March 3, 2007

Spring Football Team Capsules: Big East

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Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers all spent time in the national spotlight last season.

Now the rest of the Big East will work to keep up with last year's top three. Is another Big East team on the verge of a breakout? Spring practice will provide a glimpse.

South Florida is coming off a nine-win season with most of its key players returning. Cincinnati won five of its last six before replacing the departed Mark Dantonio with Central Michigan's Brian Kelly.

All five Big East teams in bowl games won in the postseason. Pittsburgh's Dave Wannstedt, Syracuse's Greg Robinson and Connecticut's Randy Edsall will try to get their teams back to bowl games.

We have selected the top returning player at each of those schools while also identifying a player on the verge and an impact newcomer.

Our "player on the verge" is someone who should deliver a breakthrough performance this fall even though he may have spent most of last season outside the starting lineup.

The impact newcomer is a true freshman, redshirt freshman or transfer student who should earn immediate playing time. In at least a few instances, our impact newcomer is someone who won't arrive on campus until after spring practice.

We also have provided the biggest question each team must answer as it prepares to kick off the 2007 season.


SPRING PRACTICE ANALYSIS BIG EAST
CINCINNATI
Spring practice starting date: March 27
Spring game: April 24
Top returner: DT Terrill Byrd. The rising junior is the top returning starter on a defense that held seven opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards. The 6-foot-1, 285-pound Byrd has been a key cog in the Bearcats' tough defensive teams over the last two years.
Player on the verge: WR Derrick Stewart. Few will benefit from the arrival of Brian Kelly's wide open offense more than Stewart. He led the Bearcats in receiving last year with 675 yards and 20.5 yards per catch. The big-play Stewart could enter the upper echelon of a deep group of receivers in the Big East, especially if he has stability at the quarterback position.
Impact newcomer: Quarterbacks Chazz Anderson and Zach Collaros. Rising junior Dustin Grutza, who earned the starting job midseason, threw only 11 passes over the final three games of last season with departing senior Nick Davila taking over the quarterback position. Grutza returns but will have to earn the starting job with the pair of three-star dual-threat quarterbacks in competition. Kelly isn't afraid to go with a young quarterback. Redshirt freshman Dan LeFevour led Central Michigan to the MAC title last year.
The big question: Can Kelly continue the momentum built by his predecessor Mark Dantonio? Dantonio oversaw Cincinnati's transition from Conference USA to the Big East, leading the Bearcats to two bowl games in three years. Kelly brings a new offense to Cincinnati, but inherits Dantonio's hard-nosed defensive team. He has questions at quarterback and has to replace key defensive starters Dominic Ross and Kevin McCullough. Kelly also has the benefit of swapping out road trips to Ohio State and Virginia Tech with non-conference home dates with Oregon State and Marshall.
CONNECITCUT
Spring practice starting date: March 13
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: RB Donald Brown. In a league that includes, Steve Slaton and Ray Rice, it's easy for Brown to get lost in the shuffle. With UConn's all-time leading rusher Terry Caulley limited by injuries through the season, Brown helped revive the Huskies' offense. He ran for 673 yards and five touchdowns over the final five games of the season.
Player on the verge: CB Darius Butler. After having four interceptions and seven pass break-ups last year as a sophomore, Butler is on the cusp of becoming an all-conference performer.
Impact newcomer: QB Tyler Lorenzen. Connecticut never found a productive quarterback last year with Matt Bonislawski and D.J. Hernandez trading the job. Hernandez returns, as does Dennis Brown, but Lorenzen could beat out both of them during the spring after transferring from San Marcos (Calif.) Palomar Community College. He completed 69 percent of his passes with 26 touchdowns, three interceptions and 836 rushing yards at Palomar.
The big question: Can the Huskies grow up in 2007? Connecticut's win total has decreased every year since going 9-3 in 2003, but UConn could be in store for a rebound in 2007. By the end of the season, Connecticut started 11 freshmen and sophomores who should continue to contribute as sophomores and juniors.
LOUISVILLE
Spring practice starting date: March 31
Spring game: April 20
Top returner: QB Brian Brohm. His decision to stay in school rather than enter the NFL Draft should give Louisville fans reason to believe the Cardinals can earn a second consecutive BCS berth - even without Bobby Petrino on the sideline.
Player on the verge: DT Adrian Grady. He collected 16 tackles as a part-time starter his sophomore year. Grady will have to deliver much greater numbers this fall as the Cardinals try to replace star defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, a probable first-round draft pick.
Impact newcomer: DB Woodny Turenne. Rivals.com rated this five-star cornerback as the top junior college prospect in the nation. Turenne could step right into the starting lineup to fill the void created by William Gay's departure.
The big question: Can the Cardinals overcome another coaching change? Louisville didn't miss a beat after Petrino replaced John L. Smith. The Cardinals can only hope the Petrino-to-Steve Kragthorpe transition works out equally well.
PITTSBURGH
Spring practice starting date: March 17
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: WR Derek Kinder. Kinder emerged as a junior for a team-leading 847 yards. Like the rest of the team, he faded down the stretch - partially because of the emergence of redshirt freshman Oderick Turner. The veteran wideout will need to be more of a threat in the passing game with a new quarterback under center.
Player on the verge: CB Aaron Berry: Tyler Palko was the starting quarterback and H.B. Blades piled on the tackles, but cornerback Darelle Revis will be tougher to replace than either of them. The sophomore Berry, who was a four-star recruit in 2005, will get a crack at the position opposite rising senior Kennard Cox.
