College Football

NCB 2015 Previews: Kansas State Wildcats

I have to admit to a bit of a bias before I start this one: under head coach Bill Snyder, Kansas State has become one of my favorite college football teams over the past few years. Despite playing in a recruiting wasteland, Snyder has managed to coach one of college football’s most consistent football teams by mining JUCO talent, combining old-school conservative offense with modern spread techniques, consistent defense, and excellent special teams. The purple-and-silver menace which so bedeviled my Cornhuskers in the late 90s and early 00s has managed to be one of the last bastions of the QB-as-a-bulldozer offense I grew up watching and loving, and they manage to do it and be successful in a conference dominated by the Air Raid.

So it pains me to watch Snyder age, knowing he doesn’t have many seasons left in him, and knowing that once the 75-year-old coach decides to hang it up for good, Kansas State football as we currently know it will be a thing of the past.

Ahh, who am I kidding, he’ll coach 683 more years.

The ceiling was only so high in 2014 given how strong Baylor and Oklahoma were expected to be (and how strong TCU turned out to be). The Cats probably performed exactly as expected, shellacking weak opponents and getting beat by the clearly-superior ones. The Auburn offense proved just barely too much for the Wildcats in Manhattan (and was the Tigers’ only decent defensive showing of the year), and Kansas State took advantage of a missed PAT and a missed PAT-range field goal to topple Oklahoma in Norman. TCU and Baylor were too tough and UCLA outlasted the Cats in a crazy Alamo Bowl.

First eight games: Kansas State 38.3, Opponents 18.6 (7-1)
Last five games: Kansas State 31.8, Opponents 30.4, (2-3)*
*Minus Kansas game: Opponents 34.8, Kansas State 27 (1-3)

If only last year’s team could face this year’s schedule. 2014’s tough road slate rotates back around to Manhattan, but the Wildcats will have to replace every major contributor on offense.

Man, this is an awesomely weird offense. While most of us assume tempo and spreading out the defense go hand in hand, the Wildcats are over here moving at a glacial tempo (117th in FBS) but spreading opponents the most (1st in solo tackles generated).

It takes a unique breed of quarterback to be able to operate this system well; namely, he has to be able to lower his shoulder and run over a nose tackle on third and short and be able to deliver an accurate deep ball. Kansas State, more so than other schools, wins or loses on the back of its quarterback.

Which has to have Wildcat fans a bit nervous this fall. After two efficient and productive seasons, Jake Waters is gone, leaving a gaping hole at the position. Backup Joe Huebner was effective in very small sample sizes, but the position is currently contested. My guess would be it’s a two-horse race between Huebner and JUCO transfer Jonathan Banks, whom Snyder went out and grabbed in May. As runners, Huebner and Banks have similar production (5.3 yards per carry both, and again, Huebner’s sample size is pretty small), but Banks is a bit faster and more of a typical zone read-type dual threat (as opposed to the Collin Klein/Tim Tebow bulldozer-type dual threat).

At running back, Charles Jones has two years left. He started strong in 2014 but was slowed late (4.68 yards per tote in his first eight games, 2.7 in the last five). It was revealed during Alamo Bowl prep that Jones was slowed by a nagging injury most of the season. Even so, while his numbers weren’t stellar, he and Waters made an efficient running tandem. Given Snyder’s wizardry I would expect whoever takes over at quarterback to establish a similar division of labor.

At wide receiver, however, the hole left by Tyler Lockett and Curry Sexton is particularly gaping. Their run-after-catch ability gave Kansas State an element of explosiveness the running game didn’t, and both big-play guys are gone, and the leading incumbent, Deante Burton, caught only 42% of his targets in 2014. A redshirt freshman, Dominique Heath, turned heads with his return ability in the spring game, maybe he can step up and fill a similar role to the one previously held by Lockett and Sexton.

Given that lack of experience at wideout, one wonders which will be the more important factor in choosing a new quarterback. If it’s comfort and chemistry with the receivers, it will probably be Huebner or one of the other guys currently on campus. If it’s an ability to break plays with one legs, it will probably be Banks, as his speed gives the offense a degree of unpredictability it currently lacks.

The idea of bending-but-not-breaking on defense means you try to take the offense’s deep plays away, allowing the short stuff, and waiting for them to make (or forcing) a mistake. The 2014 Kansas State defense bent a whole heck of a lot, especially in big games (Oklahoma and Baylor threw for 9.7 yards per attempt, TCU and UCLA ran for 7.6).

The run game should pick up where it left off, despite the loss of Ryan Mueller at end. Keep an eye on defensive ends Jordan Willis and Marquel Bryant who were disruptive even in limited action (eleven combined tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks). On the interior, Travis Britz is one of the conference’s best defensive tackles. Behind them at linebacker, Elijah Lee led the unit in sacks and returns to wreak more havoc in 2015.

In the secondary, Kansas State had a heck of a time keeping five defensive backs on the field at once. Of those that were able to go the entire season avoiding injury, safety Dante Barnett and cornerback Danzel McDaniel return, and the Wildcats have to feel pretty good about Barnett’s potential after a three-pick, eight-breakup season in 2014.

Depth may be an issue again this fall, but due to injury, a lot of younger players saw action in 2014 and youth tends to mature. Also four-star freshman Duke Shelley I’m sure would be more than happy to take over any slack.

Maybe try to be a bit more aggressive in 2015? Kansas State’s conservativeness led to the better offenses getting to lazily stroll down the field against them. I’m sure a young offense would appreciate a field position boost or the occasional turnover.

In 2014 Kansas State sported a punter who pinned the opponents inside the 20 on 80% of his kicks (Nick Walsh) and a placekicker who connected on 95% of his field goals (Ian Patterson). Both return to bolster a strong unit, along with Morgan Burns, who averaged over 30 yards per kick return and took one to the house against Oklahoma State. He’ll be joined by dynamic redshirt freshman we mentioned earlier, Dominique Heath, who lit up the Wildcats’ spring game with 157 yards on six punt returns (including a 75-yard return for a touchdown) and 193 yards on eight kickoffs.

All the tough teams the Wildcats had to go play at their place in 2014 come to Manhattan this fall; namely, TCU, Oklahoma, and Baylor . . . but given the question marks on offense, I’m not ready to pick Kansas State as a dark horse conference title contender yet. Also, Oklahoma State and Texas won’t be pushovers on the road. That said, I can’t see Kansas State losing more than maybe three regular season games, given the relative youth of the conference around them.

And maybe, strangely, I’m buying into the Snyder Magic just a bit. After so many years of recruiting around 60th in the nation and overperforming so highly, I’m inclined to assume Snyder can make something out of nothing offensively and do it all again. Maybe if enough players do enough grunt work in 2015, the Wildcats can take a legitimate shot at another (or maybe a more accurate word is final) conference title for Snyder in 2016.

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