This football season I'll be giving each unit on the team a "gradecard" every week. To start the year, I'm doing a preseason version of the gradecard, basically stating where I expect each piece of the team to be as we approach opening weekend.
The grading scale is simple. A "C" is where I expect an average, six-win, bowl-qualifying team to be. "A+" is Todd Reesing in 2007. I could give examples of "F" play, but we all watched KU enough last year to know what that looks like. The unit ratings begin after the jump.
I'm taking the "I'll believe it when I see it" approach here. We've heard plenty of indications that Webb has improved greatly in the offseason, and given that he was a freshman playing in a brand new offense behind a patchwork offensive line last year, I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. At the same time, the QB play was atrocious last fall, and I don't feel like I can give the quarterbacks anything above the "D" range until I've actually seen some solid play in a real game.
Running Backs - B
This is the strength of the offense, and possibly the team as a whole. We already know Sims is a beast, and the word is that Bourbon, Pierson and Miller are poised to impress as well. By the end of the year, this group could be approaching the "A" range, but as of right now this an incredibly young group of players, and they will likely need some time before they grasp some of the nuances of the position.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends - C-
This is a hard bunch to rate. We've seen what Patterson is capable of, but we know very little about the rest of the group. DJ has very little playing time at the position and Pick was a QB at this point last year. We've heard good things about Matthews and Omigie, but neither has managed to earn themselves meaningful playing time. Tim Biere's blocking and receiving skills are the only things bringing this grade up near the "C" range right now.
Offensive Line - C+
This grade should probably be higher. The unit is healthy and looks to be in much better shape than what we saw last year. That being said, the o-line was the root of the offense's problems in 2010, and until I see them playing as well as we all believe they should, I don't feel like a higher grade is warranted.
Defensive Line - D
In my opinion, this is easily the biggest weakness on the team. Agostinho, Lewandowski and Sellers are young and unproven on the ends. Williams seems to fill the role of nose tackle fairly well, but the other listed starter at DT is Kevin Young, who is undersized for the position after a transition from DE. Johnson and Dorsey have been fixtures at the position for a couple of years, but that's not saying much, given that this has been the team's biggest weakness for a couple of years. In the 3-4, the d-line's responsibility will be gap control, which is good, because most of the actual playmaking potential is too young and small to be fully realized at this point.
Linebackers - B
This should be the best unit on the defense by far. Opurum returns to the LB crew and may be the best player on this side of the ball, Steven Johnson returns as last year's leading tackler, and Darius Willis, Malcolm Walker, and Tunde Bakare are added to the mix. You can also throw in Huldon Tharp, who was a tackling machine as a freshman, and after missing last season, can't even find a starting job amidst this talented group. The quality of the LBs was likely a major factor in the decision to go to a 3-4 base.
Secondary - D+
Many disagree with my thoughts on the secondary, particularly the coaching staff, who continues to mention them as one of the standout groups on the team. The problem is, they said the same thing last year, when Kansas was unable to defend even a simple bubble screen (see: KU vs Baylor, October 1, 2010). Barfield and Brown have shown flashes of talent, but neither seems to be able to play both their man and the ball at the same time. Tyler Patmon plays the ball remarkably well, but lacks the speed and athleticism necessary to cover many Big 12-quality receivers on the outside one-on-one. The safeties have high ceilings, but only a handful of games' experience combined. Yes, a quality pass rush would put a giant band-aid over some of these problems, but until one is developed, I expect the DBs to continue to look outmatched.
Special teams - D+
This was the hardest unit to grade. We have a new punter, placekicker, and long-snapper, who have a combined zero games of D-1 experience. That's frightening. Fortunately, last year left nowhere to go but up. It's hard to say if punt or kick coverage will improve, but one would hope Aaron Stamn will have learned from last year's mistakes and solidified things a bit. The saving grace here is DJ Beshears, who was a big enough threat as a kick returner last year to have teams kicking short or toward the sidelines against the Jayhawks, which instantly improves the kick return squad's efficiency.
Overall - D+
It hurts to give the team such a low grade, but let's face it, that's where we are today. The good news is that this is an incredibly young team, and by the end of the season they may well be miles ahead of where they are Saturday. Make no mistake: there is talent here. What Turner Gill and his staff do with it will ultimately determine their fate in Lawrence. Unfortunately, these talented young players are still a little too young to expect results this season. I hold out hope that at the end of the year, I can give out a higher grade, but given the combination of inexperience and last year's lackluster results, I have to rate this as a below-average football team.