsin’s Chris Borland.
  • Tracking the Maryland prospects for the second through seventh rounds.
  • Meanwhile, Purdue’s 15-year streak of landing at least one player in the draft is in jeopardy.
  • Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel lands the presidency at Youngstown State after he was bypassedat the University of Akron.
  • What to do this offseason? Shane Morris can play catch ... with himself.
  • Michigan State appears interested in the younger brother of tight end Dylan Chmura.
  • James Franklin and the Penn State coaches continue their 17-stop caravan in Pittsburgh. Can the grayshirting of recruits help PSU overcome its scholarship limitations.
  • Former Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage earns the endorsement of ex-coach Greg Schiano.
  • Former Nebraska quarterback Joe Ganz will remain on staff in 2014 as a graduate assistant. An appeal is deniedfor the summer jail sentence in Colorado for offensive tackle Alex Lewis is denied.
  • Minnesota loses a backup defensive lineman to North Dakota.
  • Kirk Ferentz marches to the beat of his own drum in recruiting, but even he occasionally extends a scholarship offer to a high school freshman.

Michigan spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
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The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we're taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Michigan.

Three things we learned in the spring

  • Front seven, front and center: The Wolverines didn't stand pat on defense this offseason. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is now coaching the linebackers, while Mark Smith moved down to take over the defensive line. They also shuffled their linebackers, switching Jake Ryan to the middle and emerging star James Ross III to the strong side. The moves seemed to work out well this spring, with Ryan looking like his old playmaking self a year removed from ACL surgery. The defensive line could be one of the team's strengths, led by senior defensive ends Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer and improving youngsters Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Willie Henry. Mattison wants to blitz more this season and hopes the defensive line can get more pressure on its own.
  • Early enrollees, immediate impact: When players skip the final half of their high school senior years to enroll in college in January, the hope is that they will be more advanced than most freshmen. Wide receiver Freddy Canteen and offensive lineman Mason Cole exceeded those expectations. Both impressed the coaching staff right away, with Canteen drawing raves and Cole getting a lot of first-team reps at left tackle. Both were with the starting unit during the spring game and figure to have roles on the team this fall.
  • More QB clarity: Brady Hoke talked of a quarterback competition this spring, and Devin Gardner wasn't originally expected to do a whole lot while recovering from a broken foot. But Gardner surprised the coaches by fulling participating in all 15 spring practices and asserting his hold on the position. Hoke said Shane Morris closed the gap a bit on Gardner and that the competition would continue. But even though Gardner didn't play well in the spring game, it's pretty clear that this remains his team.
Three questions for the fall

  • Can O-line be less offensive?: New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has brought a simplified blocking scheme and a focus on running downhill. Players said there were times this spring when that was effective. But concerns about the youth and chemistry on the line remain, and not just because of another shaky performance in the spring game. When a mid-year enrollee (Cole) is starting at left tackle, that raises serious red flags. The return of Erik Magnuson and Joey Burzynski from injury and Graham Glasgow from his one-game suspension will help the experience and talent level. But for now, the line is full of young, unproven players who must find a way to raise their games between now and late August.
  • Skill position suspense: With Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo graduated, Devin Funchess is the only returning receiver with more than 15 career catches. Canteen's emergence provided another option at the position, but a lot of question marks remain at wideout. Michigan is hoping Jehu Chesson, Csont'e York, Da'Mario Jones and Dennis Norfleet step forward, Amara Darboh successfully returns from injury and freshman Drake Harris can contribute. But there are few sure things. At running back, the team is hopeful that Derrick Green breaks out as a sophomore and De'Veon Smith joins him for a powerful duo. Again, though, it's mostly optimism and little track record at this point.
  • Enough leadership? Hoke has suggested that he wasn't thrilled with the leadership during last season's 7-5 team. He and the players have said that the chemistry and accountability have been good this spring. The fact remains, however, that this team has only 12 seniors, and only seven of them are position players who see the field a lot. Leadership will also have to come from the junior class and elsewhere if Michigan wants to get over the hump of mediocrity.
One way-too-early prediction

Jabrill Peppers immediately becomes the team's best defensive back. That's a bold call, as Peppers isn't even on campus yet. But he was the No. 2 player in the 2014 ESPN 300 for a reason, and he should be the kind of physical, cover corner that Michigan has lacked. The Wolverines could try him in several different positions, but if he's the real deal, he can start quickly at cornerback. Program insiders believe his ceiling could be in the Charles Woodson neighborhood. No pressure, kid.
Head coaches from the Big Ten East Division, along with a player from each team, addressed the media this afternoon on teleconferences. The West Division players and coaches spoke Wednesday.

Here's a closer look at the East:

