Quarterback: Tino Sunseri had an awful year, and we all know that, so there's really no point to go through all of his faults again. But this grade is not for Sunseri alone, but for the entire position. When your backup is a 5'10" freshman walk on, then you have problems, but that's what Trey Anderson was. Nobody could rationally believe that Anderson could be productive at this stage of his career and he obviously was a non-factor. That's not his fault since he was very young, just like it's not all Sunseri's fault for not having the skills that match this style of offense. But when that's your two best options, you have serious problems. With a quarterback who just consistently runs the offense as it was intended, this team probably wins two more games. But you can't get blood out of a stone.
Mid-season grade: D
Final season grade: D
Running Back: Ray Graham was second in the nation in rushing when he went down at the very beginning of the eight game. But despite missing all but two carries in the last five games, he still rushed for 958 yards in seven games. He also had 9 touchdowns, a 5.8 average, and 30 catches. Extrapolated over the season, Graham would have ended up with 1,610 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 51 catches. But he didn't get to reach those numbers.
Amazingly, however, despite losing a probable All-American, the Panthers running backs continued to produce with a former Wisconsin fourth stringer and a lightly recruited true freshman. But Zach Brown and Isaac Bennett did just that with 179 rushing yards against Cincinnati, 200 yards against Louisville, and 159 yards against West Virginia.
In the five games that Graham was out, Brown played in four and ran for 234 yards, a 4.4 average, two rushing TDs, and 18 catches. To put that in perspective, that would project to 702 yards, 6 TDs, and 54 catches. Bennett was just as impressive when he burned his redshirt with four games left in the season and ran for 215 yards, a 4.5 average, and 12 catches, with two rushing TDs and one receiving TD. That projects to 645 yards, 48 catches, and 9 total touchdowns. The only reason the grade goes down a half of a grade is because neither Brown nor Bennett had the game breaking skills that Graham possessed.
Mid-season grade: A+
Final season grade: A
Wide receivers: Without a doubt, the most disappointing unit on the team. Michael Shanahan, Devin Street, and Cameron Saddler were all veterans, and the previous regime supposedly recruited the position well. But the corps failed badly and only made the quarterback play worse. Shanahan is not well suited for the new style, but Street and Saddler should excel. They didn't. Saddler was virtually non-existant until he got hurt, and Street and Shanahan seemed lost and disinterested for much of the season.
In the first half of the season, Shanahan had 22 catches for 254 yards, a 11.5 average, and one touchdown. In the second half of the season, he had just 13 catches for 189 yards, a 14.5 average, and 3 touchdowns. Twice he caught just one pass and once he caught none. He also failed to reach 100 yards in any game and in 8 out of 12 games he did not even get 50 yards.
Street was better, but still not exactly scintillating. In the first half, he had 20 catches for 283 yards, a 14.2 average, and one touchdowns. In the second half, he improved slightly with 28 catches for 409 yards, a 14.6 average, and two touchdowns. Like Shanahan, he was also irritatingly inconsistent with three 100 yard games, but 6 games under 50 yards, including two games where he failed to make a catch.
Saddler caught 16 catches in the first half of the season for 141 yards, an 8.8 average, and no touchdowns. And this is at the slot position that is expected in Graham's offense to make a lot of big plays. In game seven, Saddler caught no passes, then in game eight he caught three before getting injured. Saddler was then replaced by Ronald Jones for the last four games and he caught just four passes for 50 yards while also running 8 times for 28 yards.
Mid-season grade: D
Final season grade: D
Tight End: For a team that doesn't throw to them often, they sure do have a lot of good players here. The starter is Hubie Graham and he is a very good player. He has been consistent all season and now has 27 catches for 307 yards, an 11.4 average, and 3 TDs. He is also a good blocker. Drew Carswell, who switched to receiver late in the season, added 11 catches, Anthony Gonzalez added 9, and Brendan Carozzoni chipped in 4, but all could have had a lot more if given the chance.
Mid-season grade: B-
Final season grade B
Offensive Line: The much maligned line was hurt by losing senior Chris Jacobson for the last nine games, and fellow senior Lucas Nix for five. Nix was mediocre before he got hurt and shamelessly admitted that his heart was not exactly into the season, before coming back late in the season and playing much better. Giant Matt Rotheram also missed the last four games due to injury, and it was just after he got his first start of the season.
