This game answered very few of the questions we had abut this year's team. While aspects looked greatly improved, it seemed as though a lot of the issues from last year's team still may still exist. That said, teams with a lot of turnover and juco players tend to take a few games to come together and start playing to their potential. Here's my breakdown of each unit played this week.
Quarterbacks - C-
Jake Heaps - 10/20, 110 yards, 1 TD
It was hard to judge Heaps individually, because the line rarely allowed him to stay in the pocket and go through his progressions. Even when he was able to, a few dropped passes hurt his numbers and effectiveness. I'd like to call the whole thing a wash and give him a C, but he made a few errors in decision making that worried me. On one play where he was avoiding pressure, he simply threw the ball up for grabs in Justin McCay's direction. It ended up falling incomplete, but I really hope that doesn't become a habit. On another play, Pierson was running a fly route down the sideline, and the corner covering him had safety help. Heaps threw it to the endzone, and Pierson was unable to come up with a diving catch. For all Pierson's abilities, he is not a guy I want in jump ball situations in the end zone. Those were both high-risk, low-reward passes and I'd like to see Heaps using a little more discretion when heaving up deep balls.
Overall, Heaps looked far more accurate than what we saw out of Crist and Cummings last year, really threading the needle on a couple of nice throws. I hope to be giving him better grades in the future, but I can't do it when we average 5.5 yards per attempt against South Dakota.
Running Backs - B
James Sims - 16 rush, 94 yards, 2 TDs
Darrian Miller - 14 rush, 86 yards
Taylor Cox - 6 rush, 44 yards
Brandon Bourbon - 2 rush, 32 yards, 1 TD
The backs were somewhat limited by the offensive line in the first half, averaging less than 4 yards per carry. Sims was still able to charge ahead and do what he could, but the backfield wasn't really able to break free until the second half when the defense started to wear down. Darrian Miller looked outstanding, but 12 of his 14 carries came in the second half, so it's hard to say how much of that was him, and how much was a tired defensive front. At the end of the day, we averaged 5.6 yards per carry and totaled 280 rushing yards, so the box score looks ok, but truth be told the running game wasn't clicking until the second half. I rate them a B because a lot of those numbers, especially early, were earned entirely by the backfield when they didn't have much space to work with.
Receivers - D
Tony Pierson - 2 rec, 32 yds
Jimmay Mundine - 2 rec, 26 yds
Justin McCay - 2 rec, 12 yds, 1 TD
Josh Ford - 1 rec, 22 yds
Tre Parmalee - 1 rec, 7 yds
Those stat lines look painfully familiar to Kansas fans. Though we finally broke the streak of games without a wide receiver touchdown, this was a pretty bad performance. I still don't see the receivers getting much separation, and I was a little disappointed to see that McCay wasn't able to work over the smaller DBs assigned to him. Josh Ford made a very nice run after his catch, but there wasn't much to write home about from this group. They simply have to get better at running crisp routes and generating some space. Given that this was their biggest issue last year, you have to start wondering about the position coach. I don't doubt Rob Ianello's recruiting prowess, but I'm beginning to question his ability to teach the technical aspects of the game to our receivers.
Offensive Line - D-
The o-line eventually wore down South Dakota's defensive front, but the fact that they weren't able to impose their will until the second half makes me very nervous. As does the number of false starts and holding calls. With three jucos and a center in his first year seeing significant PT on this side of the ball, I do think this unit probably has the most potential to improve as the season goes on, so I guess the only positive thing I can really say is that there's hope. SD's defensive front was not intimidating, but they were able to clog holes and pressure Jake Heaps for the first half of this game. The line barely avoids an F, because they were able to wear the defense down and start gashing them, but this unit needs to gel very quickly.
Defensive Line - C
Jordan Tavai - 3 tackles, 1 QBH
Darius Willis - 1 TFL
Ben Goodman - 3 tackles, 1 sack, 1.5 TFL
Keba Agostinho - 4 tackles
Keon Stowers - 4 tackles, 1 int
You would hope the d-line would look good against this level of opponent, and for the most part, they did. Ben Goodman looks like he may be a similar player to Toben Opurum, a guy who isn't good enough to be a constant threat off the edge, but who can make some plays and cause some havoc in the backfield. The interior of the line looked like the biggest strength, and that was without Marquel Combs (who just sort of sat by himself on the bench the entire game). Young, Stowers and Tavai all had solid games, and the starting line ended up with 13 tackles. It's nice to the that much work being done by our first line of defense, rather than watching the linebackers and safeties forced to tally double-digit tackle numbers. Oh, and Keon Stowers has some moves with a ball in his hands.