INDIANA
  • Defense has been a lingering Indiana concern for years, but coach Kevin Wilson believes he's starting to see a change, thanks to new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr. The scheme hasn't changed radically, but the Hoosiers return 10 starters there -- and Wilson's seen a promising spring so far with an added focus on competition and communication: "They've for sure held their own on a daily basis -- and, in some ways, probably even better -- against the offense."
  • Wilson believes teams need to invest scholarships into the kicking game, but he thinks it's also too risky to offer recruits straight out of high school. If you look at the NCAA's top 25 kickers, Wilson estimated at least 15 started out as walk-ons. So he's hoping to find some walk-ons who are willing to work for a scholarship, rather than be granted one right away.
  • At 5-foot-7, Shane Wynn is the Hoosiers' leading returning receiver, and he's transitioning to playing the outside. It's been a little different for Wynn, who said he's had to watch more film as a result. He's reading the corners now, instead of the safeties, as just one example.
MARYLAND
  • Maryland coach Randy Edsall is confident in his offense and believes the Terrapins have enough options so that opponents can't focus on just one person. If defenses lock on to wideout Stefon Diggs, then quarterback C.J. Brown can take off running or receiver Deon Long can pick up some slack. "The No. 1 thing I do like," Edsall said, "is we can spread the field."
  • Maryland's staff has already started looking at film of Big Ten teams, so they know what to expect when the conference season begins. Edsall said he wants to at least get a feel for their personnel and what kind of schemes he'll face. He's also confident the Terps will be ready: "We fully expect to be able to compete when we get into the Big Ten this year."
  • Brown said one of the main reasons he committed to Maryland was the coach who recruited him at the time, former Terps assistant and current Penn State coach James Franklin. He's looking forward to squaring off against Franklin this season, and Edsall said there's no question he would like to develop a rivalry with the Nittany Lions.
MICHIGAN
  • The quarterback derby will continue, and Brady Hoke included all three of his options in the discussion heading into the offseason. The Wolverines coach did acknowledge, though, that Devin Gardner “probably would be” the starter if there was a game on the schedule this weekend. There isn’t, so Shane Morris and Wilton Speight will continue to be in the conversation.
  • The first opponent on the schedule will always stir emotions for Michigan fans, but Hoke didn’t attach any revenge or sentimentality to his reasons for wanting to take on Appalachian State in the opener this fall. “We needed a game,” Hoke said. “I thought it would be a good game.” Defensive end Frank Clark was certainly aware of the history between the programs, even though he was still years away from joining Michigan and getting a shot at making up for the upset loss in 2007 -- which he called “shocking” and “shows how hard those guys play.”
MICHIGAN STATE
  • Michigan State is coming off a Rose Bowl victory, but coach Mark Dantonio and quarterback Connor Cook would prefer not to think about that any longer. Dantonio said they've talked a lot these last four months about not growing complacent, and Cook only echoed his coach. "A lot of people keep bringing up the Rose Bowl," Cook said. "But we're past that. We're focusing on the now."
  • The offensive line has made some big strides since January, at least according to Cook. He felt like he had no time in the pocket last spring and said the pass rush was getting to him every time. This spring? He doesn't feel rushed in the pocket, and he thinks that's pretty indicative of how far this line has come.
  • Jeremy Langford earned a lot of praise from Cook, who said the running back has become a much bigger part of the passing attack. "He's improved a lot with catching the ball," Cook said, complimenting Langford's versatility. "He's done so many different things for us."
OHIO STATE
  • There is still work to be done in addressing the most glaring weakness on the team last season, but Urban Meyer called Ohio State’s pass defense “drastically improved” and will be watching closely for more signs of progress in Saturday’s spring game. The Buckeyes will play a traditional game, but the emphasis will be on throwing the football and assessing the skill players on both offense and defense -- giving Meyer a chance to evaluate backup quarterback Cardale Jones in a live setting in addition to checking out the secondary.
  • Arguably the strongest part of last season's team is undergoing a transition without four senior starters, and the offensive line is somewhat of a concern for Meyer heading into the offseason. With guard Pat Elflein the only other player to have earned a first-team slot to play alongside junior Taylor Decker at this point, that competition is likely to spill over into preseason camp in August. Both tackle Darryl Baldwin and guard Antonio Underwood were praised for their work by defensive tackle Michael Bennett, and Billy Price and Jacoby Boren are dueling at center.
PENN STATE
  • Franklin said he knew exactly what he was getting into at Penn State, in terms of the current depth and sanctions. He and former coach Bill O'Brien worked together at Maryland, and he said the two had a lot of honest conversations about the current state of the Nittany Lions. The two have continued to talk since.
  • Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia are both making transitions from defensive tackle to offensive guard, and Franklin said he has been pleased with their performances so far: "They're doing a good job for us -- and they have to. We're thin at that position."
  • Franklin said he feels especially comfortable with the talent at running back and defensive line. Middle linebacker Mike Hull was more specific about naming the players who impressed him, pointing to backup linebacker Gary Wooten and cornerback Da'Quan Davis. Hull said Wooten is always around the football and that Davis, who missed part of the spring with a hamstring injury, has come up with several interceptions.
RUTGERS
  • Another open competition at the most critical position on the field -- quarterback -- is still playing out at Rutgers, and coach Kyle Flood isn’t ready to declare a winner in what would seem to be a wide-open battle. Flood indicated that Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano are all “really vying for that first-team job.”
  • The change in conference affiliation has been welcomed with open arms by the Scarlet Knights, who can “feel the energy” as theypractice for their first season in the Big Ten. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton said the team was already buzzing with excitement about the opportunity, and Flood called joining the league a “positive in every way.” The move also presents the opportunity for a rivalry to develop with new divisional neighbor Penn State, with both Flood and Hamilton citing the proximity between the schools as a bonus.

Spring game recap: Michigan

April, 7, 2014
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Spring (practice) has officially sprung for Michigan, which became the first Big Ten team to hold its spring game on Saturday at the Big House.

An estimated crowd of 15,000 took in the festivities, which included a non-scoring scrimmage. You can find coverage of the game here, here and here. And here's a brief recap:

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Devin Gardner threw two interceptions and completed just two passes in the Wolverines' spring game.
Star of the game: Cornerback Jourdan Lewis had two interceptions on the day, though he was also whistled for two pass interference penalties.

