I’ve been watching Kansas State pretty carefully this season. Initially they seemed like a potential dark horse Big 12 contender but now they’re a just a mess with a 78-year old coach who has defined the entire history of the program and currently has a really murky succession plan.
For a strategy wonk the Wildcats are always a fascinating team to observe and their offensive malaise this season and subsequent media firestorm about their QBs and head coach are making them a pretty interesting team to keep an eye on. Also they just played Texas, whom I cover extra carefully for Inside Texas.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about K-State’s situation and wanted to more carefully diagnose some of the issues and break down their main options moving forward.
Issue #1: No identity on offense
You: “No duh! They start a different QB every week!”
That’s true, and no doubt a major hindrance to their growth as an offense, but there’s a reason they start a different QB every week and why nothing seems to be clicking. They don’t know who they are at the Y position.
At this point everyone plays with two outside receivers, typically labelled as the X and Z positions, and most everyone also plays with a slot WR. Even K-State, who still uses a FB, will often do so from an 11-personnel set that pairs the FB with a TE, three WRs, and no other RB. Some people call the slot receiver the H, some the Y, some the F, some the A, it’s a crapshoot.
Then there’s the TE, typically labelled as H or Y, whom not everyone uses, some use as a flex receiver, and many use as a sort of H-back hybrid blocking back. Kansas State uses a fairly traditional TE who will occasionally do work running routes but more typically is a blocker that adds a gap up front for the run game.
If you define the “Y” position as the inside receiver position that determines where the offensive “strength” is then that’s a little more clarifying. For K-State that’s typically been the TE as it’s a run-centric offense with option, zone, and power elements driving the system.
If your top inside guy is a slot then you tend to play things the other way, attacking opponents primarily with the route combos and screens you can utilize on the perimeter or in the seams.
Technically Dalton Schoen is the main slot receiver for the Wildcats and he’s also their second leading receiver and third most productive skill player behind X receiver Isaiah Zuber and RB Alex Barnes. He’s solid, they were able to get him open at times against man coverage from Texas when the Longhorns were sending telegraphed blitzes at Skylar Thompson in the second half.
Blaise Gammon is the top TE for the Wildcats and he’s been wildly ineffective this season. He can sometimes hold the back end on the dart plays where they pull the tackle away from the TE to lead for the QB, or hold the back end on a zone play, but he’s not moving the pile and he allows his share of pressure on the edge.
Given the choice between Gammon and Schoen, probably the most effective strength for the Wildcats is one that includes more of this:
But this set-up doesn’t make much of Alex Delton’s running ability, which becomes at best a situational ploy while Skylar Thompson manages the offense, and it doesn’t necessarily do much to set up Alex Barnes.
Issue #2: Competing timelines
Bill Snyder is 78, he wants to win as many games as he can before he hangs up his windbreakers and he wants to win one more Big 12 championship before it’s all said and done.
Snyder’s staff is comprised of his own pupils but they’re all young up and coming coaches (aside from his son Sean) such as Andre Coleman (47), Blaike Seiler (34), and Collin Klein (29). These guys are all necessarily operating under the premise that they’re here to help keep the K-State machine going and they’re all going to have a longer time-preference than a HC that could be packing it in at any moment.
If you look at this roster here’s what you see:
A fairly talented young passer who’s top two targets are both juniors and will be joined by a talented transfer (Hunter Rison) next season. An offensive line that will return three starters next year and seems to be in safe hands at either tackle spot with Scott Frantz and Nick Kaltmayer due to return and also at center with Adam Holtorf returning. Finally, a defense that returns the top six DL, the two best LBs, the nickel, two CBs who have played well this season, and enough program players at safety to keep the machine going there as well.
If I’m a K-State staffer it seems obvious enough that you could trade a 4-8 type season in 2018 while taking some lumps with Skylar Thompson and a transition towards a more 2014-style passing attack in exchange for a shot at a much better 2019 when all the key pieces would return.
If I’m Bill or Sean Snyder I’m thinking that something like 4-8 puts me at risk of being pushed out the door, costs me something in recruiting, and is giving up on what could be my last chance or next to last chance to win as many games as possible and go to a bowl game.
Issue #3: Snyder-ball
The 2015 season was one of the worst of Bill Snyder’s tenure at K-State. Jesse Ertz went down on the second play of the season and K-State was left with Joe Hubener at the helm and next to no one on offense that was particularly threatening.
The WR corps was eerily similar to this one, featuring Kyle Klein, Deantre Burton, Dominique Heath, and Kody Cook. At RB they had Charles Jones and some other guys. Lots of useful players but no one that could command the attention of defenses. Meanwhile the defense was hampered by injuries and their normal, middling selves.
So they leaned on the single-wing and option run game early with Joe Hubener, garnered limited results, and then just inserted Kody Cook at QB to upgrade the level of athleticism. They scrapped together six wins and went to a bowl game. Those offensive concepts are not only the main thrust of Snyder-ball, they are the “run home to momma” plays that can guarantee a schematic edge for a team with limited talent.
As I’ve detailed, Skylar Thompson isn’t particularly good in those plays. But as we’ve also seen, the Wildcats don’t have the TE/FB blocking to make their single-wing and option run game work properly. You can’t fix it by inserting a more athletic QB in the game, Delton’s running ability isn’t the issue.
The solution is something more like giving Blaise Gammon the Capt. America serum, or using a FB more if any of their multiple players at that position are worthy (which seems dubious since they often make the 6-7 Gammon crouch down awkwardly as a FB).
Issue #4: The wildcard
So we have this scenario where the right play is to build for the future with Skylar Thompson and hope that greater proficiency in the passing game next season allows the Wildcats to become a competitive team in the Big 12. That’s a tough sell for an old coach and requires deference to younger assistants who owe everything to Snyder and may not yet have his trust.
It also ignores what is behind door #3.
The big, obvious solutions to K-State football are the likely transfers that could become available in the coming year. Clemson’s Kelly Bryant would be the most talented option for this system since Collin Klein and it seems likely enough that the Wildcats could get their FB/TE house in order over the next year to make the most of his talent. Jalen Hurts is another in that vein, these guys run like Delton but are bigger and much better passers (for what that’s worth).
Now Auburn will probably steal one of those guys and maybe the Wildcats can’t get either. There will be other grad transfers and normal transfers that come available. If K-State is QB-dependent and struggling to recruit the kinds of guys that can make their system work then they should be in the business of picking off dual-threats that leave other programs.
It’s not unusual for dual-threats to come available. There are the guys in the JUCO ranks that don’t want to believe they shouldn’t be the QB like they were in HS, the guys that get left out when their teams change coordinators to passing-oriented systems, and then the guys that are athletic and effective like Bryant or Hurts who are simply beat out by better players or by good passers.
K-State could also find some good passers in this manner, like Jake Waters, but at least they seem to have something like that in the works with Skylar Thompson. Although it doesn’t really seem like Snyder would be too worried about driving Thompson off, does it? I’m sure West Virginia would be interested if he leaves.
Overall the Wildcats find themselves in quite the pickle. I like the young QBs they have coming up the pipeline (Sam Wheeler and John Holcombe) although they’re clearly not ready yet. They need someone to make this system go in 2018 or 2019 to give Snyder-ball life in its old bones. The chances of an ugly end to this are pretty good.