The Huskies are almost halfway through their season on this bye week. To be more precise they're let's see, 5 out of 12, carry the 2, uh yeah, about halfway through the season. So this is as good a time as any to assign some grades to the players and coaches. Before we get to it I need to say a few words about the great Bob Chmiel who provides color commentary for many Huskie games on Comcast.
What are the words I need to say? Pad Under Pad! Bob just loves to shout that phrase. He gets more excited and louder as he says it, sometimes repeating it as "Pad Under Pad!! PAD UNDER PAD!!!" I think his head might explode one of these times. It would make for a great drinking game for the students, to do a shot every time Bob Chmiel yells "Pad Under Pad!!" I don't know if they could make it to halftime.
Speaking of sports cliches here's another great one: "He runs behind his pads!!". Don't you always do that anyway, sort of like, I don't know, running behind your nutsack? "Watch how he runs behind his nutsack here!!" Does it really take special talent to do that?
I'm just teasing Mr. Chmiel. I know he loves the Huskies and I appreciate his enthusiasm. Now on to the grades.
Chandler Harnish has handled the vast majority of quarterbacking duty and really done a great job. He's learned to protect the ball, throwing only 1 interception so far to 6 touchdowns. He's missed an open guy here and there, especially in the Idaho game, but overall his field recognition is much improved over last year. True to the master plan he's run less this year but is effective when he does. Overall a real nice step up from last year. The only reason he doesn't get a higher grade is because he's mostly a game manager at this point, but he certainly has the ability to develop into someone who can carry the offense when needed.
DeMarcus Grady has done a nice job in very limited mop-up duty. I continue to hope we'll see him in a slash role soon as I believe him to be the most explosive offensive player on the team. His natural offensive abilities are unfortunately rusting away on the bench and that seems like a shame.
Meco Brown and Chad Spann have done a terrific job splitting time at tailback this season and both look to be improved over last year. Brown has improved both his quickness and power, showing some nice burst on long runs against Wisconsin, Western Illinois and Purdue. It's nice to see a Huskie back finally breaking some long ones again. From a power running standpoint he looks to be about where Spann was last year, which is not bad at all. He no longer goes down on initial contact as he did quite often last year and he's made some clutch short yardage runs.
Chad "Superman" Spann has taken his game to another level too. He's enhanced his reputation as a great short yardage and goal line guy by really getting the tough yards when needed, and he's stretched it out a bit with longer runs and some nice pass receptions mixed in. The screen pass to Spann has been effective, shades of the Michael Turner days.
Justin Anderson had some nice runs in garbage time against Western Illinois along with the clutch fake punt against Purdue. Ricky Crider is more than capable of doing some damage but there's no room at the inn right now. He's healthy and will be ready if called upon.
Best of all these guys have really held onto the football and they have allowed the Huskies to get back to the ball control offense we've known for some time in DeKalb. If these guys continue to churn out the yardage their grade will go up.
Kyle Skarb and Connor Flahive have developed into a great 1-2 combination at fullback. Both are great blockers with Flahive really stepping up his game in that department this year. These guys have really given the Huskies' running game a big boost. Skarb has also sneaked out of the backfield for some big gainers on the wheel route he likes to run, and he runs well after the catch. Given that there were no true fullbacks on the roster when The Machine's staff arrived in DeKalb they have to be more than pleased with this pair.
Offensive Line: B+
There were some real question marks on the offensive line coming into this season. They had gone through a few seasons where their offensive line play was not up to the level we saw earlier in this decade and they had to replace the right side of the line. Then Kevin Skatrud, our biggest lineman and the leader to start at right tackle, was lost for the season due to injury. I am happy to report that this unit has come together and has the potential to be our best line in several years. The three incumbents (Trevor Olson, Jason Onyebuagu and Eddie Adamski) have been solid as expected. The new guys (Adam Kiel and former walkon Joe Pawlak) have done a great job on the right side. And we have some able backups in Panan Tense and Scott Wedige ready to go. I would be tempted to give this unit an A grade if not for the Idaho game where they, along with the rest of the team, were not at their best. If this unit stays healthy they could achieve an A grade by the end of this season. It's great to see some dominating line play back at Huskie Stadium.
Tight End: B+
The tight ends have done a nice job in both the run game and pass game this year and so far they have overcome the loss of Jason Schepler to injury. Hopefully he's back later this year but a dislocated elbow sounds pretty bad. You'll recall that was the injury that ended Dave Koronkiewicz's career just as he was taking off. Fortunately Bryan Beckner and Jack Marks have stepped up. Beckner lost a lot of weight since last year and really looks good and Marks has always been a guy who can get downfield and catch the ball. Combined with the steady play of Reed Cunningham they have a nice rotation going and the coaches have incorporated quite a bit more two tight end sets this year to help the run game. As long as these guys stay healthy they'll be fine. I would like to see the coaches incorporate the tight ends a bit more in the passing game. Last year that little rollout pass to Cunningham was open all the time.
