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K-State Football: First Quarter Report Card

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We’re a quarter of the way through the season, so it’s time for midterms.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

We are three games into K-State’s twelve-game regular season schedule, so that can only mean one thing in college: midterms! Let’s use the grading scale below to evaluate K-State’s performance in 2018.

A: Significantly Exceeds Expectations

B: Exceeds Expectations

C: Meets Expectations

D: Does Not Meet Expectations

F: Failure

Plusses or minuses can be used to provide context within each grade range. With that, let’s get to it.

Overall/Results

Grade: C-

K-State is 2-1 with wins over South Dakota and UTSA and a loss to top-20 Mississippi State. By any reasonable standard, that meets expectations. Beating Mississippi State would have been fun and all, and the game was at home, and it seems like we are experiencing some growing pains that, if managed better, could have led to a better result. But realistically they are at least a top-20 team, and maybe a top-10 team. A win was unlikely.

The minus here gives some color to the actual game performances. K-State trailed well into the second half against South Dakota and needed a special teams score to win. The Wildcats were never really in the game with Mississippi State and, at times, didn’t look like they even belonged on the same field. K-State was better against UTSA, moving up 17 spots in the S&P+ ratings this week, but that was their first decent performance this year. We won’t face a team anywhere near as bad as the Roadrunners the rest of the year. Even KU ranks 45 spots ahead of UTSA.

Offense

Grade: D-

The Wildcats are 95th nationally by S&P+, a ranking that shares a long, undefended border with outright failure. K-State has shown decent explosiveness, ranking 39th nationally in IsoPPP, but living on big plays against the remainder of our schedule probably isn’t a recipe for success. Meanwhile, we are a woeful 104th nationally by Success Rate.

It’s possible that settling on a quarterback and some tweaks to the offensive approach mean better days ahead. But better days for this unit likely mean, at best, a C grade.

Offensive Line: D-

Given the experience level returning with this unit, you could grade more in context and call this an outright failure. K-State is 75th by rushing opportunity rate and 84th by rushing stuff rate, meaning they aren’t giving their backs very many opportunities to do their thing, and are getting stuffed in short-yardage situations way too much. In pass protection it’s even worse, where the sack rate is 122nd nationally. Sure, there’s some context here and K-State isn’t a traditional drop-back passing team, but that’s still way, way too high.

The power lead game with the quarterback has shown some promise, and Skylar Thompson made some big plays on keeps off zone read against UTSA. Getting our athletic linemen moving in space pulling and leading for the backs could lead to better results in the run game. Thompson getting more experience and gaining better pocket presence may also help cut down on the sacks. Let’s hope.

Running Backs: C+

Backs are more difficult to assess individually because their production is significantly dependent on their offensive line. Alex Barnes averages 4.3 highlight yards per opportunity, which ranks in the lower half of the Big 12 among feature backs. That’s not a huge surprise given that Barnes is a bigger back who won’t make a lot of people miss, and it’s more difficult to rip off big runs when you’re reliant on breaking tackles. Dalvin Warmack has had many fewer opportunities, but still has a disappointingly low highlight yards average (4.75). Maybe the biggest item to keep an eye on here is Thompson’s highlight yards average, which is 8.94. If Thompson proves willing and able as a running threat, then the field will open up for Barnes and others.

Quarterbacks: C-

For now, we’re only going to grade Skylar Thompson’s performance here. It appears he will be the quarterback going forward. He’s completing 57.1 percent of his passes for 6.0 yards per attempt. That’s a good completion percentage for low yards per attempt, but he had a real bust of a game against Mississippi State in there. Based on current ratings, we won’t play a defense that good again until Oklahoma State. So if Thompson can improve his completion percentage to 60+ and get his yardage per attempt up to seven yards or more, then this grade could move solidly up to a B.

Thompson’s sack rate at 9.3% is high, but on the young season he’s only thrown one interception in three games, which is pretty good. In the run game, Thompson’s performance looks pretty good thanks to the UTSA game. If there’s more of that in the future, then this offense could get better in a hurry.

Wide Receivers: C+

Our success rate in the passing game is once again bad, but we’ve been fairly explosive when we have managed successful plays. Top target Isaiah Zuber has been really good, with a 74 percent catch rate and 11.7 yards per target. He will need some help, as Dalton Schoen only has six catches on 14 targets this year. Schoen needs to provide some help and it would be nice if Chabastin Taylor or Isaiah Harris got more involved. Keep in mind that Dalvin Warmack has three receptions on three targets and is averaging 10.0 yards per reception. More of that, please.

