Welcome back to football season. With the opening game of the Charlie Weis era coming up Saturday, I felt it was time to once again don my professor's hat (if that's really a thing) and hand out some grades to the KU football team, position-by-position.
It was much harder to grade this year's team without watching a game than it was last year for several reasons. The first, and most obvious, is the sheer number of new faces on the team. Between fifth year senior transfers, jucos, true freshman, and a healthy dose of attrition brought on by the coaching change, certain areas of this team bear little resemblance to the 2011 squad.
Adding to the difficulty of the task is the coaching change itself. At this point the deficiencies in Gill's Strength & Conditioning program are well-documented, but over the last two years this team also had a frantic, unprepared feel that permeated every facet of the game. While turning the program around will take time, this is one problem I expect to disappear immediately. While Weis' career at Notre Dame didn't end the way he would have liked, the man coached his squads to two BCS bowl games. He knows how to prepare a team, both mentally and physically.
With the anticipated immediate improvements in preparation, both mentally and physically, it's difficult to predict players' performance, even for the guys we've been watching for a couple of years. Just how much different they'll truly look (and play) is a mystery to all of us. Still, I had to give it a shot. Note that these grades are my assessment of where each unit is as of today, and not necessarily a prediction of where they will end up. Today, I'll rate the offense, with a grade card for the defense and special teams upcoming. The first report card of the 2012 season comes to you after the jump.
As always, I deem a "C" grade as what I expect from an average, .500-level team in a BCS conference. An A+ is a championship-caliber unit, and an F is...well, we've been KU football fans over the last two years, so we know what an F is. This is by no means intended to be used as a scientific metric to measure success or failure. It's just a way for me to express my thoughts on the quality of the team and get a conversation going. Now, without further ado...Quarterbacks - C+
I know a lot of fans are excited about Dayne Crist, and I don't want to sound as though I'm not. Still, we have nothing in Crist's college career to date that we can point to and say "see, this is why he's a great college quarterback." Though held back by injuries and a coaching change, Crist's numbers at Notre Dame were pedestrian, and the fact is he ultimately lost his starting job. I have no doubt that he brings improvement to a position where we've been lacking since Todd Reesing's eligibility expired, but I'm still in "wait and see" mode when it comes to the extent of that improvement. As for his backups, the position seems secure for the future with Jake Heaps. However, Heaps is sitting out this year. That means that if Crist goes down, the keys are handed to one of two players who have never taken a snap in a D1 football game. One, Turner Baty, does have a year of juco under his belt, but he finds himself below redshirt freshman Michael Cummings on the depth chart. I have hope that Dayne Crist will stay healthy and exceed the C+ rating, but don't have the evidence to rate this position any higher going into the season.
Running Backs - B
This grade takes into account the talents of James Sims, who will be sitting out the first three games. By all accounts, Sims has lost weight and added a step to his game this past offseason. Despite the suspension, he's wowed Charlie Weis so far and I expect him to be a big contributor once he gets back into action. Behind him we'll see a healthy dose of Tony Pierson, with mixed carries from Brandon Bourbon, juco transfer Taylor Cox, and converted receiver Marquis Jackson. Pierson has consistently dazzled fans with his speed and agility, and is a homerun threat every time he touches the ball. That said, he weighs in at 170 and likely can't shoulder a full workload at this level. When healthy Bourbon looked like a nice combination of speed and power last year, while Jackson was very effective in the spring game. We don't know much about Cox at this point, but as of now he's second on the depth chart ahead of Bourbon. When Sims returns, this is likely the strongest part of the team.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends - C
We have a lot of nice receivers on this team. In Patterson and Beshears, we have smaller guys who are dangerous with the ball in open space, but lack the size and strength to be downfield threats. Omigie, Matthews and Pick are bigger guys with sure hands who lack the explosiveness to draw extra attention from the secondary. Andrew Turzilli has earned some mentions from the coaching staff, but hasn't had the playing time for us to say with confidence what he can do. I thought Jacorey Shepherd showed flashes of excellence last year, but he currently finds himself outside the conversation for significant playing time, and even spent last week working out with the DBs. At tight end, Mike Ragone is regarded as a good blocker, while Jimmay Mundine continues to showcase potential in practice, but has yet to showcase it in a meaningful situation. Trent Smiley may be in the works for some snaps as well.
Again, these are all "nice" players. The problem is, none of them has established themselves as a guy who changes the defense's coverage schemes. None of these players is going to draw consistent double teams, or be a threat for a 50 yard touchdown on any given play. I like what we have at receiver, but at the end of the day, none of these guys is better than a 2nd or 3rd option on a high-level passing offense. Unless someone steps up as a consistent playmaker, I see this as an average BCS level group.
Offensive Line - C+
I found this the hardest group on the offense to rate. It really feels like we have some talent here. Hawkinson has been getting mentioned as a possible next-level prospect since his redshirt freshman year. Marrongelli makes some big blocks and Riley Spencer has been talked about since the day he arrived on campus. Still, the unit's overall performance the last two years has been abysmal. The quarterback position was an injury-plagued catastrophe of sacks and pressures in 2010 and '11. Sure lack of conditioning, uninventive playcalling and a lack of open receivers played a part, but at the end of the day, the O-line's play was subpar during the Gill era.
Fortunately, I feel like this (along with D-line) was the position hit the hardest by the S&C's program's deficiencies under Gill, and I harbor some hope that they will rebound nicely this year and play like the unit I think they are. Depth is a concern here, since two of the first guys coming off the bench (Dent and Lewandowski) were playing on the other side of the ball last year and another (Sterling) is a juco transfer who hasn't quite knocked this staff's socks off yet. Still, if the front line stays healthy, I see this as being average or even slightly above heading into the season, with potential for improvement.
Overall Offense - B-
If you average out my position grades, the offense probably comes out to a C+, and I'll concede that giving any piece of this team a grade higher than C is reaching at this point. Still, my general feeling is that this offense is poised to have some success under Charlie Weis. I still need some results before I'll call Weis a great head coach (really, even an above average head coach), but I'm more than willing to call him a great offensive mind. He may not have Fighting Irish-level talent in Lawrence, but I BEL...or, that is, I feel confident that he has the pieces to put together an offense that will move the ball and score some points. I'm not talking 2007 or 2008 numbers, but a pretty good showing.
Later this week, I'll hand out the grades for the defense, who still may or may not still be on Double Secret Probation for their performance last year. For right now, I know we're all anxious for this season get kicked off, so let's pass the time discussing hypotheticals. What are your thoughts on the offense heading into this year?