I’d been tracking Chris Klieman at North Dakota State for several years before he become the head coach at K-State. You can read some thoughts on his systems and how it all might translate to K-State in this article over at Football Study Hall. In short, he built some bruising teams up north in Fargo that dominated FCS competition with disciplined, play-making defense and then a throwback offense oriented around the power run game.
The big trick to that program, besides the overall quality of Klieman’s program management, was their ability to field the biggest and strongest teams at the FCS level. Take their OL for instance, which regularly paved a way for dominant run games. Here was their 2018 group:
What should stand out is that they collected tall, lanky guys from the far north and packed weight and strength on them. Most of these guys added 30+ pounds in Fargo before eventually assuming starting positions. Their dreaded defensive fronts were similarly constructed from players of that region that added a lot of size and strength in their S&C program.
If you watched this team over the years you should also be aware that these guys regularly whipped people up front, including Power 5 teams like Kansas State and Iowa who are known for fielding Midwestern kids that have been bulked up in well regarded S&C programs. Klieman’s crew was beating them at their own game. Eventually they also started adding better and better skill talent from the typical places like Florida or Georgia but these teams were built up from a foundation of bulked up, well trained northerners.
The big question for Klieman at K-State is whether he can build similarly fearsome fronts. He seems to have retained K-State’s prior S&C coach Chris Dawson, who has shown a good knack for accomplishing that crucial aim, and has talked up the need to recruit Kansas City. The big challenge here is that Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Wisconsin are packed with tall, under recruited athletes that have big upside in a strong developmental culture. Kansas City and Kansas share that feature but to a lesser extent.
Snyder’s roster building strategy was less about trapping lanky guys with untapped physical upside and more about collecting tough, hard-working players that could be maxed out in the weight room and practice field and used to field disciplined and versatile units that set up featured athletes. They could out-tough you at times but they were rarely overpowering.
This first Klieman class is obviously built more with Snyder players than his own takes. It includes seven players from Texas and Oklahoma (six from TX), two from the West, six from the south (including two from Missouri), and then one kid from Illinois and five from within the state of Kansas. I imagine Klieman’s recruiting will probably resemble Bill Snyder’s in terms of their areas of focus but will have more energy and a harder working, modernized approach in general that should have the Wildcats in play for more prized targets. This NSD wrap-up notes that DL coach Tuiasosopo has west coast ties while Klieman has connections in Tampa. I’m guessing they’ll look for Polys to play DL and Tampa kids to play DB and RB.
In this breakdown I’m also including some notes on transfers, which include New Mexico safety Marcus Hayes and Ball State RB James Gilbert, the latter of which has a good chance to start in year one. Here’s the breakdown of the 2018 class.
Klieman typically ran a lot of quarters coverages at North Dakota State and less and less of the Tampa-2 that Bohl had brought from Nebraska although they maintained some of the Tampa-2 philosophies. They tended to observe the “rule of three” by playing true coverage guys at corner, particularly on the boundary where they counted on having a lockdown guy, and then a free safety to the field with exceptional range and coverage ability. At strong safety on the boundary they’d play a tough, savvy tackler who brought balance between their conservative drops and a desire to stuff the run. Scottie Hazelton did some similar things but mixed in more single-high coverage and used more of a nickel whereas ND State played a space-backer in a true 4-3 most of the time.
Tyrone Lewis: 6-0, 185. 3*** from Hammond, LA (Hammond)
Lewis is kind of your typical B12 DB take. He’s a good football player who clearly understands the game and can probably guarantee a replacement-level starter if he’s playing safety and not asked to try and man up someone great. Highest upside here is he gains 15-20 pounds of good weight and becomes a more violent hitter, allowing him to apply his eye for angles and positional D to playing SS.
Kenyon Reed: 5-11, 165. 3*** from Long Beach, CA (Long Beach Poly)
Reed is a good athlete, he has track times in the 100m in the 10.7 realm (4.5 or faster!) but he also has a good feel for space which is crucial at CB. He’d kill at field CB using the far hash to help him maintain some cushion until the ball is in the air but with added strength he may be able to lock things down on the boundary as well.
William Jones: 5-9, 170. 3*** from Arlington, TX (Mansfield Summit)
Jones would be an obvious nickel under the previous staff. He has a knack for stripping the ball that reminds me of Tyrann Mathieu and is a fan of the physical side of the game despite his smaller stature. He’s pretty quick as well but his future is a little cloudy to me, perhaps safety or nickel if he adds some weight, maybe field corner.
Jonathan Alexander: 6-3, 205. 3*** from Kilgore, TX (Kilgore JC)
Alexander is a ready-made JUCO with some good coverage skills either playing man or over the top at safety. Obviously the latter is the better fit in the B12 at that size, I think he’ll compete quickly for the free safety position and perhaps sit behind Goolsby for a year before taking that job.