How it went down: It was just a spring game, and as most teams are wont to do, the Wolverines kept things very vanilla for their first public practice session of the year.

Still, fans had hoped to see some inklings of progress, especially from the new offense led by coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who was hired away from Alabama in the winter. Players had talked about making more big plays in practice in Nussmeier's scheme.

There wasn't much evidence of that on Saturday. On the very first snap of the scrimmage, Devin Gardner was intercepted by Lewis in his own territory. Gardner -- still not 100 percent on his healing foot -- would finish just 2-for-10 for 53 yards, though he's in no danger of losing the job. Backup Shane Morris went 5-for-11 for 73 yards, and his final throw was also picked off by Lewis, who started at corner and made a nice impression in that competition. (He'll need to keep doing that this summer, since Jabrill Peppers is on the way).

"I definitely think we're going to be tighter on offenses this year," Lewis said afterward. "We are playing more man-to-man and we'll be closer to those guys to break it up or intercept it."

The one big play was a 44-yard strike from Gardner to Freddy Canteen, the early enrollee who has been the talk of the spring in Ann Arbor. He looks like the real deal and will likely earn a starting job at receiver.

The running game produced mixed results. De'Veon Smith got the most reps with the first unit, running nine times for 21 yards. Derrick Green added 16 yards on six carries, while Justice Hayes had six attempts for 33 yards. The offensive line, which included early enrollee Mason Cole as the first-team left tackle, struggled to open up holes and get a push up front. The defense registered five sacks, including one each from defensive linemen Frank Clark, Brennen Beyer and Willie Henry.

"Inconsistent" is how coach Brady Hoke described the offensive performance.

"I think there were a couple good runs in there that they did a pretty good job with," he said. "We needed to be a little more consistent in the protection game. Through the course of the 15 practices, I think there has been some real improvements made."

Hoke has maintained all along that a team depending on many freshmen and sophomores will need some time to come together. On Saturday, they showed that in several key areas.

"There's no question," Hoke said, "we need a lot of improvement."
The first Big Ten spring game of 2014 arrives on Saturday at the Big House. Here's a quick preview of what to expect from Michigan's spring fling.

When: Saturday, 2 p.m. ET

Where: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Admission: Free, though fans are encouraged to make donations to Mott Children's Hospital. Michigan Stadium gates open at 11 a.m., with an alumni flag football game scheduled to begin at noon. The men's lacrosse team will play Fairfield at 5 p.m.

TV: Big Ten Network (live)

Weather forecast: Partly sunny, with a high near 47. Winds 13 to 17 mph, with gusts as high as 28 mph.

What to watch for: Coach Brady Hoke said the Wolverines will hold about a 45- to 50-minute scrimmage after "a lot of individual grind work." Hoke said his team, which has only 12 seniors, still needs to work on its fundamentals in its 15th and final practice.

One position full of youth that will have a lot of eyeballs on it Saturday is the offensive line. It's a group full of freshmen and sophomores, but Hoke said he has seen improvement there. An encouraging performance by that unit in the spring game, even with as little as that means, could scale back some of the intense scrutiny and criticism.

Receiver is another spot with a lot of new faces, as Devin Funchess is the only proven returning player. True freshman Freddy Canteen has turned a lot of heads this spring in the slot, and fans will get their first look at him in a Michigan uniform. Fans will be curious to see the offense in general under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Hoke said about 80 to 85 percent of Nussmeier's offense has been installed this spring, and he said there were a lot of explosive plays in last weekend's scrimmage. The offense should include much more north-south running, and a slimmed-down Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith should lead the way.

On defense, the public gets its first view of the new linebacker arrangement, with Jake Ryan moving into the middle and James Ross III at the strongside spot. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has talked about a more aggressive approach that will feature more blitzing, but don't expect to see much more than the usual vanilla spring schemes.

Devin Gardner seems to have answered any questions about whether he'd retain the starting quarterback job by going through the spring on a foot that isn't 100 percent healed from the Ohio State game. Shane Morris and Wilton Speight should get plenty of reps on Saturday as well.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
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Time for another round of your emails ...

@RevDJEsq via Twitter writes: You're made dictator of the B1G with power to implement three changes. What are they?

Brian Bennett: Lobster for everyone! All bowl games in Maui! Wait ... I only get to make three changes? What kind of weak dictator am I?

Anyway, to take your question a bit more seriously, I would have to look at changes that could realistically be made by a Big Ten über-commissioner. So I wouldn't have the power to make changes to NCAA rules unless I decided to break away from the NCAA entirely. (Thinking ... nah, let's not do that).

So in that spirit, I'd make the following three changes:
  • 1. No more 11 a.m. CT kickoffs and more night games: I get that TV dictates a lot of start times and the Big Ten likes having the early college football time slot as a showcase. But for schools in the Central Time Zone, those 11 a.m. starts are just way too early. It's hard to have any energy in the stadium when people have to wake up at dawn just to try and squeeze in some tailgating. So I'd make sure no game ever started before noon local time and I would work to get more games in primetime, including those in November.
  • 2. A 10-1-1 schedule: Let's go to 10 conference games. Yeah, you heard me. We've got 14 teams, and there's nothing better than league play, so why not have more of it? That would create balanced home-and-road schedules and lead to a truer Big Ten champ. Sure, it could hurt the conference when it comes to winning national titles, but it's not like the league has been piling those up anyway. The rest of the schedule would have to include one game against a team from the other four power leagues, plus one against any other FBS team. You want a bowl bid or a playoff berth? Fine. Earn it.
  • 3. Rotate the Big Ten title game: Indianapolis is a wonderful host for the Big Ten championship game. But there are a lot of other great cities in the Midwest that could do a great job. So let's have it in Chicago. Detroit. Minneapolis. Cleveland. Move it around and let other towns throw a big ol' Big Ten celebration. And have it in some cold weather every once in a while.

