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April 10, 2012With spring football starting to wind down for teams around the country, coaches and players from the Big Ten Conference spoke with reporters about their teams' progress so far during the Big Ten spring football teleconference on Tuesday.
The first teams to speak were from the Legends Division, and the six teams from the Leaders Division are scheduled to talk on Wednesday. Here's a recap of some of the top storylines to come out of Tuesday's teleconference for each school?
NEBRASKA: Burkhead leads on, off field
There isn't much left about Rex Burkhead on the field that hasn't already been said or written about one hundred times over.
That's why one of the things that stands out the most about the senior running back for head coach Bo Pelini is the value Burkhead brings to Nebraska as a leader in the locker room and in the community.
Asked what more Burkhead needed to prove in the final year of his collegiate career, Pelini said that as good as the Plano, Texas, native has been, he had little doubt there wasn't still room for Burkhead to get even better by the time he leaves Lincoln.
"Rex has had a heck of a career, and going into his senior year I think he's going to do some great things," Pelini said. "I think he's a tremendous football player and a great leader, the kind of person you want to model your program around. That's the type of guy he is.
"But I think Rex would be the first one to tell you there's a lot of things he can do better. The more he plays, the more he grows in the game, and the more his knowledge of the game grows, the better he'll get. He works so hard at it that I don't see any reason that won't continue to happen."
Burkhead became a natural voice of the team not only for his productivity as one of the Big Ten's best running backs, but as a true leader in the locker room as well.
One perfect example was his idea to introduce his teammates to the book, "The Mental Edge", which details ways to become a better leaders and develop better mental toughness in the realm of team sports.
After Burkhead suggested the book to a couple teammates like senior linebacker Will Compton over the winter, it has been passed around and recommended throughout the team.
"It goes into the mental side of football," Burkhead said. "There's only so much you can do physically - getting bigger, faster, stronger - but when it really comes down to it in tough situations, it's about the mental toughness you have that you can take over with your game.
"We've been talking to each other about it and helping each other out by holding each other accountable in workouts and practices, and if you can relay that message to the rest of the team that there is that certain mental capacity that you can take your game to the next level, then that's going to make us that much better as a team."
Burkhead's character will also be rewarded prior to Saturday's Red-White Spring Game, when he'll be presented with the Uplifting Athletes Award as the 2012 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion for his work with Jack Hoffman, a 6-year old Nebraska boy who had been diagnosed with a rare pediatric brain tumor.
"It's a great honor," Burkhead said. "It's very humbling to be mentioned as the award winner. At the same time, I'm not a guy that wants recognition and all that. So really it goes to the recognition of Jack and other little kids in the country that have his disease or are struggling with a rare disease that a lot of people don't hear about. Hopefully this can help the funding or just bringing awareness out to their cause."
Burkhead said he still remains in close contact with Hoffman, as the two continue to talk about life, school, family and sports on a regular basis.
"We just talk about life and try not to bring up what he's going through right now that much," Burkhead said. "Really it's whatever else is going on, whether it's Christmas presents he got or what's going on in school or sports or whatever. He loves Husker football, loves basketball as well. We just talk about every day life stuff."
MICHIGAN: Wolverines gearing up for defending champs
This spring has carried a bit more urgency for Michigan in its second year under head coach Brady Hoke.
While the pressure of trying to follow up on last year's 11-2 debut is part of it, the fact that the Wolverines open the year against defending national champion Alabama in Texas Stadium in Dallas on Sept. 1 has left little time to ease into things this spring.
"Every year you're urgent in spring, especially in fall camp, but you can't open any bigger way," safety Jordan Kovacs said. "To be taking on the defending national champs in Dallas on primetime TV in the Jerry Jones Classic, it's going to be a big game. Everybody's really looking forward to that, so I'm excited to take them on. That'll be a true test of where we're at in Week 1."
Hoke said that while the opener against the Crimson Tide was obviously impossible to ignore, his team has been more focused on trying to get better as a whole than gearing up for the first game of the season.
"We're trying to get some young players being able to line up and be being able to do the technique and the fundamentals that we want," Hoke said. "Obviously we've talked about it some. All the guys are well aware that we're going to play a great football team on Sept. 1. We haven't just focused in on that football game, because of all the other things that we need to get done."
As much as Hoke may try to downplay the magnitude of the game and what it could mean for his program going into his second year at the helm, Kovacs said the players know full well the opportunity that awaits them in less than five months.
"Everybody talks about it," Kovacs said. "It's not just about that game, it's about the Big Ten games as well. But like I said, that's a huge one for us to be opening with, and all our players are excited about it. Not many people get the opportunity to go down to Dallas and open against the defending national champ. We're really looking forward to it."
