Today we look at the defense and special teams. There is a lot of guesswork involved here, specifically in the secondary and kicking game, where we'll see almost exclusively new faces filling those holes. It's hard to give out grades for someone who hasn't played their first D1 football game yet, but we do have some idea of how these guys look based on reports out of camp.
Defensive Line - D+
This unit was a glaring weakness during the Gill era, but Weis and Campo were able to gain some degree of stability last year. While it wasn't a strength, an improved conditioning program, combined with the infusion of players like Jordan Tavai, Keon Stowers and Josh Williams, made this a positional unit that at least held its ground for the most part. One of the big problems here was how badly the line was run down by the 4th quarter due to a lack of depth. While Josh Williams was a one-year fix, Tavai and Stowers return, along with Kevin Young and Keba Agostinho. We've also added Ty Mckinney and Marquel Combs to the interior, while Ben Goodman, Michael Reynolds and Darius Willis may all see playing time at the BUCK spot.
The problem is that we don't have any established difference-makers here. Combs supposedly has the potential, but so far hasn't even solidified a starting job. The rest can be described as "quality depth," but there's no one there who commands specific attention from the opposing line, or has shown they can consistently move a pocket or change the trajectory of a play. Goodman and Reynolds have shown flashes coming off the end, but have yet to really shine a game situation. Last year the line's role was largely to occupy blockers and hold their ground at the line of scrimmage, and I wouldn't expect much more this year, either.
We've heard some good things about Stowers and Goodman this summer, and Combs comes in with some fanfare, so this could potentially end up in more of a high C range group, but I'll have to see some improvement before I'm willing to buy in.
Linebackers - B-
This group was the highlight of the defense last year, and I expect much the same this time around. Ben Heeney came out and made a name for himself by amassing 112 tackles in 2012, and while he lacks a bit of quickness and will probably never excel in coverage, he's such a great instinctive player and tackler that he's worth having out there. We'll likely only see two linebackers on the field at a time as our base shifts to more of a nickel look, and it seems we have solid options for the other spot. Jake Love is a similar player to Heeney, though teams like OU, Okie State and Baylor concern me because for everything Love does right, he also lacks lateral mobility, and speedy backs and slot receivers gave him trouble last year. Samson Faifilli is Love's main competition, and by all accounts he's been a beast in camp. He's known as a hard working, high-intensity tackle machine, but he's never had to play against a Big 12-style spread offense, so it's hard to predict his level of effectiveness at this level.
Overall, I've seen enough of Heeney and Love to feel comfortable with the linebackers, and if Faifili shows a little more quickness than Love, we could be pretty well set here. Highly recruited players like Schyler Miles and Prinze Kande provide reliable depth. If you're looking for a silver lining on the defensive side of the ball, the linebackers are far and away your best option.
Secondary - D+
This may seem too negative to some, but I was at the spring game. Guys like Jacorey Shepherd, Greg Allen and Nasir Moore were worked over pretty hard. They had trouble staying with their receivers and didn't look like any type of improvement over what we've seen in recent years. Since then, we've added Isiah Johnson, Kevin Short, and Cassius Sendish from the juco ranks, all of whom are likely to start. That helps a lot, but I still have a lot of questions about this unit. Dexter Linton, who has struggled repeatedly in one-on-one coverage, is still penciled in as starting free safety, which calls into question the development of younger guys like Tevin Shaw.
Another reason for my pessimism is that the Big 12 is about as tough as it gets on a defensive back. Most teams in the conference have multiple legitimate options at receiver, and no matter how talented guys like Short and Sendish may be, this level of competition is going to be a huge adjustment. Last year the DBs showed incredible improvement under Dave Campo's guidance, so it's possible I'm being too negative, but after the downright awful secondary play we saw between 2009 and 2011, I'll need to see some positive results before I'm close to comfortable with our pass defense.
Special Teams - incomplete
I didn't want to take the coward's way out and bail on grading any of the units, but how you can possibly rate these guys right now? The kicking and punting games were an abomination last year, but we've replaced both our punter and placekicker. The thing is, we haven't actually seen these guys yet. Plus, Trevor Pardula suddenly seems to have lost the placekicking job to relative unknown Michael Mesh, and it remains to be seen if Mesh seized the job, as the coaches have suggested, or if Pardula wasn't the answer either, and we still just don't have a good option here. By all accounts, Pardula is at least capable of getting the ball into the endzone on kickoffs with regularity, so that's at least a step in the right direction. As for punting, no one looked great at the spring game, but it was a windy day and hard to get much of a read on anything.
The return game is a question mark as well. No one excelled last year, and we fumbled a number of kickoffs. I don't know of any sweeping personnel or schematic changes, so we'll just have to wait and see if the return game is more serviceable.
My initial thought for special teams was an F, but that seemed unfair given how much is still unknown. However, this is one area where we should find out pretty quickly if the Jayhawks have improved.
Overall Defensive Grade - D+
I kept up with Matt Tait's daily updates from camp, and as far as scrimmages were concerned, the offense overwhelming the defense was a pretty consistent theme. In the Spring Game, the first team offense had their way with every combination of defensive players thrown at them. Couple this with the number of new faces on this side of the ball, and this could be a recipe for disaster. I'm tempering my pessimism somewhat because I see more potential on this side of the ball than I have in several years, and if guys live up to expectations, we could be ok.
That said, had the 73rd ranked defense in the league last year (according to CFO's S&P rankings), and lost some key contributors (including all four starters in the secondary). This grade is more of where I see the team right now than an expectation level for the year overall. I think it's entirely possible that guys like Combs, Short, Sendish and Faifili will hit their stride and have the defense playing at a presentable level by about the halfway point. For right now though, there's just too little positive track record and too much unknown to bump these guys out of the D range.