Marcus Hayes: 6-0, 192. 3*** from Rockford, IL (Lutheran) via transfer from New Mexico
Hayes is arguably a better safety than anyone on the K-State roster right now and will easily compete for a starting job once he’s eligible. He has three years to play two since he already used a redshirt. He has the speed to end up at free safety but his tackling and knack for getting to the ball might make more sense at the featured strong safety spot.
Logan Wilson: 5-11, 165. 3*** from Dallas, TX (Bishop Dunne)
Wilson is the best looking overall athlete of the bunch to my eyes. He’s strong in coverage despite his lower weight and can turn and run with guys and play the ball. I think he’s the best bet in this class for finding a boundary corner.
The numbers are good, some of these guys are somewhat average looking but with the addition of Hayes they got some real talent upgrades at a few spots that they’ll need to make this defense good enough to compete immediately. The overall speed is better than what they tended to have under Bill Snyder which portends good things for their ability to play some press-quarters down the road.
Even at the FCS level it was getting to the point where the Bison were playing smaller and faster linebackers at all three spots. Their 2018 title-winning trio went:
Will: Levi Jordheim: 6-2, 222.
Mike: Dan Marlette: 6-1, 222.
Sam: Jabril Cox: 6-3, 227.
Cox was the space-backer and most athletic of the trio despite his heavier weight and he’d slide inside when they did go nickel. Cox was the team’s leading tackler, followed by Marlette, then strong safety Robbie Grimsley, then Jordheim. The LBs and SS are the playmakers in the defense, Klieman likes to keep the ball contained within their turf so they can close on the ball and make the tackles for minimal gains. Kansas State should be in good shape to give Klieman and Hazelton the kinds of guys they want immediately as well as down the line.
Khalid Duke: 6-4, 225. 3*** from Gainesville, GA (Riverside Military Academy)
Duke doesn’t play LB on film, his school was using him at SS where he was juuuust fluid enough to keep up on vertical routes, and then in the slot sorta like Texas used Lil’Jordan Humphrey. That worked at that level, but he’s not that kind of athlete in terms of translating those deployments to college. However, he looks like he could be a plus athlete in the box. If he’s really 6-4 I think he might end up bulking up into a DE but he’s plenty athletic enough that he could stick at LB as well.
The numbers here aren’t good, although K-State normally finds plenty of LBs and has some on campus already so this understandably wasn’t a huge priority. I think Duke is a really valuable athlete to have on a defense, just a matter of finding his fit so that his rare size and quickness can translate to plays.
The DL is the key to the whole defense, like with many a system. Klieman liked to stay in four-down save for against the more one-dimensional Air Raid squads when he’d use a 3-3-5 nickel and bring another safety to stay deep while Grimsley (the SS) moved up to stay closer to the action. The Bison used their DEs to control the edges and wanted lighter, speedy pass-rushers there much like how TCU does things. They also used a ton of nose-tackle twists, with one going under the other, to wreck zone schemes as well as tackle-end stunts. The tackles were mobile, high-motor guys while the DEs needed to be playmakers.
Matthew Pola-Mao: 6-1, 300. 3*** from Chandler, AZ (Chandler)
This is the kind of guy that Mike Tuiasosopo is supposed to find and bring to Manhattan. Really sturdy Poly kid who has the strength and motor to battle double teams, get off blocks, and also chase plays in pursuit. He’s not that much of a raw athlete but he’s tough, strong, and keeps fighting to the ball. He also has enough quickness and drive to execute some stunts.
Cooper Beebe: 6-3, 329. 3*** from Kansas City, KS (Piper)
Beebe was way too big and fast for whatever level of ball he was playing in HS, his opponents couldn’t handle him. Like Pola-Mao, he’s strong and moves well with a good motor for his size, so he should translate nicely to their program as a run-stopper and a guy they can move around some on stunts.
Kenny Givens: 6-4, 245. 3*** from Chicago, IL (Hubbard)
Givens is the best hope for a high impact DE, in part because he looks good and in part because Duke’s projection is less clear. Givens is very comfortable in space, either coming in pursuit or even reading flow from Mike LB where he plays some snaps on film. His best trait is the way he accelerates on the second or third step to go through or around people. He’ll come off the ball, size things up, and then suddenly downshift on the second or third step and explode to the ball.
I bumped them a letter grade because the fits at DT look promising even if neither guy looks all-world and I think Givens might be really good in this scheme because of his athleticism.
Up in Fargo they played a lot of really big guys but that’s also what was available. The power run game isn’t dependent on having a 6-5/310 pound dude at every spot and indeed quickness and tenacity can be more important in a scheme built around double teams, angle blocks, and pulling. I think quickness and attitude will probably be the defining traits here and then, like anyone else, they’ll try to find that in as large or promising of packages they can find.
