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May 12, 2007

Big East: What we know, what we don't

The clock isn't the only thing that moves forward in the spring.

Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers proved themselves to be the class of the Big East last season, with South Florida right on their heels.

With spring practice concluded, it seems the other half of the conference is still struggling to keep up with the leaders.

Cincinnati, Connecticut and Pittsburgh all ended spring with quarterback questions. While Syracuse appears to have found a starting quarterback in Andrew Robinson, the Orange enter the fall with questions at running back following the season-ending injury to Delone Carter.

Here's a look at What We Learned from spring practice and the Remaining Questions for Fall for each Big East team:

Cincinnati Bearcats
Source: Todd Cunningham of BearcatLair.com
What we learned from spring practice: Last year's sophomore-dominated defense has adjusted well to the new coaching staff and is ready to pick up where it left off last season. Safety Haruki Nakamura has become an established team leader. With the Bearcats playing less two-deep zone, his tackle totals should see a big increase. Eight starters return to bring experience to the unit. Strong safety Cedric Tolbert, cornerback DeAngelo Smith and linebacker Andre Revels combined for 33 games played last season. Junior cornerback Mike Mickens was the day-in and day-out star of spring practice. He spent a lot of time on an island, and completing a pass his way was a rare sight.
The biggest question remaining for fall: Who will be under center, and who will protect him? Dustin Grutza had a solid spring game, but he was up and down over the course of practice as he tried to pick up the system. Wake Forest transfer Ben Mauk should be ready to compete for the job by the start of training camp. Protection for whoever wins the job is also a concern. As the Bearcats transition from a power offense to the spread, players have been moving up and down the offensive line trying to find the best spot for their skill set.
Connecticut Huskies
Source: Zac Boyer of UConnReport.com
What we learned from spring practice: The future is bright for the Huskies. Connecticut, which finished 4-8 last season, lost only three players who made an impact last season - tailback Terry Caulley, fullback Deon Anderson and defensive tackle Rhema Fuller. The Huskies will start either sophomore Dennis Brown or junior college All-American Tyler Lorenzen at quarterback. All-Big East tailback Donald Brown returns, and sophomore receivers Brad Kanuch and Terence Jeffers will be out wide.
The biggest question remaining for fall: Who will be the starting quarterback? Fans got a glimpse of Brown during the spring game, but Lorenzen sat because of a knee injury. While Brown finished with 241 passing yards, he also threw three interceptions and stared down the receiver on every throw. Lorenzen, who has been hyped as the Huskies' savior, will be given every chance to take the job when he returns to the practice field in August.
Louisville Cardinals
Source: Howie Lindsey of CardinalSports.com
What we learned from spring practice: Louisville will still be explosive on offense, and could stretch the field more under new coach Steve Kragthorpe than it did under Bobby Petrino. Many Cardinals fans were nervous that losing Petrino meant the Cards would take a step back offensively, but that doesn't appear to be the case. With two of the top wide receivers in the nation senior Harry Douglas and junior Mario Urrutia and Heisman contender Brian Brohm returning for his senior season at quarterback, the Cardinals offense appears to be in good hands. Louisville didn't run as much during the spring as it did last fall. It still remains to be seen whether the short passing game will replace the power running game for good, or whether that was a springtime mirage.
The biggest question remaining for fall: Who will play cornerback? The Cards lost three of four starters in the defensive backfield, but return a ton of talent at both safety spots. At the corners? Well, not as much. The Cards have a solid starter in Rod Council on one side, but the other could be a hodge-podge of Bobby Buchanan (brother of former Atlanta Falcon Ray Buchanan), Travis Norton and a couple of others. The good news is Louisville signed the nation's No. 1 junior college player, cornerback Woodny Turenne. If he can come in ready to play, he could start immediately.
Pittsburgh Panthers
Source: Chris Peak of PantherLair.com
What we learned from spring practice: It looks like Pitt will once again field a receiving group that ranks among the Big East's best. All-Big East wideout Derek Kinder and Oderick Turner, the conference leader in touchdown catches, return from last season. The depth of the group grew in spring camp as well. Junior Marcel Pestano and sophomore Tamarcus Porter played well enough to challenge Turner for the second receiver spot. On top of that, the Panthers will boast a deep and talented tight end group. Athletic senior Darrell Strong is a good pass-catcher, sophomore John Pelusi is a solid blocker, and exceptional sophomore Nate Byham as a playmaking combination of both. Coach Dave Wannstedt said this spring his group of receivers and tight ends are as deep as any team in the country.