You might not agree with these decisions, but I'm the dictator here, so too bad. Now, bring me some more of your finest meats and cheeses!




Ryan from Lincoln, Neb., writes: Husker fans are just now starting to wake up to spring football now that basketball season has ended. With Ameer Abdullah, Imani Cross and Terrell Newby all returning for the Huskers this fall, plus an exciting new weapon in redshirt freshman Adam Taylor, would you say Nebraska has one of the most dynamic, if not most talented, stable of running backs in the conference? How do you think it currently stacks up against other programs such as Wisconsin, Michigan, or Ohio State?

Brian Bennett: Yeah, Ryan, Baylor was about the worst thing to happen to Nebraska since Steve Pedersen, eh? Anyway, I really like Nebraska's group of running backs. Heck, if the Cornhuskers had only Abdullah, I'd still really like them because he is one of the best and toughest players in the country. I thought Cross would have a little bit bigger impact last season, but he still scored 10 touchdowns and is a very effective weapon in short yardage. Newby is very promising, and I'm interested to see what Taylor can add.

Nebraska almost always has great backs, so this is no surprise. I'd rank the Huskers slightly below Wisconsin, simply because the duo of Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement could be devastating. Penn State has some excellent depth and options, and Ohio State has talent that's unproven. But Nebraska is up there near the very top.




Jake from MTL writes: Hey, Brian, with all the talk of the Michigan QB competition, why hasn't anyone mentioned Russell Bellomy? Has he dropped put of the competition and I just never got the news?

Brian Bennett: Bellomy is still there, Jake, although some might have forgotten about him after he missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL he incurred in spring practice. He did play in five games in 2012 and famously took over for Denard Robinson in the loss at Nebraska. I just don't think it's realistic to believe he can overtake Devin Gardner or Shane Morris for the starting role, and Wilton Speight is the flavor of the month as the newcomer. But Bellomy can add some depth to the position if nothing else.




Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J., writes: Brian, a lot has been made recently, with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland to the B1G, that this provides a natural rivalry for Penn State. There has also been a lot of mention about these not being real "rivalries" because Penn State has owned both of those football programs based on past records. I for one am OK with PSU NOT having a true "rival." I understand that some schools have built up rivalries over the decades, but I do NOT understand why the media has seemingly forced fans to think that their schools NEED to have a rival. You can't force these things, or just say because school X and school Y are in close proximity they have to be rivals. I believe MOST PSU fans would prefer to have Pitt scheduled every year, to continue that former "rivalry", as many PSU fans were taught from a young age, "if you can't go to college, you can always go to Pitt."

Brian Bennett: I agree with you that Pitt is Penn State's true rival, even though those teams haven't played since 2000. I'm so happy to see that series resume in 2016 and hope it becomes an annual occurrence. Ohio State has been a quasi-rival with the Nittany Lions, and Maryland and Rutgers at least bring some neighborly feuding to the table. But there's not a ton of juice there yet. Rivalries are great because they just add so much more intensity to the games -- see the recent Michigan-Michigan State installments or any edition of Ohio State-Michigan. Penn State already has a great home environment and fervent following, but it would be fun to see more true rivalry games for that program.




Cam from Lansing, Mich., writes: Other than for obvious money reasons related to TV, etc., does the move to the Big Ten make sense for Maryland and Rutgers? I think no from a competitive standpoint. Everyone knows football is the big money-making sport in college athletics, and with Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State in the same division as Maryland and Rutgers, in your mind how much of a shot do they have at being competitive?

Brian Bennett: Well, that's interesting, because most people ask if the move was a good one for the Big Ten, not the other way around. You cannot discount the money angle here, because both Rutgers and Maryland were in dire financial straits, and the Big Ten provided a lifeboat. Rutgers also had to get out of the crumbling shack of a home that was the American Athletic Conference. I fear for the Scarlet Knights men's basketball program after watching how bad it was in the AAC, but the football program at least has a solid footing. Rutgers, however, could be in for some culture shock with the week-to-week grind of the Big Ten.

Maryland doesn't gain a whole lot competitively from the move to the Big Ten East out of the ACC. But the Terrapins were already in the same ACC division as Florida State and Clemson and would have faced occasional games with Notre Dame. So it's not like the Big Ten is going to be all that much more difficult. If things don't go well, those schools' administrators can comfort themselves with their new giant bags of cash.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett occasionally will give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Quarterback competitions are taking place around the Big Ten this spring, and Michigan insists its starting job is open despite the return of senior Devin Gardner, who led the offense throughout the 2013 regular season. Gardner said Tuesday that he's not only competing with Shane Morris, last year's backup, but also with freshman Wilton Speight, a mid-year enrollee.

Today's Take Two topic: Is Michigan's quarterback competition real or just a way to push Gardner?