Thrown into the fray were sophomores Cory King and Ryan Schlieper who both played in 10 games, and progressed as the season wore on. Jordan Gibbs played every game at right tackle and was okay. As was center Ryan Turnley, who I have newfound respect for now since he continued to start despite significant injuries.
Greg Gaskins and Juantez Hollins faired less well, especially Hollins who started early but never got better. Gaskins did get better, but still was below average.
No team gave up more sacks than the Panthers and it wasn't even close. But they also blocked well for the running backs and truthfully if the quarterbacks and receivers were better, the sack totals would be a lot less. While they are still below average, they clearly progressed some. Without the injuries, they may have even been considered as good as mediocre.
Mid-season grade: D
Final season grade: C-
Defensive Line: This group really came into it's own at mid-season and is now the best unit on the team. And to think that at the mid-season I gave them the grade of C-. Aaron Donald, Brandon Lindsey, and Chas Alecxih all played at an all-conference level and Donald should get preseason All-American attention next season. And he didn't even start for a portion of the year. But he currently has 42 tackles, 10 sacks, 15 tackles for loss, 11 hurries, and 4 pass breakups. That's legitimate All-American numbers and he's just a sophomore. Even more amazing is that he had 8 of his 10 sacks, and 10.5 of his 15 tackles for loss, in the last 6 games. The kid is a beast and just beginning to get the nuances of the position.
Alecxih was the always aggressive, and sometimes too aggressive, emotional leader of the team. He has 54 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss, 5 hurries, 4 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles, and an interception.
Lindsey was underachieving in the first half of the season when he was playing out of position, but then kicked it into high gear once Donald started and Lindsey moved into more of a 4-3 end. He responded with 48 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, 8 hurries, 2 forced fumbles, and an interception. In the crucial 12th game, he was also the best player on the field with 6 tackles, a sack, 3 QB hurries, an interception, and two forced fumbles.
Starter Myles Caragein does not have the numbers of the other three, but he was solid enough with 38 tackles.
The reserves were practically non-existent, and that can be a problem in the future with all but Donald graduating, but for this season at least they did extremely well being the spearhead of Graham's high risk, high reward defense. The Panthers 39 sacks are 4th in the country and their 91 tackles for loss are 9th.
Mid-season grade: C-
Final season grade: A-
Linebacker: This unit was pretty poor in the first half of the season and even though they are still below average, they got better in the second half of the season.
Max Gruder takes a lot of flak, and a lot of it from me, but the truth is, his only problem is his lack of speed. It's unfair to trash a guy for not being fast enough. He does try hard at all times and he's tough. I respect him as a tough, hard nosed player, but the Panthers desperately need a better inside linebacker. As middle linebackers almost always do, he led the team in tackles with 107, to go with 7.5 tackles for loss, 4 QB hurries, and 3 pass breakups. But at the end of the day, it wasn't nearly enough for a system that needs much better numbers from that spot.
Todd Thomas is only a redshirt freshman, and he flashed great ability at times, but with 47 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 4 hurries, 3 pass breakups, one forced fumble, and one interception he still was not at a high level yet. The talent is there, though, and next year he must make huge strides.
Greg Williams was solid for the most part, and if he was a sophomore his play would make you think he was a future star. Unfortunately, however, he is a senior so his 47 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, and 6 hurries were okay, but nothing spectacular.
Amongst the rest, Tristan Roberts somehow managed 52 tackles, but he was below average all season. Shane Gordon was looked at to finally be an accomplished start, but he lost his job early and ended up with 22 tackles.
Amongst the youngsters, LaQuentin Smith played in 5 of the last 6 games, but managed only 5 tackles. The wildcard is Juan Price, who started somewhat strong but then had his snaps reduced when Lindsey moved into his role. On the season the true freshman had 27 tackles, 4 sacks, and 6.5 tackles for loss, but after totaling 11 tackles in a two game span in games five and six, Price was only on the field long enough to get five tackles over the last six games.
Mid-season grade: D+
Final season grade C-
Defensive backs: Of all of the units this one was by far the most pleasant surprise. K'waun Williams, Antwuan Reed, and Jared Holley all played at an all-conference level and Andrew Taglianetti wasn't too bad either.
Williams is the star of the unit and is only a sophomore. He's not physically strong so he's only average against the run, and he needs to have more than the one interception he had this season, but as a cover corner he made excellent plays all season. He currently has 61 tackles, 6 pass breakups, 5 tackles for loss, and 3 forced fumbles. Opponents threw his way less and less as the season went on.