The biggest question remaining for fall: Who will throw the ball to those receivers and tight ends? Last year was Tyler Palko's final season at Pitt, leaving a void at quarterback. Junior Bill Stull and redshirt freshman Kevan Smith split the snaps this spring, but neither created any real separation from the other. Neither quarterback has any significant on-field experience. Stull is penciled in as the starter, but when incoming freshman Pat Bostick gets to Pittsburgh this summer it will become a three-horse race. While no one likes to initiate a new quarterback, the talented receivers and tight ends should help the transition for any first-year starter.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Source: Bobby Deren of ScarletNation.com
What we learned from spring practice: The Rutgers offense looks to be much improved despite the loss of versatile fullback Brian Leonard. The wide receivers all showed tremendous improvement, especially Kenny Britt. He looks like a future NFL player. Quarterback Mike Teel has been outstanding, and running back Kordell Young looks to be a nice complement to Ray Rice. Jack Corcoran resembles Leonard at fullback, but needs to improve his blocking. Tackles Jeremy Zuttah and Pedro Sosa led an offensive line that allowed a national-low eight sacks last year. The strength of the Scarlet Knights' wide receivers and inexperience of their tight ends will probably lead to a lot of four receiver sets, which should open the offense up make it more dangerous.
The biggest question remaining for fall: The linebackers. Last year's linebackers were a big key to the stifling defense. A broken leg suffered by Ryan D'Imperio, who had grabbed a starting spot during the spring, has left the middle linebacker spot wide open. Brandon Renkart has moved to the position, but there is doubt that he can be as effective up the middle. Kevin Malast seems to have won one of the other starting positions, although he hasn't seen much action in his previous two years at Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have young players with talent, but there is some question as to whether or not they'll be able to come in and really make a difference. A lot of the linebackers are small and quick, but there are questions regarding their physical play.
South Florida Bulls
Source: David Glaser of USFBullsEye.com
What we learned from spring practice: South Florida has its deepest and most talented team ever. Unlike past springs, the Bulls went into this one with very few question marks and high expectations. With rising sophomore Matt Grothe entrenched at quarterback, there is no competition for the starting job for the first time in five years. Despite the loss of starters Ean Randolph and S.J. Green, there are still plenty of talented targets for Grothe. USF will have a 2007 defense with first team all-conference candidates represented in each unit defensive end George Selvie, linebacker Ben Moffitt and cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams.
The biggest question remaining for fall: Who will carry the load at running back? Who will break out of the pack and become the featured back? Five-star recruit Mike Ford started slow, but came on as spring camp progressed. Speedy redshirt freshman Aston Samuels received solid reviews from the coaches. Moise Plancher returns from injury with hopes of regaining his starting spot. Benjamin Williams and Ricky Ponton have the most experience and both have 100-yard games to their credit. Who will ultimately step forward?
Syracuse Orange
Source: Ryan Murray of CuseConfidential.com
What we learned from spring practice: Quarterback Andrew Robinson, backup to starter Perry Patterson last year, looked much improved from last season. An improved Robinson with a solid group of receivers - including Mike Williams and Taj Smith - could make for the strength of the Syracuse offense.
The biggest question remaining for fall: The biggest question for the Orange is the run game. The loss of Delone Carter for the season to an ACL tear hurts. On top of that, Curtis Brinkley also went down with a knee injury that required surgery. He will recover over the next two months and should be ready for preseason camp. With Carter out of the mix, the offensive line is going to need to work a lot harder to help the rest of the backfield.
West Virginia Mountaineers
Source: Vernon Bailey of WVSports.com
What we learned from spring practice: West Virginia has more depth on the current team at the quarterback position that we have seen in the history of the program. Pat White leads the way, but the impressive play of rising sophomore Jarrett Brown and Adam Bednarik has been encouraging. Center Mike Dent impressed coaches during the spring and should ease the loss of All-American Dan Mozes.
The biggest question remaining for fall: Coach Rich Rodriguez said three of his major concerns going into spring ball was finding depth behind running back Steve Slaton, building depth on the defensive line and finding his starting cornerbacks. Questions remain on all three, although Rodriguez and his staff felt the team made progress in those areas. If eligible, true freshman Noel Devine could provide immediate help behind Slaton. Additional newcomers will get a chance to provide help at corner.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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