Defense

Grade: B-

There have been some bumps, but overall K-State’s defense has been decent. The Wildcats rank 59th in Defensive S&P+. They still profile as somewhat of a bend-but-don’t-break unit, with an average explosiveness rating and a well-below-average efficiency rating. Given the proclivities of Big 12 offenses, it’s encouraging that the Wildcats have been pretty strong against the pass (30th by efficiency, 22nd by explosiveness, sixth by completion rate). But they’re relying a little heavily on their (now-banged-up) secondary for these ratings, because they’re only 118th by sack rate.

Defensive Line: F

There’s no good way to say it. K-State ranks among the bottom 20 teams in the country by efficiency and opportunity rate in the run game, is 96th in stuff rate, and is 122nd nationally by sack rate. Will Geary has been a huge loss in the middle, Reggie Walker hasn’t been able to recapture his freshman-year production outside, and there have been no new contributors of note at either position.

This unit has to get better or the defense won’t hold up against the upcoming schedule, which features matchups against offenses rated as follows by S&P+: 4th (West Virginia), 5th (Oklahoma), 18th (Texas Tech), 19th (Oklahoma State), and 27th (TCU).

Linebackers: D-

These guys get a bit of a break because the play in front of them has been so bad, and they’ve been a part of the excellent pass defense. But that’s about it. They certainly have played no small part in a run defense that’s 112th by explosiveness. Blake Seiler may need to get the linebackers more involved in pressuring the quarterback given the line’s deficiencies right now. But if so, then we’ll see how the secondary holds up.

Getting Elijah Sullivan back on the field could help a lot. Da’Quan Patton has a ton of upside, but he’s still in the breaking-in stage, so he’s reading-thinking-reacting rather than reading and reacting. Once he gets to that point, he’ll be able to play downhill and become more effective. Having the more-experienced Sullivan out there next to him would be a big help.

Secondary: B

As mentioned, K-State ranks high in pass defense efficiency and explosiveness by S&P+. And this is by far the biggest factor in K-State’s defense ranking (slightly) above average nationally, overall. But that’s about the end of the good news. The Wildcats rank high by overall completion rate, but that may be a result of the quarterbacks faced. South Dakota’s Austin Simmons (57.1%, 42.9% against K-State), Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald (52.1%, 40.1% against K-State), and UTSA’s Cordale Grundy (53.9%, 60.9% against K-State) aren’t exactly highly accurate passers as a group. K-State has collectively held them below their season averages, but can that continue? We better hope so.

The secondary boasts by far K-State’s best havoc rate at 29th nationally. By marginal efficiency, the team’s best players are Duke Shelley, Walter Neil, Jr., Kendall Adams, AJ Parker and Eli Walker. If you’re going to be good at one position group in the Big 12, then you can do worse than the secondary.

Coaching

Grade: D+

In case you’ve missed it, go read this article detailing the differences between K-State’s recruiting approach and that of most other schools. That alone factors into my first-quarter coaching grade.

A reasonable growth period for new coordinators should have been expected. K-State’s offensive approach has been baffling at times, with a seemingly random and confounding quarterback rotation and uninspired play-calling. The coaches seem to have settled on Thompson at quarterback and did a nice job of using some different run-game concepts against UTSA designed to maximize our personnel. Opposing defenses won’t give our passing game any respect until we show we can make them pay, so we need to use our run-game looks – pulling linemen, play-action and RPOs – to create opportunities for those big plays.

Anyone miss Tom Hayes yet? I’m exaggerating, of course, and part of our problem on defense right now is personnel related, not coaching related. But I’m noticing a concerning lack of gap- and assignment-soundness at this early point in the season. Perhaps these issues will improve with experience for these players. At least the secondary looks good thus far.

Special Teams

Grade: C

Blake Lynch has been a pleasant surprise kicking field goals, even if the S&P+ ratings only put us slightly above average there. Our punting and kickoffs rate surprisingly low, with punting a particular area of concern. The return game is unsurprisingly solid, though it would be nice to see Zuber or Shelley break another return for a touchdown in the next quarter of the season.

Looking Ahead

K-State’s conference slate begins with a difficult test on the road against West Virginia. But the Wildcats get a home game against an underwhelming Texas team before a road trip to Baylor. By S&P+, we’re not projected to win any of these games individually, and it will take real improvement to make us the straight-up favorites in any of them. But by probability, it would be a surprise if the Wildcats didn’t win one of these games. For grading purposes, we’ll set the expectation at 1-2, but considering that both Texas and Baylor have struggled, and Waco isn’t an especially difficult road venue, going 2-1 wouldn’t exceed expectations by a lot.