[+] EnlargeShane Morris
AP Photo/Charles KrupaBrady Hoke is opening up the quarterback competition at Michigan, but Devin Gardner still appears to be the best option.
Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

I don't buy this as a true competition. Coaches never want players to get too comfortable, especially after a rocky season like the one Michigan's offense had in 2013. The Wolverines bring in a new offensive coordinator in Doug Nussmeier, who deserves to evaluate all the players based on what they're doing now, not entirely on what they've done in the past. Despite all of this, I would be very surprised if Gardner isn't the one leading Michigan's offense on Aug. 30 against Appalachian State. Does Brady Hoke really want to enter a potential make-or-break season with Morris, who only has one career start, or Speight, who has zero college experience? Gardner undoubtedly had his troubles last season and, like many of his teammates, fell short of expectations. But let's not forget the huge numbers he put up against Notre Dame, Indiana, Ohio State and Penn State.

Michigan's troubles on offense had more to do with the line and the lack of a consistent power run game than with Gardner. I don't know many quarterbacks who would have had a chance in games like Michigan State or Nebraska with the way the line was performing. Does Gardner need to improve his decision-making? Without a doubt. Is he Michigan's best option at quarterback this fall, despite some potential scheme changes under Nussmeier? Yes. Gardner isn't quite 100 percent this spring because of a foot injury sustained in the Ohio State game. When he gets back to full strength, it should become fairly clear to Nussmeier and others that No. 98 is Michigan's best option.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

It's a real competition in the sense that all jobs should be a competition in the spring. Add in the fact that the Wolverines have a new coordinator with a fresh set of eyes and a different playbook, and everyone should be on their toes.

But does Hoke strike you as the kind of guy who's willing to toss veterans aside and start a true freshman quarterback? Certainly not. While it's undoubtedly good news that Speight is impressing, he seems like a perfect candidate to redshirt because Michigan has so much experience in Gardner and a guy in Morris who at least got his feet wet as a starter in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

Perhaps a scenario unfolds in which Morris plays so well this offseason that Hoke and Nussmeier ask Gardner to move out to receiver, a position that needs some reinforcement. But I doubt it, as I still believe Gardner is a special player. No Michigan quarterback had ever thrown for 400 yards in a game before last season, when Gardner did it twice. He also broke the school record for total offense in a game against Indiana. He has to cut down his turnovers -- which is why colleague Travis Haney rates Gardner No. 2 on his list of "prove-it" players for 2014 Insider -- but I thought he already started to do that toward the end of 2013. Bottom line: Garder has a rare sort of playmaking ability, and while Morris and Speight might be the future, Gardner should remain the starter right now.

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Some spring weather for spring football would be nice.
  • As part of his continuing education, Braxton Miller is using new technology to have his progress monitored during Ohio State's camp.
  • After competing solely against himself with mixed results a year ago, Michigan is hoping a battle with Shane Morris will bring out the best in Devin Gardner.
  • James Franklin is open to playing his former program, so Penn State may look into a game with Vanderbilt "if it makes sense."
  • All three quarterbacks in the derby for the starting job at Illinois took reps with the first team as part of offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's effort to make the playing field as level as possible.
  • Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst declined to comment on a possible contract extension for Bo Pelini.
  • Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave will be limited early in spring practice due to a shoulder injury suffered in the Capital One Bowl.
  • Fixing the offensive line is at the top of the priority list as Purdue opens its camp in Darrell Hazell's second season with the program.
  • After suffering through a stretch near the end of the season of 13 quarters without an offensive touchdown, Minnesota has no shortage of motivation on the practice field.
  • An early look at Northwestern's defensive line and one potential option for beefing up on the interior.
  • Coaches around the Big Ten expressed their displeasure with the proposed 10-second rule to slow down offenses, and they won't have to worry about it passing now.
Nine Big Ten programs will feature true quarterback competitions this spring, and we're taking a closer look at the candidates, the circumstances and the stakes of each race. Up next: Michigan.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- There’s a new offensive coordinator and scheme this spring for the Michigan offense.

The big question remains: Will the Wolverines have a new starting quarterback?

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsWith far more experience than his competitors, senior Devin Gardner is the favorite to start at quarterback for the Wolverines.
It looks to be a two-man race between fifth-year senior Devin Gardner and sophomore Shane Morris. Junior Russell Bellomy and early enrollee Wilton Speight are also on campus and will get reps.

Gardner, who injured his toe during the Ohio State-Michigan game in November, rehabbed quickly and practiced on Tuesday for the first day of spring practice. Michigan coach Brady Hoke was surprised to see how soon Gardner got back but said he “looked great."

Gardner, up a healthy 13 pounds from the end of the 2013 season, is excited to be back and compete.

And then there’s the young gun Morris, who, in his lone start of the season, showed plenty of poise -- something that Gardner certainly lacked at points last season. Morris stepped in for Gardner in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and had a solid showing. For new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, however, the 24 completions and 196 passing yards weren't the most impressive thing about Morris' performance.

“The thing you’re looking for, in my opinion, when you play a young player in a game like that is: is the game too big? Is the moment too big?” Nussmeier said. “And it wasn’t for him. He performed.”

It was the kind of performance many expected out of Morris. The highly publicized recruit was the player whom many fans called for when Gardner suffered tough stretches during 2013.

Through the first four games of the season Gardner accounted for eight interceptions -- the most of any FBS quarterback at that point -- as well as two fumbles. During that same stretch Michigan almost lost to Akron and Connecticut.

But during another four-game stretch -- the final four games of the regular season -- it was a completely different story. Gardner threw for 971 yards and eight touchdowns while not throwing a single interception. With the Michigan offensive line finally showing some chemistry, Gardner displayed that he could be a reliable QB.

Obviously last season’s performances are only a portion of the equation for next season's starting QB spot, but they can’t completely be overlooked because experience is so crucial when asking a QB to step in and lead an offense. Gardner will have the advantage when it comes to experience, but Morris is likely still confident after coming off such a good showing in Arizona.

