Everyone knows the phrase: "you can't teach an old dog new tricks." Well, do not be at all surprised if Bill Snyder tries a new trick by starting Alex Delton, a true freshman, at quarterback this season. In my opinion, after more thought, it is a decision that makes good sense.
I am generally not one to give in to premature, irrational decisions. That is why I had initially thought, "it's great that there's strong competition at quarterback. Hopefully, the guys will push each other, either Joe Hubener or Jesse Ertz will gain some separation, and Alex Delton can redshirt." In most other years under Bill Snyder, this would be a fairly safe assumption. However, the more I have thought about this, the more that starting Alex Delton from the get-go seems like the logical choice.
This opinion piece is not meant to in any way discount Joe Hubener and Jesse Ertz. They are both solid talents at the quarterback position that could succeed as the Wildcats' signal caller this season. Nevertheless, for the following reasons, it makes very good sense to start Alex Delton at quarterback this year. Here's why:
1. The offense needs a way to generate yards and big plays.
To put it mildly, the lack of returning skill position production from last season's team is concerning. The longest run of the year was Jake Waters running up the middle against Oklahoma. Without the excellent play of Jake Waters, Tyler Lockett, and Curry Sexton, our offense would have been pedestrian at best.
That does not necessarily mean that the offense in 2015 will be an unmitigated disaster, but all indications are that our offense will struggle to keep pace with other offenses in the Big 12. Under all of the good Bill Snyder teams, he and his offensive coaching staff (like any team, but perhaps with more exaggeration) have built their offense around the limited number of playmakers that have existed. Last season it was the three guys mentioned above. In the season before that, it was Lockett, Daniel Sams, John Hubert, and Tramaine Thompson. Before that, the team had some of the aforementioned players and Chris Harper.
The question for 2015 is who could be that playmaker? It is difficult to see returning running backs rising to the level of being "gamebreakers". The new running backs are an unknown quantity. The wide receiver position has some potentially solid players, but again, it is difficult to see many of them becoming a consistent playmaker (although, judging by the spring game, Dominique Heath may have some potential. Even if some guys come out of nowhere at those positions to excel, there is still concern that the offense will need a boost.
Joe Hubener and Jesse Ertz are both viable threats to run the football. However, the quickness and zone read capabilities of Alex Delton give the offense an entirely different facet that could lead to some big plays. Furthermore, as we have seen with previous K-State offenses, a strong (and not just decent) quarterback run game also tends to strengthen the success of the tailback-based rushing attack. This is likely because of the ability to expose creases and other weak spots in defenses. Lastly, when a passing play would break down, Delton would likely be a threat to expose defenses with his wheels.
2. It fits in with our style of play and establishes an identity.
Kansas State is not going to consistently outgun Baylor. Likewise, the Wildcats are going to struggle to outgun a good portion of the conference. While the move to a pass-first attack last season was a smart one, it was predicated by an offense taking advantage of mismatches it will no longer possess. Something I have confidence in K-State doing is being more physical than the bulk of the teams in the conference. With the talent the Wildcats have on hand, regardless of who is at quarterback, it seems pretty clear that they will fair better in conference play if the run game is the focus, instead of the passing game.
There are two key ways that I see the fit of Alex Delton as the starter playing out to the Wildcats' favor. First, with an offense geared around a rushing attack spearheaded by Alex Delton, the Wildcats could seek to play Snyderball and dominate time of possession. This is the counter-culture approach to combat the spread offenses. Kansas State should have a solid defensive football team. If the offense were to churn out physical, time-consuming drives, followed up by opponents' quick 3, 4, or 5 play drives that would result in punts or even longer drives and field goal attempts under the bend-don't-break philosophy, opposing teams begin to get very frustrated. This can lead to many close games and some surprising wins. It was essentially the blueprint for K-State's success in 2011.
Second, starting Alex Delton would give our offense an identity it might otherwise lack. We all remember the 2013 season and how the Jake Waters and Daniel Sams quarterback battle left the offense (and more than anything, I think, the play callers) without an identity to build upon. The core competency upon which Bill Snyder has built his teams since 1997 has been an offense that can run the football, including a heavy dose of the quarterback run game. If the offense focuses on the nuances of its running game with Alex Delton at the helm, I am quite confident the rushing attack would be much more robust than it was last season.