Trevor Strange: 6-3, 272. 3*** from Coppell, TX (Coppell)
Strange was a really well coached interior OL at Coppell who always has a flat back in pass protection or run blocking and has some textbook clips executing reach blocks on outside zone and some combo blocks on inside zone. Presumably he’ll project to center for K-State and get his chance in three years or more after he’s reached 310 and knows the calls and techniques of the new scheme backwards and forwards.
Taylor Poitier: 6-3, 260. 3*** from Mission, KS (Bishop Miege)
He plays LT on film but he’s a guard in college. He finishes blocks with a lot of nastiness, often after getting set and letting the action come to him, guys connect with him and all of a sudden find themselves in a fight for their lives. He’s really comfortable in space and on the pull with a lot of nasty in his game, should translate nicely to guard after adding 40 pounds.
Low numbers, no tackles, and little size. Both of these guys project fine to the program and would be unsurprising contributors down the road but they need to find some tackles and more bodies overall in future classes.
This is crucial. The Bison were much more about “pro-style” formations then anyone in the Big 12, even the Snyder-ball Wildcats. They liked to play multiple TEs and add FBs to the mix but then also train those guys to flex out and move around some so they could flood zones in coverage, create old school run/pass conflict, and isolate their good WRs with formational tricks. Everyone assumes this will be fine because K-State also accumulated FBs and TEs but the quality at that position was down for EMAW in 2018 and they need fresh infusions of talent.
Konner Fox: 6-5, 225. 3*** from San Antonio, TX (Reagan)
It was amusing to read that Klieman was frustrated to find that TEs across the country at the HS level are mostly flexed out these days running routes on hopelessly smaller DBs in the spread offense. K-State still wants to use these guys as attached bludgeons in the power run game but the flex TE is generally the more dangerous weapon in the modern game so they’ll have to train guys like Fox to do that. Fox is a pretty good receiving TE with really nice hands and solid routes but he’d benefit from that deployment because he’s not quite quick enough to make the flex deal work at the college level. If he can get some space off a play-action release then he’ll be really effective as a receiver in this offense.
Jax “the destroyer” Dineen: 5-10, 230. 3*** from Lawrence, KS (Lawrence Free State)
So apparently Les Miles got into a numbers crunch on scholarships and felt he couldn’t justify using a scholarship on a fullback, so they pulled Dineen’s and he went to K-State instead. I can almost understand Miles’ thinking here, except…
Watch the safety no. 7 on that second clip, that’s a guy who’s more than happy to make a fake effort at the tackle and yield the TD over risking his body to the destruction he’s watching unfold in front of him.
Dineen is obviously going to be a really good fullback and will probably even play early. Additionally, as we’ll come to later, his teammate was maybe the best player in the state and he also ended up coming to K-State. Nice one, Les.
Klieman lamented not finding more TEs to get on campus but I think that may prove less of an issue than he thinks. It’s crucial to his offense that they find guys with versatile skill sets and toughness but I think they’re around in the recruiting turf and they can always develop them. Both of these guys project pretty well.
North Dakota State tended to play smaller guys at RB then you’d think. They loved shorter backs with higher turnover because the A-gap power play that is the building block of the offensive scheme requires the back to have some patience allowing the blocks to set up and then the acceleration to dart through A-gap creases that develop as a result of the push. Having the ability to bounce a run is also important. So acceleration and toughness are the key ingredients.
Also important, Alex Barnes went to the NFL leaving them with absolutely nothing at this position. That was a concern earlier but not totally crippling because they run the QB a lot anyways. I thought Alex Delton should have stuck around and switched to RB but he got a better deal I guess.
James Gilbert: 5-8, 191. 3*** from Indianapolis, IN (Lawrence) via Ball State transfer
Gilbert was a rotational back at Ball State last years after getting 251 carries for 1332 yards as a sophomore. He was hurt as a junior and didn’t take back over as a senior but split time. Up in Indiana he was running in an inside zone/spread scheme, working behind combos against lighter boxes. He has good vision and can bounce or cutback well enough, he also has some speed to get to the edge. He doesn’t really have any special attributes but he establishes a solid floor for K-State assuming he picks up the reads of the new run game well.
Clyde Price: 6-1, 220. 3*** from Kansas City, MO (North Kansas City)
Price seems to be the favorite to be the counterpart to Gilbert in year one. He’s got the size to hold up in the Big 12 and he’s used to turning downhill through the A-gaps and running over people that end up in that path. He’s a pretty fluid athlete but you can tell he’s a taller, bigger guy that wants to plant and go sooner than later. I think he’d be comfortable in an outside zone scheme as well, it’ll be interesting to see how he does in a power scheme that doesn’t blow open holes as quickly as his HS OL did.