Wide Receiver: B
Wide receiver was a big question mark heading into this season as they had to replace five departing seniors. Fortunately the few guys with game experience have been steady and some new guys have stepped up to make this group pretty solid. Landon Cox has been a monster with his blocking and leadership. At his size he's more of a wideout/tight end hybrid and he has become a devastating blocker. Cox has also shown some nice hands, giving him a pretty complete game. We knew Nathan Palmer and Willie Clark would be good and they have been, when not dealing with nagging injuries. The pleasant surprise is how Marcus Lewis and Preston Williams have stepped up after languishing for several years behind the big group in front of them. Lewis given us another big body who blocks well and makes some tough catches in traffic. The freshmen Martel Moore and Perez Ashford are exciting young players who seem very comfortable playing right away at the D1 level. The sky is the limit for those guys in the coming years. This group only loses Lewis and Williams after this year and they'll gain Anthony Johnson, another exciting young player who is redshirting this year. They will be very exciting to watch in coming seasons. So far the team is only taking one or two shots downfield per game but those should increase as this unit matures.
Defensive Line: B
The defensive line has been real solid this year and that's somewhat of a pleasant surprise since they were not only replacing three starters in Larry English, Alex Krutsch and Craig Rusch but also dealing with the loss to injury of Mike Krause, Mike Kritikos and Kyle Jenkins. It's amazing how well they have done considering the circumstances. The starting four of Brandon Bice, DJ Pirkle, Brian Lawson and Jake Coffman has been terrific and their backups Sean Progar, Ron Newcomb, Alan Baxter, Darnell Bolding, Adam Coleman and Nabal Jefferson have been solid as well. The one exception was the Idaho game and that's why their grade is not higher as Idaho ran the ball down our throats in the second half of that game. We really felt the absence of Coffman that day. Otherwise they shut down Wisconsin's great backs as well as Ralph Bolden of Purdue. Coffman and Pirkle have taken their game to the next level, with Coffman sometimes moving inside as he did on his pick six against WMU, and Darnell Bolding is turning into a very interesting speed rusher. Very interesting. He's a little undersized but seems to have a knack for getting to the quarterback. Overall they have a lot of athletes and The Machine's constant rotation keeps fresh legs in the game. Imagine this group if Mike Krause is able to come back next year! But that's for another day. For now here's hoping that Mike Kritikos is able to get on the field before this season is done.
The linebackers have done some good things and overall the defense has been very good so they must be doing something right, but many times it seems like the linebackers are nowhere to be found. I still believe Pat Schiller is playing out of position in the middle but that 's just me talking out my hat. Phil Brown has gotten some reps in the middle and I think that's a good idea. I've seen Alex Kube in on the play less than I would expect. Cory Hanson has done his usual steady job and his nice pick at the end of the Wisconsin game gave us a chance. Newcomers Tyrone Clark and Devon Butler have looked good in limited duty, as has Jordan Delegal. John Tranchitella has been hurt for much of the season, hopefully back this week, and they're trying to work Victor Jacques into the mix. They have some very good athletes there, it just seems like they should be making more plays.
Defensive Backs: B
This is a hard grade to assign since it incorporates both pass defense and run support. Overall they've done a nice job at the latter, helping out for some deficiencies of the linebackers. Except of course for the non-tackling nightmare that was the Idaho game. Have I mentioned that? Mike Sobol and Tracy Wilson are beastly tacklers and David Bryant is slowly rounding back into form after his ankle sprain. The corners have done a pretty nice job of tackling too. There have been a few issues in coverage, like the first play of the Wisconsin game, but they stepped it up against Western Michigan with better coverage and two picks. The corners are pretty good in general and that's a big relief considering they had to replace Melvin Rice, Bradley Pruitt and Chase Carter coming into this season. Some of the newer guys like Tommy Davis, Garrett Barnas and Jody VanLaanen show a lot of promise too so they have quite a few athletes back there.
Special Teams: B
The Good: Mike Salerno has been accurate with his field goals, kickoffs and occasional punts. There have been no botched snaps. They recovered the fumbled punts at Purdue and successfully executed the fake punt thanks to a nice block by Ron Newcomb. They blocked the punt against Idaho and recovered the onside kick. Josh Wilber has had some long punts. The return game with Tommy Davis on punts and TD and Ricky Crider on kickoffs has been great, the first time in years we've had an interesting return game.
The Bad: They almost had umpteen punts blocked at Purdue. There've been a few shanked punts. Kick coverage at Purdue was awful, including a punt taken to the house. Fortunately kick coverage has improved since then.
The coaches have done a great job except for the Idaho game when they didn't have the guys ready to play. That dead horse aside, I have to give them their props. They certainly had the guys ready for every other game. I haven't seen any time management issues, which we were so critical of last year. It's everyone's second year in the system which has to help. What a great advantage The Machine has in keeping his staff intact year over year. No wonder these guys have been successful. They're like a turnaround team in business, everyone know his role and how to support the others.
The good news is that this team has the ability to get much, much better over the course of this season and into next. It has been a pleasure to root for them this year and I'm really looking forward to the second half.