3. Even if Alex Delton is not as strong of a passer as the coaches would like, the passing game is likely to have some struggles regardless of who plays.
While I made the comparison to the 2011 Kansas State team earlier in this article, another worthwhile comparison would be the 2001 team. That team featured Ell Roberson, a redshirt sophomore dual-threat quarterback, and Marc Dunn, a junior college All-American that was more of a passing threat. The wide receiver position at the time was not particularly strong, nor particularly deep. While Ell Roberson had his share of struggles, it became apparent that Marc Dunn's strengths did not suit the current roster. The same was true the following season and Roberson began to hit his stride as a passer by building upon his experience from the previous season.
It is not clear that Hubener and Ertz are necessarily more polished passers than Delton (as it was with Dunn and the sophomore version of Roberson). However, part of the point I am making here is that the coaches probably would not be wasting away talent at the wide receiver position by deciding to go with a true freshman that may not operate as efficiently in the passing game as someone like Jake Waters did. In reality, that was probably a huge reason behind the coaching staff's decision to go with Waters over Daniel Sams. To play Sams as the full-time starter would have meant they would have reduced the value of the mismatch created by Tyler Lockett (and to a lesser extent Tramaine Thompson and Curry Sexton). It is also little surprise that when Lockett and Sexton were injured, against Baylor and Oklahoma State, the offense relied much more heavily on Sams and his running skills.
There is no reason the team could not take a similar approach to the Daniel Sams offense from those games, but with Alex Delton at the helm, with the hope that he develops passing skills that Sams seemed to lack. First year quarterbacks routinely struggle to pass the ball well in Bill Snyder's offense (even the really good ones--see Michael Bishop in 1997, Ell Roberson in 2001, and Collin Klein in 2011). The key for Alex Delton would be for him to achieve adequacy in the passing game, while minimizing turnovers.
4. Alex Delton is not your typical true freshman quarterback.
Everything we hear about Mr. Delton is that he is very mature for his age. He enrolled early. He has been lauded for his ability to learn the offense and his willingness to work. Those are exactly the traits you want in any quarterback and they are absolutely essential for a young quarterback to garner any serious consideration for playing time. In addition to these reasons, if Delton, Hubener, and Ertz are locked in a tie this fall, it seems logical to think that Delton would have the most room to improve and might be the one most likely to show the most improvement after receiving repetitions. I also have a theory that pocket passers almost always look better in practice relative to their game performance than dual-threat quarterbacks. The reason is that teams generally do not go full contact with their quarterbacks, so some of the long runs, broken tackles, and extended passing plays may not include the same impact in a practice that they would in a game. Moreover, it seems that Alex Delton may have a higher ceiling than his competitors.
5. The "let's redshirt him" position could backfire.
Let us presume that Jesse Ertz wins the job this fall, despite the coaches thinking Alex Delton is the slightly better quarterback because they really want him to keep that redshirt. If Ertz starts the entire season and is successful, that is great. However, what if Delton is still the better quarterback going into the 2016 season? Would Bill Snyder unseat an incumbent starter? Would the team struggle through another quarterback controversy? Would Alex Delton wait his turn through a redshirt season and two seasons on the bench if he felt he was the team's best quarterback, or would he transfer?
This justification is admittedly the weakest of the five, as it is dependent upon many hypothetical situations arising and is countered by the strong argument that Alex Delton would be better as a redshirt senior than as a true freshman. However, there is a pretty strong case to be made that a redshirt season, based upon the team's make-up and the future of the position, may not be as necessary and clean of an option as it would initially seem.
In the end, it is all going to come down to the quarterback candidates' performance during practices this fall. However, in my opinion, if the coaching staff wants to field the most competitive possible team in 2015, Alex Delton should be the signal caller from the start of the season and the coaches should be prepared for a somewhat bumpy ride, as the precocious Mr. Delton learns the ropes.