In the past, Hoke has seemed to be loyal to his upperclassmen in certain position battles. But with a new coordinator coming in, Morris and Gardner begin on the same level and those relationships that most coaches have with their oldest players vs. their younger players just don’t exist.

Nussmeier said that he did watch more game film than practice film from last season so he has certainly seen more of Gardner than Morris, but now with spring practices started, he’s getting to see them in person.

Michigan won’t go full contact until after the Wolverines return from spring break on March 11. But even without going full contact, the evaluation process has begun. Nussmeier is able to see how quickly both Gardner and Morris have picked up the offense and verbiage, how they lead their teammates, their touch on passes and more.

“We’re going to evaluate it just like every other position on our offense,” Nussmeier said. “We’re going to create competition. We want guys to go out and compete. … It’s a new system for everybody.”

It’s hard to say how much of this quarterback controversy is completely true, however. The Wolverines start next season with two highly visible and highly anticipated games with Appalachian State (which beat Michigan in the season opener in 2007) and Notre Dame (the final schedule matchup between the two rivals).

Those are the kinds of games that most would want to see a veteran quarterback start in because those are the kinds of games where emotions could trump play. Gardner has been in those situations and helped to control his team’s emotions. And while Morris was certainly on a big stage in the bowl game, he wasn’t asked to throw many passes down the field. Most of his passing yardage was picked up by receivers after the catch.

At this point, with the ability Gardner has displayed in picking up new offenses and aspects of offenses -- moving from Rich Rodriguez’s spread to Al Borges’ quasi-spread, as well as a position move from quarterback to wide receiver and then back to quarterback -- the starting position seems to be Gardner’s to lose.

Now, Morris could have a breakout spring and make enough strides to really push Gardner for the job, but at this point as long as Gardner can compete fully in the live sessions after spring break he’ll likely be the starter when the Wolverines spring game rolls around on April 5.

And he thinks so, too.

“I feel like I’m the leader,” Gardner said. “I’m a competitor, so I’m going to compete. ... I’m the quarterback of this team.”
Here's a team-by-team look at what to watch in the new Big Ten East this spring.

Indiana

Spring start: March 8

Spring game: TBA

What to watch
  • Getting defensive: The Hoosiers have had no trouble scoring since Kevin Wilson took over the program, but opponents have made it look even easier. New defensive coordinator Brian Knorr might have his hands full turning around the Big Ten’s worst unit, but Indiana could be dangerous if he can.
  • Quarterback derby: The offense operated just fine with Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld taking turns leading the attack, so Wilson might not even need to settle on just one quarterback. Typically it does help to have a pecking order behind center, though, and the Hoosiers will be watching these guys closely to see if one can gain some separation.
  • Next in line: There is a ready-made candidate to take over as the team’s most productive receiver, but Shane Wynn is going to need some help. For all his speed and elusiveness, Wynn is still undersized and doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional receiver, which will make it necessary for somebody like Nick Stoner to step up to help replace Cody Latimer.
Maryland

Spring start: March 1

Spring game: April 11

What to watch
  • Get healthy: The Terrapins have one of the most talented groups of wide receivers in the country when they’re completely healthy, but that was an issue last season with both Stefon Diggs and Deon Long suffering broken legs -- just for starters. Neither of those game-breakers is expected to be on the field this spring, but their respective rehabs are critical moving forward.
  • Give and take: An emphasis on protecting the football on offense and creating more turnovers defensively is nothing new in spring practice, but Randy Edsall might just double down on that message this year. The Terrapins finished last in the ACC in turnover margin last season and were ranked No. 102 in the nation with seven more giveaways than takeaways, which isn’t a recipe for success in any league.
  • Coaching chemistry: The deck wasn’t completely reshuffled, but the Terrapins will have three new assistants in charge and could use a seamless transition as they prepare to move to a new league. Keenan McCardell (wide receivers), Chad Wilt (defensive line) and Greg Studrawa (offensive line) will help deliver Edsall’s message moving forward, and it’s as crucial for a coaching staff to jell and find common ground as it is for players on the field.
Michigan

Spring start: Feb. 25

Spring game: April 5

What to watch
  • Go pro: If it was the coordinator keeping Brady Hoke from putting the offense he wanted on the field, that won’t be an issue anymore with Al Borges out of the picture. Snapping up Doug Nussmeier from Alabama should put the Wolverines on the path for a more traditional pro-style attack, and establishing that playbook starts on the practice field in spring.
  • Quarterback quandary: The competition to lead the new-look offense is open between Devin Gardner and Shane Morris, and how that battle shakes out will obviously have a lasting impact and shape the season for the Wolverines. Gardner has the edge in experience and turned in a gritty, wildly productive outing against Ohio State while injured to end the season, but he certainly has lacked consistency. Morris filled in during the postseason with mixed results, but one of those guys will need to emerge.
  • On the line: The Wolverines were in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in sacks, and only Purdue was worse in the league at protecting the quarterback. Both sides of the line have plenty of room to develop, and those daily battles against each other this spring will need to sharpen both the pass-rushers and the blockers if Michigan is going to be able to win games up front.
Michigan State

