Spring a time for new beginnings in Big Ten
COLUMBUS, Ohio – It may take a while for everyone to get used to the Big Ten's new divisional setup in football — even the winningest coach in the history of the game.
Joe Paterno, with a record 401 wins entering his 45th year as the head coach at Penn State, stumbled on Wednesday when talking about the conference's expansion.
"The addition of Nebraska to the Big 12 ..." he said, catching himself, laughing, and then adding, "Well, there are 12 (Big Ten) teams now ..."
Adding the Cornhuskers, playing in the new Leaders and Legends divisions, introducing a conference championship and trying to fathom six-time defending Big Ten champion Ohio State's NCAA troubles are enough to discombobulate anyone — including an iconic 84-year-old coach.
The new Leaders Division includes Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin. Here's a glimpse at what people are talking about this spring:
FOCUSING ON FOOTBALL: The headlines out of Columbus, Ohio, have been bleak. Five top players were suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season for accepting improper benefits from the owner of a tattoo parlor who was the subject of a federal drug-trafficking case. Coach Jim Tressel is being investigated by the NCAA for knowing about his players' involvement, but not telling his AD, university president, compliance or legal departments until he was confronted with damning emails more than 9 months after he found out.
The Buckeyes have tried to ignore all those tempests.
"We've been doing a really good job just staying focused, keeping our eyes just on spring ball," center Mike Brewster said. "(We've been) kind of blocking all the rest of the attention, blocking it out."
Ohio State is auditioning four players who can fill in for star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, one of the so-called Tattoo Five. Tressel, who also will miss the first five game days, but can work with his players the rest of the time, is undecided about who, exactly, will be Pryor's replacement.
"I wish someone was just head and shoulders above another," Tressel said. "But at this point I don't see that."
SCOTT-FREE: Scott Tolzien, who won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award as the top senior college quarterback in the nation, is gone at Wisconsin. He'll be a hard man to replace.
"It's going to be extremely difficult," coach Bret Bielema said. "He's a guy that from Sunday's preparation to game time on Saturday, nobody put in more film time, nobody put in more diligence to the game plan."
Redshirt sophomore Jon Budmayr has the inside track to taking Tolzien's spot.
"One of the things, he's benefited from, is this is actually his third spring," Bielema said. "He came in as a high school senior early in the graduation process, entered school in January, so that's really beneficial for him now going into a year where he could potentially be the starter."
EARLY ILLINI: About the last thing most college kids want is an early wakeup call. But that's precisely what coach Ron Zook offered this spring at Illinois.
The Illini started at 7 a.m., were done by late morning, and then had the rest of the day to work on classes, conditioning and just being college kids.
"The biggest thing was class schedules. We couldn't find a 3½-hour block," he explained. "I think they've enjoyed being done at 10, 10:30, 11 at the latest. And they're doing a little better academically, too."
STAYING INDOORS: No one could blame Purdue for not venturing outside. After a 2010 season in which almost everyone who played a skill position went down — including the first-stringers at quarterback, running back and wideout — coach Danny Hope convened the team earlier and kept them inside the program's indoor facility.
"We did a good job of keeping the guys healthy," he said.
The Boilermakers had 17 freshmen who played — in many cases, out of necessity due to injuries. Now they'll reap the benefit of all that combat action with 10 starters returning on offense and nine on defense (matching Michigan for the most top players coming back in the Big Ten).
CHANGES IN ATTITUDE: Indiana has a new coach, gravel-voiced Kevin Wilson, who was Oklahoma's offensive coordinator last year. His top objective this spring has been to try to destroy the losing culture that has permeated Hoosiers football for decades.
"Our talent level is reasonable and we've been very competitive," Wilson said. "But we've been on the short end too much. It's more of a mindset, better focus, than anything else. ... We're working really hard to build a program that's very confident, has a great deal of expectation and believes what we're trying to do."
IMPROVED COACHING? Who would have thought that one key area for Penn State this offseason is having its staff do a better job of coaching — particularly since no other Division I head coach has ever won 400 games.
But there are reports that Paterno has been more active in spring workouts.
"I don't think I did a particularly good job last year, to be honest with you," he said, reflecting on a 7-6 season. "Maybe it was that I didn't want to push our younger guys very far. We're very, very young, as young as we've ever been. I've enjoyed this team; I still enjoy coaching. If it appears to the kids that I'm working harder, good. I don't know if I'm working harder, but I do hope I'm doing a better job."