Klieman’s Wildcats have a few players on defense that could potentially make for an unexpectedly strong group in 2019. This defense was one of the league’s best at the start of the decade with S&P+ top 25 units in 2012 and 2013 and then still another solid group in 2014 that finished 42nd. Then some of their disruptive talents like Ryan Mueller moved on and they became more of a patchwork quilt defense in subsequent seasons that leaned more on discipline whereas those earlier units had some legitimate athleticism and talent across the group thanks to JUCO mining.
The 2018 defense wasn’t particularly great although it wasn’t particularly bad either, but it had a few solid contributors that will be back for 2019 and could make for nice building blocks.
Defensive line looks reasonably solid, which is huge because of the strategy at the heart of the defense that Klieman is bringing from Fargo, ND and that Scottie Hazelton will presumably be looking to implement.
Encouraging the run game
Most of the good defenses these days orient their personnel and alignments to encourage offenses to run the ball. From there they’ll have different methods to try and funnel the ball to locations where their smaller, faster personnel can make the tackle for minimal gains. K-State themselves have been doing that as well, for years they’ve lined up against and defended trips formations like this:
Some constants are that they’ll set their nose tackle to the field so that the LB who’s responsible for the B-gap is set to the field. The B-gap is closer to the slot receiver he has to match than the A-gap, but then they’ll also often play it like they do here with the DE outside of the nose playing a “heavy” technique and looking to close up the B-gap and allow the LB to play the C-gap late after sitting in the passing lane if it’s an RPO.
This is more or less how North Dakota State did things as well. Wyoming under Hazelton last year did things a little differently as they played a lot more single-high man coverage than any Klieman or Bill Snyder team I’ve ever seen, but they operated under a similar principle. When they played singled high against a set like above they’d bump the MLB out to the trips side and bring down the FS (Andrew Wingard, three consecutive seasons with 110+ tackles) to serve as a de-facto LB.
Where teams can get into trouble with this approach to run defense is if the offense can open up a vertical crease to shoot their RBs through. The three-down tite front preferred by many teams tries to sort out that problem by parking big DEs in the B-gaps, a four-down defense like K-State has and will play relies on sturdy play by the DTs and smart athletes at DE.
With Trey Dishon back at tackle and then Reggie Walker (12.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks in 2018) and Wyatt Hubert (7.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks in 2018) at DE with depth behind them from Boom Massie and Kyle Ball things look pretty positive here. The Wildcats had finally gotten back to building the sort of DL they had in their better seasons, thanks to the now departed Blake Seiler.
What if they pass anyways?
This has quietly been the bane of Nick Saban’s defenses at Alabama. He can draw up two-deep/dime defenses to try and encourage teams to run into the big ILB and powerful DL he leaves on the field to build a five-man box, he can draw up some schemes to help those five-men control gaps and direct the ball to speed. But if you just shrug your shoulders and throw it anyways into their two-deep shells and coverage defenders? They can be had.
This is where Walter Neil, Jr becomes an important figure for the Wildcat’s 2019 season. The 5-9, 175 pound nickel is a relative unknown in the Big 12 and I imagine I was one of maybe a handful of voters that even considered him for the preseason All-B12 team. In 2018 he had 40 tackles and defended two passes. That’s it, that’s the extent of his personal statistical impact on the 2018 season.
Turn on the film though and you see that Neil is about as solid in run support or playing perimeter blocks as you can expect from such a small fellow and that he regularly had assignments in coverage that freed up the strong safety to be the man against the run.
The trips coverage I laid out above essentially aims to X out the space outside of the hash mark with the CB and then turn the nickel and the slot across from him into the new outside WR with the safety helping inside from there. At times though, they’d play the slot that way against twin sets as well as trips sets.
That was particularly common when fellow nickel Johnny Durham was out there:
Just observe how downhill the strong safety (Eli Walker) is playing from the snap. That’s a two yard gain with the safety making the tackle.
There’s evidently been some discussion on this point, but it’s a solid bet that the preference for the new staff will be to utilize Neil’s CB-caliber cover skills at the nickel to help free up the safeties to play the run or just to bracket good twins sets.
Another area where Neil was particularly strong a year ago was in matching routes in underneath zone:
Teams often preferred to work the ball elsewhere against the Wildcats when they were in cloud coverage (pattern-matching cover 2, basically) to the field. In this instance they misfired working in that direction, in other instances they hit big. Where he was particularly good was in having the quickness to get to the spots he needed to be in order to obstruct passing windows while keeping eyes on the backfield.
Whether or not the Wildcats use similar techniques under the new coaches though remains to be seen. One of the key features to K-State over the years was their trademark cushions they offered outside at corner, even when playing cover 2 with the CBs in the flats. The Wildcats preferred to maintain their distance on opponents and then close with the ball in the air, their better corners over the decade were the ones that had the quickness, timing, and football IQ to get a good jump on routes playing off.
The Bison and the Cowboys played up on opponents and looked to deny space. You can see the difference in how each program accumulated turnovers.
Last year K-State’s D picked off 11 passes and seven were by CBs, the other was by Durham and I don’t know if he was playing CB or nickel when it occurred. The Bison D picked off 23 passes and 15 of them came from their S/LB and two starting safeties. Wyoming’s D picked off 10 passes and only two were picked by their corners. INTs are often a solid sign of secondary health but they tend to go to the guys who have their eyes on the QB. The Wildcats have been good at having lots of eyes on the QB and backfield but they’ve had to compensate for the challenges of that approach by playing everyone off, I think we’ll see the new staff play it differently.
An effective K-State defense in 2019 is one in which the DL control gaps up front and the CBs and nickel control route stems outside, channeling the ball inside for the LBs and Ss to put up big stats. If that happens the latter group will get a lot of the credit but this is how the mechanism of the new defense actually works.
With Neil, A.J. Parker, and then Durham and some JUCOs in the pipeline the Wildcats have some athletic guys that may be up for matching routes more aggressively in 2019 to free up veteran safety Denzel Goolsby and Oklahoman RS freshman Wayne Jones to ball hawk from the hash marks.