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Mid-Season Grades: Sizing up the KU offense, defense and special teams through 6 games

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Kansas players Chris Omigie (83) and Tyler Patmon (33) take the field prior to kickoff against Texas Tech on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011 at Kivisto Field.

Kansas players Chris Omigie (83) and Tyler Patmon (33) take the field prior to kickoff against Texas Tech on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011 at Kivisto Field. by Nick Krug

Well, here we are at the midway point of the 2011 season and the Kansas University football team has been hard to figure throughout the season.

Although I’m guessing the Jayhawks, at 2-4 overall and 0-3 in Big 12 play, are about where most people predicted they would be at this point, I’m not sure anyone saw the first half of the season going the way it did. Myself included.

Raise your hand if you thought Jordan Webb would spend a good chunk of the first seven weeks of 2011 ranked in the Top 10 in passing efficiency, if you thought the KU defense would flirt with being the worst — statistically — in college football history or if you thought the Jayhawks would have to face seven undefeated teams in the first seven games. If your hand’s up, you’re probably lying.

The Kansas offense has been better than we thought and even has approached the point of being called solid. Had it not been for an awful second half against the Sooners, I would’ve considered the KU offense’s first-half performance well above average. As it stands, I still think they outperformed what was expected of them and should continue to do so as the season rolls on.

With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the offense, defense, special teams and coaching for the Jayhawks so far this season. I’ll give an overall grade and then list the top five players from each unit. If you agree, great. If you don’t, light me up.

Here goes.

Kansas running back James Sims is dragged down by Oklahoma defensive end Ronnell Lewis during the third quarter on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011 at Kivisto Field.

Kansas running back James Sims is dragged down by Oklahoma defensive end Ronnell Lewis during the third quarter on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011 at Kivisto Field. by Nick Krug

KU OFFENSE:

Better than we expected but still lacking productivity from wide receivers not named D.J. Beshears and JaCorey Shepherd. Will someone step up as Jordan Webb’s go-to guy in the second half?

Grades:
Passing: B -
Rushing: A
Overall: B

Top Five Performers:
1. James Sims — Entered the season as top tailback but was hearing footsteps from those behind him. All he’s done is cement himself as the team’s best back and the offense’s best player. On his way to another spectacular season.

2. Duane Zlatnik — Really, this could be a vote for the entire offensive line, which has been great in run blocking and good in pass blocking. But Zlatnik has been the star of the bunch. He’s had a couple of monster games and leads the team in butt-kicking blocks.

3. Tim Biere — Has quietly put up all-Big 12 type numbers while being one of the most reliable targets for his quarterback. Most of the time, Biere’s plays are simply solid. But every now and then, he makes a spectacular play and reminds you just how good he is.

4. Jordan Webb — Through 4 games, Webb was outstanding. He played smart, managed the offense, made great decisions and a few tough plays and showed why he earned the job without much of a fight from the others. Since Big 12 play began, Webb’s interceptions are up and his efficiency is down. His confidence remains high, though, so look for him to bounce back in the next few games.

5. Darrian Miller — Shows, at least once a game, why the coaching staff was so excited to land him. Has great balance, good vision, runs hard every time and has the ability to go the distance. In short, he’s been everything they said he would be all offseason and then some.

Georgia Tech running back Orwin Smith runs past KU's Steven Johnson on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011 in Atlanta.

Georgia Tech running back Orwin Smith runs past KU's Steven Johnson on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011 in Atlanta. by Richard Gwin

KU DEFENSE:

Too many big-yardage games, too many points and too many records have been set against this defense in the first half of the season. Something has to change. They showed signs of life last week against OU by playing faster and tougher. If that’s a sign of what’s ahead, these marks could go up substantially by the end of the season.

Grades:
Passing: D -
Rushing: C+
Overall: D

Top Five Performers:
1. Steven Johnson — There’s been no doubt about who the best player on Kansas’ defense has been this season. And it appears as if the senior linebacker is getting better each week. Leads the team in tackles (63) by 23 over second place.

2. Toben Opurum — Opurum has been good, not great, so far this season and finally looks as though he feels comfortable on defense. While continuing to learn on the job and get better, he leads the team with 7.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.

3. Tyler Patmon — So smart and so skilled, he finally seems to have overcome the injuries that plagued him during the season’s first few weeks and has been in the right spot nearly every time during the past several games. Look for a second half similar to the one he had last season.

4. Bradley McDougald — Still a work in progress in terms of adjusting from offense to defense, but has shown why the coaches moved him there in the first place. He’s strong in run support and athletic enough to play the pass. Third in tackles (36) and tied for the team lead in pass break-ups. Also has one of KU’s six sacks.

5. Darius Willis — Started slow but has shaken off the rust in recent weeks and seems poised for a big second half. Second on the team in tackles (40) and tackles for loss (5). Willis will flourish if the coaches continue to simplify their schemes.

Kansas kick returner D.J. Beshears hops over a defender and cruises up the field against Northern Illinois during the first quarter on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011 at Kivisto Field.

Kansas kick returner D.J. Beshears hops over a defender and cruises up the field against Northern Illinois during the first quarter on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011 at Kivisto Field. by Nick Krug

KU SPECIAL TEAMS:

All in all, the special teams have been a major disappointment for KU this season. The return game has been nonexistent and the kicking game has been below average. If not for the strong showing by the Jayhawks’ punt team, this unit would be a disaster. The coaches have to find a way to spark things in this department, be that with different personnel or new philosophies.

Grades:
Return game: C -
Kicking game: B -
Overall: C

Top Five Performers:
1. Ron Doherty — Averaging 43.6 yards-per-punt, including seven kicks of 50 yards or more and six downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

2. D.J. Beshears — What few big returns the team has belong to Beshears, who continues to show that he’s a weapon with the ball in his hands.

3. Tanner Gibas — The freshman long snapper has made a big-time difference and is partly responsible for KU’s success in the punting game.

4. Ben Heeney — His tenacity on special teams has caused the coaches to search for ways to get him more playing time on defense. The guy simply goes all-out all the time and has no regard for protecting his body. He’s a beast.

5. Huldon Tharp — Though still not completely recovered — physically or mentally — from his injuries, Tharp took to his role as special teams captain and has given 100 percent on every play. Not necessarily easy to do for a former freshman All-American.

Kansas head coach Turner Gill watches from the sidelines during the second quarter against Oklahoma State on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011 at Boone Pickens Stadium.

Kansas head coach Turner Gill watches from the sidelines during the second quarter against Oklahoma State on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011 at Boone Pickens Stadium. by Nick Krug

KU COACHING:

The offensive coaches have taken huge strides from last season and the defensive coaches still seem to be adjusting to the loss of defensive coordinator Carl Torbush in the offseason. There’s no question that these guys are working hard and trying to shake things up every week. Their biggest problem continues to be second-half adjustments and until they can figure out that riddle, the struggles are likely to continue.

Grades:
Offense: B
Defense: D+
Overall: C-

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