Today, part two of the KU football preseason report card. The defense and special teams units are under scrutiny this time, and there is plenty of it to go around. Though the offense left plenty to be desired last year, bad defensive play is what broke the team’s back more often than not.
That said, most of the players who have supposedly turned things around from a conditioning standpoint are found on this side of the ball, so some guys may surprise me. I’ll go with a “wait and see” approach there, though
Defensive Line - D-
The optimist in me kept this grade above the “F” level, but it was close. I’m holding out hope that the addition of Williams, Stowers, Tavai and McKinney will bring this unit way up from where it has been the past two years. Fortunately, every analyst I’ve heard, both local and notional, agrees that KU will show improvement here. The problem is, we could show marked improvement and still be an F.
The bright side is that between the transfers, and the apparent body transformations of guys like Keba Agostinho and John Williams, this unit probably has the most potential to be better than anything we saw during the Gill era.
Linebackers - D+
This group was hard to rate for a couple of reasons. For one, we haven’t seen much (or any) of several players listed on the two-deep. Starting MLB Ben Heeney red shirted last year, and backup Schyler Myles is a true freshman. Huldon Tharp sat out 2010 with an injury, and was strangely and poorly used last year. Prinze Kande looks to be in the mix at OLB after seeing little PT in his career to date. It’s hard to say at this point just what these guys will look like in action.
The other issue is the defensive line. The linebackers (outside of Steve Johnson) have looked lost and out of position the last couple of years. However, when your d-line neither gets a push or occupies blockers, it’s hard to truly evaluate a group of linebackers. Opposing o-lines routinely found themselves well beyond the line of scrimmage last year, and as a linebacker, there isn’t a whole lot you can do in that situation. Assuming there are improvements in the d-line play, Tharp returns to freshman year form, and Heeney and Myles prove they’re ready, this unit may play well above my D+ prediction. But that’s a whole lot of “ifs.”
Secondary - D-
I’ve been hard on the secondary since 2008, and it probably isn’t going to stop any time soon. True, the d-line has a huge impact here as well, and I’m sure the DBs would never have looked as poor as they have with a solid defensive front hurrying the quarterback. Still, the corners have developed a bad habit of not looking for the ball, and the safeties looked downright lost in coverage under Vic Shealy’s tutelage.
Once again, the d-line’s expected improvement gives me hope here, as does the coaching change and the improvement of Bradley McDougald and Greg Brown as last year went on. I considered a higher grade here, but in the end, we’re still talking about a group of guys who, outside of McDougs, looked awful last year, and I’ll have to be convinced they’re better before I’ll think about putting them at “C” level.
Defense Overall - D-
I’m going with a “you’re only as good as your d-line” approach. It’s not that I don’t foresee any improvement on the defensive side of the ball, it’s just that when you let one opponent set an NCAA record for rushing yards per attempt, let another score 63 in one half, give up 400+ yards to a 1-AA opponent, blow a couple of sizeable leads, etc…it’s hard to expect too much. Let’s be honest, D- will seem like a breath of fresh air at this point.
Special Teams - D-
Honestly, this is a bit of a guess. Doherty has a strong leg, but struggles with consistency. Patterson and Beshears are quality return men, but the blocking for them has been horrendous. I know I sound like a broken record, but while I assume this is an area where we’ll improve, I’ll need to see the improvement first. For right now, the long snapper is suspended and I don’t even know who will be on the coverage teams, so I’m going with a guarded approach.
Overall, a pretty bleak outlook, but again, this is where I see the team to start the year. If things gel, and some reported player improvements are as significant as advertised, the defense could surprise us. If they work their way up to “C” level, though, I’ll be downright shocked. While the program was a mess under Gill, the fact is that our talent isn’t where it needs to be, either. With that in mind, I enter the season eagerly looking for improvement, while trying to keep my expectations realistic.