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch
  • Something cooking: The finishing flourish in the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl showed how far Connor Cook had come from the start of the season to the end, but there’s still more room to grow. His numbers are slightly skewed thanks to the way Michigan State handled the job early in the season, but overall he averaged fewer than 200 yards per game passing. With such a great defense, that was enough -- but boosting that total would be better for the Spartans.
  • Reload defensively: The seemingly impenetrable defense might have been more than sum of its parts, but the individual pieces Michigan State had on hand weren’t too shabby, either. With Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen all gone, the Spartans will need to identify some replacements for the stars of that elite unit from a year ago.
  • Plug some holes: Both starting offensive guards have to be replaced, and given the perhaps overlooked significance of the work the line did for the Spartans last season, that shouldn’t be dismissed as a meaningful item on the checklist. Cook has to be protected in the pocket, for starters, but with the way the Spartans traditionally pound the football on the ground, they’ll need some road-pavers to step up during spring practice to keep the offense on the upswing.
Ohio State

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch
  • Backs to the wall: There weren’t many deficiencies to be found on a team that again went through the regular season unbeaten, but Ohio State’s glaring weakness caught up with it late in the year. The Buckeyes looked helpless at times against the pass, and new co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chris Ash was brought in to make sure that unit is dramatically improved.
  • Hold the line: The Buckeyes held on to Braxton Miller for another year, but they lost four seniors who had protected the quarterback for the past couple of seasons. That might be a worthwhile trade, but finding replacements up front will be imperative for a team that has leaned heavily on that veteran presence in the trenches since Urban Meyer took over the program. Taylor Decker is the lone holdover in the starting lineup, and he’ll need to assert himself as the leader of the unit.
  • Air it out: Miller had some shaky performances throwing the ball down the stretch, but taking the passing game to a higher level is not solely his responsibility. The Buckeyes also need improved play and more reliable options at wide receiver, and they’ve recruited to address that issue over the past couple of years. Michael Thomas, who redshirted during his second year on campus, might be leading the charge for a new batch of playmakers on the perimeter.
Penn State

Spring start: March 17

Spring game: April 12

What to watch
  • Starting fresh: There are new playbooks to learn again for the Nittany Lions, and spring practice will be the first chance for James Franklin to start shaping his team in his image. That process doesn’t just include memorizing schemes and assignments for the players, since every coach has a different way of structuring practices and meetings. The sooner the Nittany Lions adjust the better off they’ll be in the fall.
  • Next step: As debut seasons go, it’s hard to find much fault in the work Christian Hackenberg did after being tossed into the fire as a true freshman. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 20 touchdowns, completing 59 percent and setting the bar pretty high for himself down the road. As part of his encore, Franklin would probably like to see the young quarterback cut down on his 10 interceptions as a sophomore.
  • Tighten up the defense: There were pass defenses with more holes than Penn State’s a year ago, but that will be little consolation for a program that has traditionally been so stout on that side of the ball. Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas can get the job done at cornerback, but the Nittany Lions need to get stronger at safety -- and also need to fill notable spots in front of them with linebacker Glenn Carson and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones now gone.
Rutgers

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch
  • Toughen up: The Scarlet Knights have seen hard-hitting competition and proven they aren’t afraid of a challenge, but the Big East and American conferences don’t provide nearly the weekly physical test that playing in the Big Ten does. There’s no reason to think Kyle Flood won’t have his team ready for the transition and a new league, but developing both strong bodies and minds starts in spring practice.
  • Settle on a quarterback: There’s a veteran signal-caller on hand with 28 career starts to his credit, but Flood made it no secret as far back as January that he would hold an open competition during camp to lead the offense. Gary Nova has the edge in experience, but he also has more interceptions in his career than games started. That could open the door for one of three younger guys to step in, though Mike Bimonte, Blake Rankin and Chris Laviano have combined to take a grand total of zero snaps.
  • Star turn: There’s nothing wrong with spreading the wealth, and the Scarlet Knights certainly did that in the passing game last season. Having five targets with at least 28 receptions can keep a defense off-balance, which is a good thing. But ending the season with none of those guys topping 573 yards might not be quite as encouraging, and establishing a consistent, go-to, big-play threat in the spring could prove useful for a team that finished No. 62 in the nation in passing yardage.
Spring football kicks off earlier than normal in the Big Ten, as Michigan takes the field Tuesday, Northwestern follows Wednesday and eight other squads begin their sessions by March 8.

The accelerated schedules seem appropriate in a league filled with players, coaches and teams itching for fresh starts.

New assistants get their first chance to repair struggling units, whether it's Doug Nussmeier with Michigan's offense, Brian Knorr with Indiana's defense or Chris Ash and Larry Johnson with a once-feared Ohio State defense. Quarterback competitions begin or resume at nine places, as new faces such as Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Johnny Stanton and Minnesota's Chris Streveler enter the mix, while veterans like Wisconsin's Joel Stave and Michigan's Devin Gardner try to retain their starting jobs.

Happy Valley continues to buzz about new Penn State coach James Franklin, who seems to galvanize everyone whom he encounters. But Franklin barely has been around his new players and finally begins the real work with a team facing very real challenges.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes his team can start a rebound from a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013 season.
Spring also allows teams such as Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue and Indiana to look forward after disappointing seasons. Michigan State, meanwhile, continues to bask in the Rose Bowl glow but looks toward its next goal -- a national championship -- as spring ball kicks off March 25.

"It's big-picture stuff, building relationships with the players and everyone associated with the program," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The other thing is laying a really good foundation with the philosophies and schemes of how we're going to do things. That's going to happen naturally over time, but I'm not the most patient person. I wish it would have happened yesterday."

Franklin doesn't water down his goals for Penn State, especially in recruiting, but he's also realistic about the challenges of a reduced roster. The Nittany Lions return strong pieces such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive back Adrian Amos, but the two-deep has some holes that Franklin and his assistants must address, while installing new schemes.

