Big Ten football has been completely revamped in the past year. Nebraska joined the conference as its 12th team, the Leaders and Legends divisions were created and a new logo was released.
Members of the Legends division had a lot to say during Tuesday’s spring football teleconference.
New coach, new philosophy for Michigan
With a new coach, a new scheme usually follows, and this is certainly the case for the Wolverines. There were two significant changes that coach Brady Hoke spoke of Tuesday afternoon.
Hoke said he has had a smooth transition thus far because there are “so many great people at the university, players are eager to learn and dive into fundamentals.”
“We’ve got to get better faster than everybody in the Big Ten,” Michigan defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said.
Dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson will be taking snaps from under center in the upcoming season. Hoke said Robinson was doing well moving back under center from the spread and that it helped that he had experience there from high school. Hoke added that he dealt with a similar situation while coaching at San Diego State.
“He’s a guy that’s dangerous with ball, but tremendous thrower,” Hoke said.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Wolverines will switch to a 4-3 scheme instead of the 3-4 it ran last season.
Van Bergen said the biggest difference between Hoke and Rich Rodriguez is that Hoke “is more of a defensive-emphasis kind of coach.” He added that he felt Rodriguez had players out of position, and he likes the way Hoke has put an emphasis on both the offensive and defensive lines.
As for the Ohio State-Michigan game, Hoke was pleased when he found out it would remain on the schedule and that it was the last game of the season.
“It’s always played during the last Saturday of November, and that’s where it should be,” Hoke said. “There’s no bigger rivalry in sport than that game and having the game at end of the season.”
Iowa excited for new Nebraska rivalry
When news broke last summer that Nebraska would join the Big Ten, it meant more to Iowa than another formidable opponent within the conference.
“I think most people are excited,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Everybody’s enthused about what Nebraska brings to the Big Ten.”
It created a new rivalry game that will be up there with OSU and Michigan.
Ferentz said people have been asking for a game against Nebraska for years.
Linebacker Tyler Nielsen said he liked the nickname “Farmageddon” for the Iowa-Nebraska match up.
Iowa’s toughest hurdles to overcome this season are replacing Ricky Stanzi at quarterback, and finding depth at the battered running back position.
Quarterback James Vandenberg’s preparation impressed Ferentz, but Ferentz added that there is a short list of running backs arising in spring ball. Look for Marcus Coker to be the featured back so long as he can stay healthy.
Nebraska joins Big Ten; Bo Pelini returns to alma mater
The toughest challenge for any team in the Big Ten is given to Nebraska. While all other members of the conference may have to prepare for one new opponent, coach Pelini and his staff have to prepare for eight.
But Pelini does not plan on overhauling his game plan. He said he was not overly concerned with changing schemes toward which it plays.
“It’s more about playing good football,” he said. “It really comes down to executing your game plans to be a good football team. … I think it’s a way to measure yourself.”
On Oct. 8, Pelini hosts his alma mater OSU in Lincoln. Pelini played free safety for the Buckeyes from 1987 to 1990.
“Having played there and understanding the tradition and what that all entails, it’s going to be a heck of a challenge,” he said.
Nebraska linebacker Sean Fisher also spoke during the teleconference, and said he was excited to move to the Big Ten.
“I think it’s an extremely fortunate thing for us,” he said. “Not many people get to do this, and it gives you an opportunity to see some really cool places.”
Fisher and his younger brother, Cole, a freshman at Iowa, will face off in Lincoln on Nov. 25.
“Fortunately, he plays defense,” Fisher said, “so I won’t get to tackle him.”
Michigan State humble
After tallying a 7-1 record in the Big Ten last season, the Spartans had high expectations. Michigan State would have dominated the Legends Division, excluding Nebraska, winning it by three games against next-highest Iowa (4-4).
Many favor Michigan State to win the Legends Division this season, but coach Mark Dantonio is not quite ready to accept that label.
“We’re going to be in the hunt for things,” he said. “But to say we embrace the favorite, I don’t put a whole lot of stock in that.”
In October alone, the Spartans face a stretch against OSU, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
“If you want to be best,” Dantonio said, “you have to play best.”
Although the schedule is extremely tough, he has been very impressed by his offensive and defensive lines this spring.
“The future looks bright, as bright as it ever has here, on the offensive line,” Dantonio said. “The nucleus of who we are as a football team is back.”
The leader of that nucleus is quarterback Kirk Cousins, whose comments showed his humility after many questioned the ability of Michigan State to succeed in consecutive seasons.
“We can’t rest on success, but work even harder. Guys who had success last season aren’t acting like they had success last season,” Cousins said.
Dantonio emphasized winning on the road, minimizing turnovers and staying poised as ways to repeat there successful 2010 season.
Minnesota looks to bounce back
New coach Jerry Kill has a slightly tougher task than Hoke in Michigan in order to bring the team back to the top of the conference.
The Golden Gophers were 2-6, placing them second to last in the Big Ten in 2010.
After beginning the season 1-9, Minnesota took home two solid wins, including a 27-24 victory against Iowa.
“We’re taking infant steps,” Kill said, “not baby steps.”
Keeping players accountable and improving the talent pool were most important in revitalizing the program, Kill said.
The big change is MarQueis Gray, a wide receiver for the Gophers last year, will be the starting quarterback.
“He’s learned very well,” Kill said. “He’s a very quick learner, he doesn’t make the same mistake twice and he’s a tremendous athlete.”
A bright spot for Minnesota: It does not have to face OSU for the next four seasons.
“As good as Ohio State is,” Kill said, “I guess I’m pretty happy about that.”
Dan Persa for Heisman
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said quarterback Persa was a Heisman candidate.
It is no secret Northwestern’s success revolves around Persa.
Some were uncertain of his availability this season after he tore his Achilles tendon late in a 21-17 win against Iowa last year.
Persa is not participating in spring football, but Fitzgerald said, “He’ll be clear to go for this fall.”
Although Fitzgerald did not seem all that convincing on the phone, Persa cleared all doubts quickly.
“I plan to be, at the latest, ready at the end of May,” Persa said.
The key to his fast recovery, Persa said, was having surgery just three hours after the injury.
Persa said he is not afraid to take off and run the ball in order to make a big play, but Fitzgerald feels he is not doing a good job protecting his body.
“Part of that’s on Dan,” he said. “He’s got to get down in time; he took some unnecessary hits.”
Persa remains on the sidelines, and he said he has played a coachlike role during his rehab.