Reed was below average last year, but this season the senior completely reversed course, and played so well that teams usually didn't even throw his way. He still has managed to get 39 tackles and 7 pass breakups.
Holley has a good chance of being named all-conference, and though I'm not as high on him as many are, he did have a good season with 54 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, 3 pass breakups, one interception, and one forced fumble.
Before an injury cost him the last five games, Jason Hendricks started at free safety for the first seven games and had 36 tackles. His angles weren't always the best, not a good trait for a free safety, but he has good potential. In the last five games, he was replaced by Taglianetti, whose always seems to be where the ball is. He has 43 tackles.
For the reserves, Buddy Jackson had an impressive 34 tackles an 4 pass breakups in limited snaps, and he played better at the end of the season. Brandon Ifill added 10 tackles while promising true freshman Lloyd Carrington got more snaps as the season went on and played in 7 games.
With four good starters, and a good reserve in Jackson, you would think the grade could be even higher, but the 4 total interceptions by the unit is pathetic.
Mid-season grade: C
Final Season grade: B-
Special teams: One of the more infuriating units on the team, and if you look at the statistics it would look like this group wasn't so bad. But that would not be correct.
Kicker Kevin Harper and punter Matt Yoklic both have talent which makes it even maddening when they do something stupid, which both have done often. Harper made 32 of 33 PATs and 19 of 28 FGs. Nine missed kicks is too much, especially when many of those kicks were of the crucial variety. He also has a habit of kicking the ball out of bounds on kickoffs is also a major negative.
Then you have Yoklic who has been known to boom it on occasions. The problem is, he sometimes misses a kick quite badly. And his 7-yard punt from his own end zone against Louisville was epically bad. On the season, he is averaging 40.9 yards a punt, a poor number.
On kick returns, Buddy Jackson had a somewhat fluky touchdown return early in the season, and still managed only 23.1 yards a return, good for No. 61 in the country. Corey Davis had three less returns and ended up with an average of 21.1. Nationally, the Panthers finished No. 69.
On punt returns, Ronald Jones somehow finished second in the Big East despite having a rather pedestrian 6.6 average. Nationally, the Panthers finished No. 83 in this category.
The only thing that keeps this part of the team from getting a grade of D is that the punt and kick coverage has been excellent with the kick coverage ranking No. 14 nationally and the punt coverage coming in at No. 12.
Mid-season grade C-
Final season grade C-
Coaching: First of all, this grade is for the entire staff, not just for Graham. But Graham first. He's gotten much criticism, and some of it is definitely warranted. The main problem I have with him is that he gets too cute for his own good. Sometimes, it's okay to just keep running it up the gut if it's working. Too often he would try some trick play when it's not warranted. The same goes with those ill-advised quick kicks. Thankfully, Graham did stop most of those shenanigans but if he decided to do that sooner, he may have won an extra game somewhere.
As for the progress of the team, they were 3-3 in both halves of the schedule, but they clearly progressed, especially on defense where in the last six games they gave up 319.2 yards a game compared to 390.5 yards per game in the first half. They also executed what Graham wanted with defensive big plays as they had 39 sacks (No. 4 nationally) and 91 tackles for loss (No. 9 nationally). And those numbers went up significantly in the second part of the season. The defense's 20 turnovers weren't as high as they wanted, but 13 came in the last 4 games.
As a unit, the defensive line improved immensely as the season went on and the linebackers corps was not a disaster by the end of the season. The secondary, thought to be a weakness, became a real strength.
On offense, the running attack should have taken a major step back without Ray Graham, but instead the running attack had their third, fourth, and fifth best games after Graham went down. Not missing a beat with Zach Brown and Isaac Bennett instead of Graham is impressive.
The major problem areas were quarterback, wide receiver, offensive line, inside linebackers, and the kickers. The fact that by the end of the year the staff cobbled together a respectable unit on the offensive line and at linebacker deserves praise. The only units that were a problem all season were at quarterback, wide receiver, and the kickers, and there was simply nothing that could be done at those areas because there were no replacements who could bring improvement.
Bottom line, the team showed great improvement and if it wasn't for trouble in the passing game, the Panthers could have won more games. But those areas are lacking in talent, and even more importantly the best options at those positions do not have the skill sets that are needed in the system. The staff tried to simplify the offense as much as possible and slow down the offense, but the lack of talent at those areas were just too hard to overcome.
Mid-season grade: D+
Final season grade: C