"It's one thing when you get put in this situation in the first place with limited scholarships," Franklin said, "but the longer you're in it, the more effect it has. We've got some depth issues, there's no doubt about it, across the board. We're going to have to get creative."

Northwestern also is focused on depth after being hit hard by key injuries in 2013. Pat Fitzgerald blames himself and his staff for failing to get enough second-stringers ready, which proved costly in close Big Ten losses.

After their first bowl-less winter in six years, the Wildcats responded well in the weight room, as more than 50 players recorded personal bests. Although 11 players will miss spring practice, including standout running back/returner Venric Mark, the depth should be better in areas like the secondary.

"We're really emphasizing taking ownership of the finish," Fitzgerald said. "Finishing your technique, finishing the call, finishing the route. There's a lot of disappointment in the way the program didn't take the next step forward."

Michigan coach Brady Hoke restructured the roles of his defensive assistants for 2014, but the Wolverines' offense will be in the spotlight this spring after a wildly inconsistent season. Gardner, who continues to recover from a foot injury and likely won't be 100 percent until midway through the spring, will compete with Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and midyear enrollee Wilton Speight.

But other positions, such as offensive line, figure to be just as important as Michigan tries to achieve Hoke and Nussmeier's vision.

"We had good intentions as far as what we wanted our identity to be, but obviously I don't think it came out the way we'd like it to," Hoke said. "The quarterback position is as important as any, and we have a guy [Gardner] who is very talented and had some really good games and games where we had to protect him better, have a better run game and take pressure off of him, and I don't think we did."

While Michigan turns the page on offense, Ohio State focuses on a defense that allowed 115 points in its last three games and finished 110th nationally in pass yards allowed (268 YPG). The Buckeyes lost top defenders Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, but they also added two accomplished assistants.

Johnson, who churned out NFL linemen during 18 years at Penn State, chose Ohio State instead of remaining in State College. Ash leaves a sole coordinator role at Arkansas for a co-coordinator role at Ohio State, where he'll work with the embattled Luke Fickell and others to mend the defense through a simplified scheme.

"Back in the day when Ohio State played great defense, you knew what you were going to get," Ash said. "They played with swagger, played with confidence, played with toughness. We have to get back to that. The simplicity of the things we're going to do will lead to faster players, more plays made and a more aggressive defense.

"I wasn't here [in 2013], but I can tell you what Coach Meyer has told me, what Luke Fickell has told me and what I watch on film. I can see there's some hesitation, there's some uncertainty. Why that is, I don't know. But it's my job to get it fixed."

Purdue has plenty to fix after a 1-11 season, and players not surprisingly are wearing T-shirts with the word "FORWARD" on the backs. Maryland and Rutgers move forward to a new conference after an offseason that saw several staff changes, including new coordinators at Rutgers (Ralph Friedgen, Joe Rossi).

There's a fresh start of sorts at Wisconsin, as a large and decorated senior class departs. Coach Gary Andersen's markings will be more obvious with his second team, which begins practice March 7.

Wisconsin is just one of many places where the top quarterback job is at stake. Lunt, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, competes with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey at Illinois.

"Competition's competition, no matter where it's at," said Lunt, who has added about 15 pounds since his arrival and checks in at 225. "It's different because it’s different people, different coaches, but I'm excited for it."

He's not alone in the Big Ten. Spring ball can't start soon enough.
Spring football starts on Tuesday, and the competition for positions will begin under the watchful eyes of Brady Hoke and his staff. This week, we’re counting down five position battles that you should also keep an eye on during the next month.

No. 5: QB battle

Who’s in the mix: Shane Morris, Wilton Speight, Russell Bellomy

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallWill Devin Gardner be able to hold off the competition and win Michigan's starting QB job?
What to watch: Hoke said the starting QB job is open, but how much of that is truth or coachspeak remains to be seen. Chances are that Hoke is trying to light a fire under Devin Gardner to motivate him for this upcoming battle. Gardner hasn’t had to fight for the starting job -- he came in behind Denard Robinson, and the job became his pretty much by default last season as Bellomy was on crutches after an ACL injury, while Morris didn't enroll until the summer. Chances are that the job will also be Gardner's in the fall, but the staff wants to see him fight for it. Keep in mind that in the past two seasons, the starting quarterback for Michigan in the first game has not started the last game.

Why should you watch if this might not end up as a true battle for the starting job? Because it will involve a dogfight to be second on the depth chart and will give fans a better idea about their quarterback of the future. Morris has the advantage here because he performed well in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. However, he wasn’t asked to make too many difficult throws. He has showed poise under pressure, which Bellomy didn’t do his last time out for the Wolverines. But don’t discount Speight in this battle. He was confident enough to give up the last five months of his senior year in high school to enroll early and get on campus. I doubt most guys would really give up that time if they didn’t think they had a shot at cracking the two-deep. Speight does have a three-inch height advantage over Morris, which is always helpful when spying defenses and looking for receivers.

Overall, this should be an interesting position battle to watch. Gardner -- when he was playing his best -- was one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten. If that version of Gardner consistently shows up at summer workouts and this fall, it likely won’t be too much of a competition. The Ohio State game showed that Gardner can lead an offense and has enough mental toughness to overcome adversity, as he played more than half of the game on a throbbing, broken foot. This spring should give fans a peek into the future. If the good version of Gardner doesn’t show up in the fall, that future could arrive earlier than expected.

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