Impact newcomer: RB LeSean McCoy: Like Ford, McCoy is another prep school player who had a change of heart in the last year. McCoy committed to Miami out of high school but signed with Pitt after a year at New Berlin (N.Y.) Milford Academy. McCoy should provide a power option to counter LaRod Stephens-Howling's speed game.
The big question: What's next now that Palko, Blades and Revis are gone? If Pitt went 11-12 with those three players over the last two seasons, what happens now that they're gone? Entering year three, Dave Wannstedt will be put to the test in finding a new quarterback among the inexperienced Bill Stull, Kevan Smith and incoming freshman Pat Bostick. A former NFL head coach and defensive coordinator, Wannstedt has his work cut out for him with the 107th-ranked rush defense in the country.
RUTGERS
Spring practice starting date: March 24
Spring game: April 21
Top returner: RB Ray Rice. Boise State's Ian Johnson is the only returning player who rushed for more yards per game last year than Rice, who gained 1,794 yards and scored 20 touchdowns.
Player on the verge: WR Kenny Britt. Although he didn't start until midway through the season last year, Britt emerged as a big-play threat and collected 386 receiving yards in the Scarlet Knights' final four regular-season games. If Rutgers improves its passing attack, Britt could develop into a 1,000-yard receiver this fall.
Impact newcomer: OL Anthony Davis. Rutgers must replace two starters on its offensive line, which should allow this four-star prospect to earn a shot at immediate playing time.
The big question. How will they handle success?: Although the Scarlet Knights were coming off an Insight Bowl appearance last year, nobody expected them to head into mid-November contending for a national title. Rutgers can't sneak up on people anymore.
SOUTH FLORIDA
Spring practice starting date: March 20
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: LB Ben Moffitt. Moffitt goes into his senior season as the leader of the defense, following the departure of All-Big East linebacker Stephen Nicholas and senior Patrick St. Louis. Moffitt will be counted on to guide a young defense in 2007 after finishing last season with 110 tackles and 11 for a loss.
Player on the verge: QB Matt Grothe: The redshirt freshman was a revelation in 2006 after earning the starting job over veteran Pat Julmiste and once-heralded recruit Carlton Hill. Grothe was the focal point of the Bulls' offense, passing for more than 2,500 yards and leading the team in rushing with 622 yards on the ground. Look for him to take a greater leap forward with more experience and more consistent weapons around him.
Impact newcomer: RB Mike Ford: The Sarasota, Fla., native signed with Alabama out of high school but spent the last two years in prep school before deciding to return closer to home. The former five-star recruit should boost a Bulls offense that relied heavily on Grothe - who led the team in rushing last year.
The big question: Will South Florida justify its billing as a sleeper? After a nine-win season last year and a convincing win over East Carolina in the bowl game, USF cracked several early preseason top 25 lists. A former assistant under Hayden Fry at Iowa and Bill Snyder at Kansas State, Jim Leavitt is no stranger to establishing a football program. He has led the Bulls to their first two bowl games in school history in the last two years. With the Mountaineers and Cardinals going to Tampa this year, South Florida could be in line for a breakout season.
SYRACUSE
Spring practice starting date: March 21
Spring game: April 21
Top returners: RBs Curtis Brinkley and Delone Carter. The pair combined for 1,284 yards last year and look to share the running back duties again in 2007. Running behind an improved offensive line can only help the junior Brinkey and sophomore Carter.
Player on the verge: WR Taj Smith. The junior college transfer was poised for a big season before breaking his collarbone in the fourth game of the season. Before his injury, he had caught 12 passes for 227 yards and three touchdowns. Syracuse eclipsed 20 points only one more time the remainder of the season.
Impact newcomer: OL Adam Rosner. Syracuse's offensive line has nowhere to go but up, but Rosner is a big reason the Orange's line should drastically improve in 2007. A four-star recruit in 2005, Rosner will compete for a starting spot at tackle as a redshirt freshman.
The big question: Can the offense rebound after dismal seasons in the last two years? The Orange offense is far removed from the days of Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison. Syracuse returns the same offensive coordinator (Brian White) for the first time since Greg Robinson was named coach. Rosner should improve the offensive line while Smith, Mike Williams and Rice Moss should give Syracuse quality receiving targets. On defense, the Orange also needs to replace all of its starting linebackers and cornerbacks.
WEST VIRGINIA
Spring practice starting date: March 5
Spring game: April 7
Top returner: QB Pat White. The more obvious selection would be Steve Slaton, who finished fourth in the nation in rushing last year and enters this season as a Heisman Trophy favorite. But we believe White's ability to hurt teams with his arm and legs makes him the more valuable player.
Player on the verge: FS Quinton Andrews. He capped an exceptional freshman season by collecting a team-high eight tackles and picking off a pass in a Gator Bowl victory over Georgia Tech. That performance indicates Andrews could become West Virginia's best playmaker in the secondary.
Impact newcomer: LB J.T. Thomas. This former three-star prospect made a name for himself in the preseason last year before getting redshirted. Thomas should earn a starting job this fall now that the Mountaineers must replace Kevin McLee and Jay Henry.
The big question: Will the holes remain as big? West Virginia averaged 303 rushing yards per game in part because of an offensive line that opened up canyon-sized holes for Slaton and White. Will the Mountaineers continue to block as well now that Rivals.com first-team All-America center Dan Mozes and offensive line coach Rick Trickett have departed?





 

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