Linebackers - D+
Ben Heeney - 4 tackles, 1 TFL
Samson Faifili - 4 tackles
Schyler Miles - 3 tackles
The linebackers were a little absent Saturday, not really making a lot of plays. Part of this is due to the nickelback position, which made a lot of plays that an outside linebacker would normally be responsible for, but it was a little troubling that when SD's quarterback took off running, the linebackers seemed to either by occupied by blockers or caught out of position. We know Ben Heeney and Jake Love can play, and we know Faifili looked good enough in camp to take Love's starting spot, so it's probably not time to hit the panic button, but I was a little perplexed by the anonymity of what is supposed to be the defense's strength Saturday.
Secondary - C
Victor Simmons - 8 tackles
Dexter Linton - 7 tackles
Jacorey Shepherd - 4 tackles, .5 TFL
Isiah Johnson - 4 tackles
Dexter McDonald - 2 pass breakups
TURN AROUND! How many players, secondary coaches, and DCs do we have to cycle through before we can see corners who actually have some awareness of where the ball is? Now that I got that out of my system, the defensive backfield looked fairly solid. Dexter McDonald broke up two passes, despite being the main "turn around" culprit, and Shepherd did a solid job of staying with his man. I would note, however, that Dakota only tried 18 passes, and there were a few plays where open receivers who dropped easy balls. The safety and nickelback positions were generally devoted to run support, and had a bit of an up-and-down night in that respect. Dexter Linton racked up 7 tackles, but always looked a step slower than the ball carrier, and it felt like anyone he tackled picked up a yard or two more than they should have. Isiah Johnson drew a lot of praise for his performance in camp, but looked pretty shaky to me. Neither did a good job defending zone read. Victor Simmons was a beast and as long as he can cover the slot (which he didn't really have to do Saturday), I think he'll be fun to watch this year.
Special Teams - A
The "A" may be a little overboard, but what else could special teams have done? Half the kickoffs were touchbacks, we blocked a punt, averaged 23 yards on 4 punt returns, downed a punt inside the 20, and allowed .5 yards per punt return. SD's average starting position after kickoffs was the 24.8 yard line (so were averaged slightly better than a touchback). And we finally have a placekicker! Matthew Wyman nailed a 45 yard field goal, into the breeze, with an extra 8-10 yards on it. Josh Ford was an absolute monster on special teams coverage, and Embree looks like a solid return man. We didn't get to see much of the kick return team, so that would be the only question mark in this game. Special teams is the only part of the team I can point to and say "that is an indisputable improvement over last year." A quick note on special teams: we have a lot of starters and significant contributors playing kick and punt coverage. It looks to have helped solidify things quite a bit, but it's going to frustrating down the road if a Justin McCay or Isiah Johnson gets hurt covering a punt.
Overall - D+
The offensive line really has me worried. While strong defensive fronts aren't exactly the Big 12's calling card, we have to use these first few games to improve, or this year's offense will look a lot like last year's. Also, you can put those hopes of us having an above average passing attack this season to bed. Even if the pass protection improves, I don't see the talent at wide receiver this year. I continue to hear great things about Rodriguez Coleman, both from the media and coach interviews, so I hope he gets past whatever is keeping him from playing starter's minutes fast. Heaps looks alright, but he isn't a guy who can make up for a lack of both an offensive line and good receiving crew.
Defensively, we look slow. Kevin Short missed the game for undisclosed personal reasons (though it's been confirmed that it was not academic or disciplinary in nature), and I think that hurts the secondary, as he's supposed to be a great athlete. Heeney and Faifili may be fine tacklers and play well in the box, but their lack of speed will hurt against the Baylors and Okie States of the world. The line looks like a nice group of football players, but it's not a front that is going to dominate anyone left on the schedule. I think we may be looking a defense similar to last year's. Respectable enough to keep us in some games, but not necessarily a good defense.
I still think my 4-8 predicition for the season is possible, but it's probably our ceiling. This team still has a ways to go. With so many new faces being counted on as key contributors, I do believe we will look better as the year goes on, but how much better remains to be seen. Rice is up next on the schedule, and while the name doesn't strike fear in anyone, they are a respectable football team. I know many fans said in the offseason that if we don't beat Rice, the season is over, but I would discourage that approach. This is a team still learning to play together, going on the road to play a seasoned team that went to a bowl game last year. If we get blown out, that's obviously a bad sign, but if the team looks better against the better competition, I don't think this game can ultimately be judged on whether it falls in the W or L column.