Criticisms of this team frequently start at the quarterback position, which is fair. The passing game was horrendous last year. That being said, it was the first year in a new system, and the team's three quarterbacks had thrown a total of 5 passes in Division I football coming into the season. The team's starter for most of the year, Jordan Webb, hadn't taken a snap since high school, and missed part of the year with an injury. There is no way the quarterback play won't improve this year. It sounds like the job belongs to Webb, which means he won't be constantly looking over his shoulder this year, wondering if/when he'll get pulled for Mecham. Combine that with the fact that he's had a full year in the new offense, and finally has a healthy line blocking for him, and you get a better quarterback than what we saw last year. His targets will include Mackey Award watch list-er Tim Biere, and Daymond Patterson, KU's leading receiver from 2010 who finds himself on the Biletnikoff Award watch list.
Before you jump to conclusions and assume I've been mainlining Kool Aid Grad-style, let me explain myself. I do not mean for anything I say here to be taken as a prediction for what I believe will happen this year. This is merely the case for the 2011 Jayhawks. The reasons why it's not impossible that this team could go to a bowl game. Sure, the case against us is stronger, but the Jayhawks have defied the odds before. While I'm not saying any of this will happen, I am saying it's not out of the realm of possibility. The chances of a decent season are slim, but they do exist. The insanity begins after the jump.
On the subject of the offensive line, they might be this team's single biggest reason for optimism this season. Last year, the line was a mess. Spikes tore his Achilles over the summer, Hatch was grossly overweight, and Brad Thorson was playing on a broken foot. Add Trevor Marrongelli's season-ending injury just five games in, and you have a recipe for offensive disaster. It's no wonder the QB play was so bad - they were ducking pressure on every play. This year, we return four juniors and a senior on the offensive line, and all have starting experience. A good o-line instantly raises the play of the entire offense, and this could easily happen in 2011.
The stable of running backs for whom the line will be opening up holes is another reason to get excited. We saw firsthand how good James Sims is last season, when he rushed for 742 yards and 9 TDs as a true freshman working behind the patchwork offensive line I just described. By the end of this season, Sims could very well be a household name in Big 12 country. He's not alone either. Darrian Miller did nothing but turn heads all spring, and Anthony Pierson has impressed everyone who's seen him in this summer's workouts. Brandon Bourbon figures to be healthy for the fall, finally giving us a chance to watch the 4 star recruit in action. Don't forget Dreamius Smith, either. All he did his senior year of high school was average 12.9 yards per carry. Nick Sizemore also gives KU a fullback with an NFL-level ceiling, who should serve as an added layer of blocking for both Webb and the running backs.
There's reason for hope on the defensive side of things as well. Coaches continue to talk about Toben Opurum as a future pro at defensive end. John Williams has put some weight back on and was a monster during the spring game. Julius Green and Pat Lewandowski drew a lot of praise during spring as well and will see time this season. Then there's Kevin Young. Due to injury he didn't see a lot of time last year, but he draws rave reviews and was a former Nebraska target and commit. Say what you will about the Pelini brothers, but if there's one thing they know, it's defensive linemen.
I've been a vocal critic of our secondary play, but there's reason for optimism there, too. Barfield and Brown got torched a number of times last season, but were arguably two of the most improved players on the team by season's end. Freshman Tyler Patmon, in his role at nickelback, may have had the best individual season of anyone in the secondary, recording 45 tackles, a sack, 2 interceptions and a fumble recovery. At safety, we should have a full season of Keeston Terry, who looked outstanding before his season-ending injury last year. Opposite him starts Bradley McDougald, who was sought-after by Ohio State at safety coming out of high school.
Linebacker figures to be the strongest part of the defense. After dominating the scout team last year, Darius Willis finally gets to take the field in a Kansas uniform. Next to him will be last year's leading tackler in Steven Johnson, and Huldon Tharp, a preseason All-Big 12 linebacker last year before an ACL tear prevented him from playing.
On special teams, we lose notoriously inconsistent Jacob Branstetter, and bring in Alex Mueller, hailed by some as the most accurate accurate kicker in this year's class. Punter is a bit of question mark, but hey, Kerry Meier was our punter half the time in '07 and we turned out all right. We also return DJ Beshears, an All-Big 12 kick returner last year. As for special teams coverage...well, nowhere to go but up, right?
See? It's not all doom and gloom. There are actually some positives to be focused on. Not just for the future, but right now. If the pieces fall into place, 6-6 and a bowl game are not unattainable. We open the year with McNeese State, and follow them with a home game against a Northern Illinois team that lost most of their defense from last year. We close the non-con schedule with Georgia Tech, who we beat last year, and who does not return their leading passer, rusher, or receiver. The conference schedule is tough, but games against Texas Tech, K-State, Iowa State and Baylor are all winnable if things are clicking. As we all know, anything can happen in the Border War as well.
Sure, there are counter-arguments to made against most of what I've laid out here, but you can't deny the bottom line...I haven't said anything here that isn't true. I didn't make any of this up. These are all 100% legitimate reasons to believe, at least to some extent, in this year's team. Is a bowl run improbable? Sure. But impossible? No more impossible than a 5'9 sophomore quarterback leading us to a 12-1 season capped off with a trophy from a BCS bowl game.