Thomas Grayson: 6-0, 190. 3*** from Tulsa, OK (Booker T. Washington)
This guy has run a 10.82 100m dash and is one of the fastest guys in a very fast class for K-State. He’s probably in the 4.5 range in the 40 and his playing style is basically to get up to speed and find the sideline so he can pull away from everyone. When he sees a hole he often runs past his own blockers before they find their marks and it works because he can outrun everyone on the field. He’ll need some time to add a little more weight and to learn how to let the scheme do some work for him rather than just racing to daylight but he’s an exceptional athlete.
Joe Ervin: 5-10, 190. 3*** from Rock Hill, SC (South Pointe)
Ervin is my bet for the guy that ends up as the feature back at K-State. Evidently he was about 160 as a junior and frustrated by how often he was taken down at first contact so he put in major work in the offseason to get to 180 or so for his senior year. Then he ran wild.
Ervin is a little better at setting up the cutbacks on downhill runs than the other guys while also possessing some of the acceleration Grayson and then some of the power and hard churning style of Price. He’s going to end up a 5-10 (or 5-9, maybe) 210 pound dude that is hard to get hands on and then still hard to bring down.
Klieman and his staff had a tough situation here where they needed to get immediate help AND still get some talent that could help them in the short term AND guys that could project down the line. We may see Gilbert and Price the soonest and they set a decent floor, but Ervin and Grayson are special talents.
Since the offense revolves around the power run game, these guys were often treasured most for their ability to get down the field and create stress with their speed. In the earlier days under Craig Bohl they didn’t have much speed and would train dudes to run option routes but once they finally got some burners up to Fargo they’d send them down the field to run by distracted safeties.
Joshua Youngblood: 5-11, 170. 3*** from Tampa, FL (Berkeley Prep)
Youngblood has run an 11.1 100m and the vast majority of his highlights are him simply outrunning everyone on the field. He’s another insanely fast guy like Grayson who played some QB and RB in HS and he has a good feel for setting up defenders not only for the bounce outside but also for the vertical crease to blast through. You figure they’ll look to get him the ball in a variety of ways but he’ll be a WR or flex RB as his designation.
Keenan Garber: 6-0, 175. 3*** from Lawrence, KS (Lawrence Free State)
Dineen’s teammate who went EMAW rather than Rock Chalk. He probably made the right call. Check this out:
Dude is a 4.4 type of sprinter with flypaper hands, should be all too easy to get him involved in any style of offense.
Just a couple of takes here but both are track stars that will be impossible to handle if/when K-State gets the power run game going and has QBs that can push the ball down the field.
Carson Wentz was asked to learn how the system worked, how the motions and run actions would create leverage so he could find his guys after the snap and use his fantastic arm to set his guys up for big gains. Easton Stick did some of that but he added a lot more QB involvement in the power run game, running for 600 yards for three seasons in a row and adding 12 and 17 TDs in his junior and senior seasons. I think a strong arm and then toughness to run power are probably the traits they’ll aim to find.
Chris Herron: 6-1, 192. 3*** from Houston, TX (Langham Creek)
SPARQ: 4.71 40, 4.14 shuttle, 32″ vert, 33′ power toss
Classic Bill Snyder QB take, this guy threw more picks than TDs as a senior but he has a strong arm and runs like the wind. Snyder was always looking for the next Michael Bishop, I guess. Herron might have become that with time, he needs to settle down in the pocket in a major way, his eyes are always darting everywhere. I doubt he makes it under the new regime, instead I expect his athleticism to be put to use at another position. I’m not sure where that would be, perhaps WR.
Jaren Lewis: 6-2, 207. 3*** from Columbia, MO (Battle)
Lewis is pretty obviously the plan for the future. He’s great in the vertical game and keeps his eyes downfield and pulls off some plays under pressure, finding guys after rolling out. He’s very good at working from the pocket as well, even under pressure, he’s a good overall athlete and he uses that to set up the kill shot down the field rather than just taking off. His arm strength is good, not great, but it’s more than good enough to lead guys on fades, posts, and seam routes all over the field.
He’s also a pretty solid runner, with a jump cut and some jukes that will cut downhill and isn’t trying to flee from backers or direct shots from safeties like Skylar Thompson did last year. They’ll nurture him as long as they can and then he might be the guy.
I like Herron a lot as a scholarship athlete but not so much at QB, Lewis is the real deal.
Klieman and co did a good job of salvaging the class and finding players that can allow them to field a team this coming fall without relying on walk-ons to a greater and less healthy extent than Snyder did. They also added a handful of athletes in here that are really good and could be high impact players down the line.
They did not grab many of the types of players that made the Bison machine go along the lines and last year’s class only had three OL as well so they may need to add more via transfer come three years time or so when the guys on campus are leaving and the upperclassman ranks are light.