IOWA: Hawkeyes adjusting to coaching shakeups
For the first time in 13 seasons, Iowa has some new faces roaming the sidelines on its coaching staff.
After defensive coordinator Norm Parker retired and offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe moved on to the NFL over the offseason, Iowa has had to shuffle things around under head coach Kirk Ferentz this spring.
While the Hawkeyes were able to avoid huge changes on defense by promoting longtime secondary coach Phil Parker to defensive coordinator, they've seen some big changes on the offensive side under new coordinator Greg Davis, who came to Iowa after coaching at Texas from 1998-2010.
"It was an unusual year for us," Ferentz said. "We've been so fortunate, 13 years to have the same coordinators. I can't say enough about job that Norm Parker and Ken O'Keefe did. Both of them are just exceptional people, exceptional coaches. They were here for the 1-10 (record), and they were here for the 11-1's too. I mean, they were really huge parts to any success that we've had."
Ferentz said he's been happy with the way Phil Parker and the new defensive coaching staff have picked up right where Norm Parker left off this spring. One of the other spots the Hawkeyes had to fill was at defensive line coach, as Rick Kaczenski left Iowa to take the same position at Nebraska last December.
"I think the transition has really gone well on the defensive side of the ball moving Phil Parker up and sliding guys around a little bit," Ferentz said. "They've really done a great job. For the most part we're doing things similar to what we've been doing, so it hasn't been huge. But nonetheless, you don't want to minimize any changes."
Ferentz said things haven't been quite as smooth on the offensive side, as the unit is trying to learn new concepts and terminology in Davis's faster-paced scheme.
"The more dramatic changes have been on the offensive side, particularly with the just the terminology and the nomenclature," Ferentz said. "It's been a lot of learning, but I went through this a little bit in the NFL. Players tend to learn faster than the coaches in a lot of instances, and that certainly has been the case here as well."
Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg said one of the biggest challenges for him and the rest of the offense this spring was learning new plays and then trying to execute them at such an up-tempo speed, including a lot of no-huddle.
"I think that's something that Coach Davis definitely adds," Vandenberg said. "He comes from a system that's kind of done it all, and in recent years has really been an up-tempo, almost predominantly no-huddle offense. So that's something that we're experimenting with. That's something that we want to do if need be.
"That's something that probably is one of the hardest things to learn right away, learning a new offense and going at that pace with all the new lingo, but it's something that we've been working on and something we want to be able to do proficiently in the fall."
NORTHWESTERN: Wildcats ready to take next step
It's no secret that Northwestern has been carrying around a monkey on its back ever since 1949 - the last and only year the program has ever won a bowl game.
After last year's loss to Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, the Wildcats came into the offseason once again with the primary goal of ending its 62-year bowl victory drought.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has seen his team make some noticeable improvements since he took over in 2006, but he said he thinks Northwestern is finally ready to take the next step this season.
"The best example I can give to you is this: we got to right about the practice rep number that we wanted on Saturday, I think we were sitting right at 70 reps, and the No. 2 offense had just scored on the No. 2 defense," Fitzgerald said. "I was getting ready to blow (the whistle) and bring the guys in to wrap up practice, and the defensive players lobbied me to go out and have more reps, wanted me to practice more.
"I've never seen that before. (Defensive coordinator) Mike Hankwitz has been doing this for a couple of moons, and he's never seen that before. So our attitude right now being here in the final week of spring is in the right spot. I think the competitive nature of this group is in the right spot."
The extra drive paid off for the defense, as it stopped the offense on a fourth down conversion attempt on the next series.
"There's a lot of encouraging things happening," Fitzgerald said. "I think a lot of coaches will say this, and I think we all mean it, the attitude that's being enforced in spring ball is the new piece of the puzzle coming together and will hopefully be a catalyst and spring board to get the chemistry in the right place in the summer."
One of the key parts to getting Northwestern its first bowl win is new quarterback Kain Colter, who replaces the heralded Dan Persa this season. Colter said the weight of the bowl drought remains heavy on the players' shoulders, but the idea of being the team that finally wins a bowl game is some of the best motivation he could think of.
"We talk about it, but right now we're not making it a huge deal," Colter said. "Obviously the first thing we have to do is get eligible for a bowl, and to do that we're going to have to take it one game at a time. But we're fully confident that we'll get there. That's just something that's been plaguing our program for a while, and that's something that we really want to break.
"For me personally, if I were able to be the quarterback or a player on the team that could break that tradition that we've had here, that would be amazing. I think a lot of the guys and a lot of the coaches, that's a big motivation for us, and it's definitely one of our goals."
MICHIGAN STATE: Maxwell filling big shoes
There may not have been a better representative for the Big Ten last season than former Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins, who was hand picked by the conference before the year even began to be the keynote player speaker at the Big Ten's annual kickoff luncheon.
