Welcome to this week's listing of five things that do not neatly fit into the traditional news outlets' analyses of the Wildcats' upcoming game against Auburn. Obviously, there is cause for a hefty serving of both alarm and optimism heading into this matchup. We'll start with the alarming news first.
1. The middle of the K-State defense is desperately in need of more speed
Will Davis, Jonathan Truman, and Dylan Schellenberg are not going to magically wake up as faster players. They are great team players and this piece is not meant to belittle them. When they tackle well, they can help comprise a solid K-State defense, like the one in the second half of Saturday's contest. However, even when they make tackles, they can still be picked on, just like Mark Mangino did.
K-State can probably afford to have at least one slower but heady performer in the middle of the defense if it wants to play a more aggressive style of defense, which seems to be the intent. With last year's bend-don't-break defense, the team rather successfully employed a defense with Blake Slaughter and Truman manning the linebacker spots. However, it is now quite clear that Ty Zimmerman's excellent play was taken for granted and probably covered up some defensive weaknesses.
K-State now starts slower-than-average (by position) players at three of the four spots in the second and third layers of the middle of the defense. It is tough to see that being successful against Auburn, Oklahoma, and Baylor, along with a handful of other Big 12 offenses.
So what can Kansas State look to for a solution? First, Dakorey Johnson should increased playing time and it seems that his workload has increased. It is not realistic to expect either of the junior college transfers at linebacker to make a difference until at least the heart of the Big 12 schedule, Elijah Lee does not appear to be ready to be plugged in as much more than a pass rusher, and it seems that perhaps Mike Moore is not strong enough in pass coverage to garner much playing time. However, Dakorey Johnson seems to be improving and his coverage skills should reduce some of the linebacker coverage mismatches that teams would otherwise expose.
The second suggestion is to get Kaleb Prewitt many more repetitions against Auburn and UTEP, with the aim of him starting by game five or six. It is understandable to think that the coaches do not want him to have to receive a baptism by fire against Auburn, like Dante Barnett did against Waco in 2012. However, getting some more snaps for Prewitt could be essential for the Wildcats' defense to have slightly more success against the Tigers. One would hope that perhaps the extra week of preparation would have helped the true freshman's development.
2. K-State's quarterbacks are "system quarterbacks"
This may seem like an inflammatory statement. It is not. What I mean is that K-State quarterbacks, and their success in the quarterback run game, is the result of an innovative offensive approach that is geared as much to their unique running styles as it is their abilities as passers.
Coming out of junior college, Jake Waters was accurately labeled as a pro style quarterback. He had a good arm and could run to make the occasional play, but it was far from being his forte. However, under the tutelage of the K-State staff, a guy that is probably still traditionally just an above average runner at the quarterback position is putting up rushing numbers that any K-State quarterback (yes, including Ell Roberson, Collin Klein, MIchael Bishop, and Daniel Sams) would be proud of.
While the sample size has not been huge, it has become very apparent that Kansas State's philosophy and ability to "coach up" quarterbacks' run skills is part of a system. We're used to hearing that "system quarterback" label apply to players on high-octane pass offenses (Texas Tech under Mike Leach immediately comes to mind). However, one does not usually think of the same term applying to consecutive quarterbacks demonstrating excellence in the quarterback run game.
As a K-State fan, I feel just fine calling Jake Waters a system quarterback for two reasons. First, being a system quarterback does not mean he is not also a very talented quarterback. Interestingly, the "system quarterback" label is not bandied about for mediocre and poor quarterbacks. Second, system quarterbacks also seem to lead their teams to quite a few wins.
3. Observations of kickoff and punt returners
I have two different views of where the Wildcats are going with both of these units.
On kickoff returns, it would seem that Morgan Burns should not be the person returning kicks. While he is very fast, he appears slow and hesitant with the football in his hands on kickoff returns. It would stand to reason that, if completely healthy, Tyler Lockett should see some time returning kickoffs against Auburn and in conference games. However, it also seems that more dynamic players, such as Judah Jones, Jarvis Leverett, and Andre Davis would be better fits for the position than Burns. Putting Charles Jones on kickoff returns (as was done against Iowa State) is also something I disfavor, due to my preference for him to receive more touches as a tailback, along with his role in the Wildcat formation.
With regard to punt returns, the coaches' approach of having Curry Sexton handle those duties by fair catching has made sense to this point. The aim has been ball security. However, teams will begin to gameplan around that in ways that may not be good for K-State's field position. I wholeheartedly am against Tyler Lockett returning punts and I am hopeful that our coaching staff is, too. He's done it before and looked much less comfortable than on kickoffs (and Tramaine Thompson, too). Also, he would be exposed to some worrisome hits. Instead, provided that the coaches think that Judah Jones is ready (to not to muff punts), I would hope that he is given the chance to be the primary punt returner. His speed and elusiveness make him a natural for the job.
K-State will need good special teams plays to win games in the Big 12 and it is conceivable that special teams could give our team an edge against Auburn. However, if the current players continue to be used in these same roles, it seems likely that the Wildcats' return game will not be producing big plays.
4. Charles Jones needs to be the every down back
Jon Morse made a key identification on this point. It seems that Charles Jones possesses the entire skill set to be an effective running back in this offense. He is a solid runner that has good vision. He has been described as a steady receiver. From reports, he also blocks the best among the tailbacks.
All of this means that it would make sense to shift some of the running game burden off of Jake Waters' shoulders (I am certainly not the only Wildcats fan that cringes when I think of the shot he took on the two-point conversion in Ames). It would still make sense to spell Jones with DeMarcus Robinson and perhaps Jarvis Leverett or Judah Jones, if they were ready, as Jones also is the pilot of the Wildcat formation.
It seems like it is time for K-State's coaching staff to find out if Charles Jones is up to the task of getting 20 to 25 touches per game in more of a feature role in the offense.
5. Danzel McDaniel the equalizer?
Danzel McDaniel has not taken long to make a splash on K-State's defense. He has clearly established himself as the team's top cornerback. His combination of size, speed, and tackling skills in one player at the cornerback position is something that K-State fans have not seen in the past 20-plus years that I have closely followed the program. Terence Newman was skilled, fast and big enough, but not especially physical. Chris Canty was aggressive, physical and quick, but also not very tall. This does not mean that McDaniel is at their level, but the tools are certainly there for him to both excel and be a very unique talent.
It could be said that Danzel McDaniel was recruited for games like the one against Auburn. Sammie Coates and Duke Williams are both big and talented receivers that still outsize McDaniel. However, if McDaniel can consistently lock up in one-on-one battles with these guys and hold his own, it would be a major plus for the Wildcats.
My guess is that McDaniel will be matched up with Coates more times than not and that if Williams is used for plays over the middle (as has been the case often for Auburn this year), the Wildcats may seek to have Randall Evans cover him (as was seen with some effectiveness in the second half against Jarvis West in the Iowa State game).
Auburn has excellent talent across the board and especially at wide receiver. K-State's defensive backs and linebackers are not going to out-talent Auburn in this matchup. However, if Danzel McDaniel can hold his own and the defense can get a few stops against Auburn's running game, K-State may be able to slow Auburn down enough to stay in the game and make things interesting.