As you could guess, Cousins leaves some awfully big shoes to fill for the Spartans this season.
The task of replacing one of the top MSU quarterbacks on and off the field looks to be in the hands of junior Andrew Maxwell. Having played in just nine career games and completing 29-of-51 passes for 294 yards a touchdown, Maxwell is well aware of the challenge that awaits him this season.
"Just how he handled everything with class," Maxwell said of what he learned from Cousins. "Everything he did was high character, and that's just the kind of guy he is. He treated everybody he met with respect, interacted with teammates, coaches and people outside of the program, fans, kids who looked up to him. Just the way he interacted with them and treated everybody with respect, never acted like he was too big for them, too good for them or didn't have time.
"He just kind of encompassed all of that. That's something that I observed from afar, and to see how people responded to that and to see how people took to that, hopefully that's something that I can apply to the way I deal with those types of things."
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said that while obviously Cousins leaves a big void in the offense and in the locker room, he has full confidence that Maxwell will be more than up for the challenge.
"We recruited him in the 2009 class, so he's been here for three years," Dantonio said. "He was an Elite 11 quarterback coming out of high school. He was a 6-foot-7 high jumper. He's got good athletic ability. He's an excellent student, and studies the game very extensively.
"He just got put in a situations where he was behind Kirk Cousins, and Cousins was our guy for three years. The first year when he was working towards becoming that guy, Andrew was a true freshman. He has played for us, and he does have experience. He has a very live arm, and he's a great young person. He's an outstanding leader. Very, very calm. I think great things are around the corner for him."
Of course, Maxwell will be thrown straight into the fire in his first year as a starter when the Spartans host Boise State in their season opener.
"I think it's exciting," Maxwell said. "I don't think you could script a better opening game. I think it just centers our focus as a team through the offseason and through spring ball and through ball camp knowing that we're going to have to be sharp and ready to go Game 1.
"Boise State, you know their recent success speaks for itself. They're a top-15, top-10 program in the country, and so for them coming into Spartan Stadium, for me personally, it's exciting to have that be my first start for this team. I think it's a great statement to where we are as a program that we're scheduling these kinds of games early in the season as a test."
MINNESOTA: Gophers dealing with tragedy
Talk about all the hurdles you want that other teams are dealing with this spring in terms of roster turnover and daunting upcoming schedules. None of those hold a candle to what Minnesota's players have had to go through the past few days.
On Friday, former Gopher linebacker Gary Tinsley was found dead in his UM campus dorm room at age 22.
Tinsley played in 32 games for Minnesota, including 12 starts, and was one of the most popular players in the locker room. News of his passing obviously cast a dark cloud over the Gophers, as they now have to try and keep their focus on football to close out spring practice.
"I don't think anybody has written a book on how you handle somebody that passes away at such a young age in such a surprising fashion," Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. "So you take it one minute, one day at a time, and you work through it. There's no protocol. You kind of go by your instincts, and you spend a lot of time with your players. That's what we've tried to do. The only thing that matters is Gary Tinsely's family and our football players and football family and fans. So we concentrate on that. I think our kids are doing the best that they can. Gary was a very popular young man, so it's difficult."
Minnesota is scheduled to return to the practice field for the first time since Tinsley's death on Wednesday. Quarterback MarQueis Gray said it was definitely a tough weekend for the players, but Kill helped bring the team together during the difficult time by taking them to Dave and Buster's restaurant and arcade on Saturday night.
"It's hard," Gray said. "Teams don't usually go in thinking that they're going to have a teammate that passed away over the weekend. But we're hanging in there. We've been spending most of our time together. Saturday after Gary passed away, Coach Kill took us to Dave and Buster's for a team building activity, and I feel like that was needed.
"We weren't going to be able to go full speed in practice because we couldn't get that out of our minds, but we went to Dave and Buster's and we had a good time. We'll keep mourning, and Gary Tinsely will be sadly missed, but we know that he would want us to keep going, and that's what we're going to do for him."
As if the Gophers didn't have enough to worry about coming off last year's 3-9 season, things will be even harder moving forward following Tinsley's passing.
Gray said the only thing he and the rest of his teammates could do was remember all the good times they with Tinsely and to use his memory as a source of motivation for this coming season.
Gray wasn't sure exactly what the team would do, but he fully expected Minnesota to incorporate some sort of commemorative addition to its uniforms this season in honor of their friend and former teammate.
"When I think of Gary, I just smile," Gray said. "He had so many videos and pictures that you just look at and right there just start smiling. That's the kind of guy Gary was. We had been together for four or five years, and he had grown on me as a brother and a teammate."