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Kansas State Football: Versatility Kills

It may be just one game, but the Texas Bowl can still shed some light on what we might see this season.

NCAA Football: Texas Bowl-LSU at Kansas State Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports


I’m sick to death of talking about recruiting. The Dylan Edwards saga feels like it’s taking some of the excitement away from what should be one of the more exciting Kansas State football seasons in recent memory. It’s time to worry about what’s going to happen on the field, as opposed to what’s happening on twitter.

IT’S TIME TO GET EXCITED (I don’t use all caps lightly, this is serious business).

One of the intriguing story lines surrounding Kansas State football is the promotion of Collin Klein to offensive coordinator. The K-State legend is bringing new and innovative ideas to the offense this season. Things that should open up options for Adrian Martinez and Deuce Vaughn, and I expect to see more out of the skill positions than we’ve seen over the last few seasons. Klein made a sterling debut as the head play caller at the Texas Bowl, where the Wildcats dominated an undermanned, but still talented, LSU defense.

Klein exploited the LSU defense in numerous ways, but I particularly enjoyed the way he utilized the versatility of his players to create and exploit match-ups. For me, this, along with the strategic use of tempo to trap LSU in bad match ups (which he can do because of his versatile skill position players), is the dividing line between Klein and former offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham. Klein, at least in his first game, showed more flexibility as a play caller. This allowed him to break tendency and keep LSU guessing.

Surprise Formation!

First off, Coach Klieman is going for it on 4th and 3 from the LSU 35 instead of opting for the long field goal or...worse yet...a punt. I like aggressive coaching early in games (especially in bowl games) to set the tone and show confidence in your players. Good work coach.


  • Red Circle: Running Back
    Deuce Vaughn
  • Yellow Triangle: Tight End
    Sammy Wheeler
  • Green Square: Wide Receiver
    Malik Knowles
    Kade Warner
    Phillip Brooks

Looking blindly at this player grouping, I expect the running back offset in the shotgun, a tight end on either side of the line, a boundary receiver isolated to the short side of the field, and a field receiver and slot receiver to the wide side. That’s the standard spread offense look with 11-personnel (1 back, 1 tight end).

Klein decided to go 5-wide with a triangle bunch formation to the top of the screen and a wide receiver stack to the bottom on 4th and 3. Sammy Wheeler and Deuce Vaughn’s ability to play multiple positions allows this formation to happen. This is not what LSU expected out of Kansas State’s 11-personnel and they had no answer.

If I were a betting man, and you asked me what play Kansas State would run on a 4th and 3 early in a ball game, I would bet half of everything I own on a power run and the other half on a Deuce Vaughn route out of the backfield. If this were a Messingham offense, I would have raked in some cash, but the Klein offense has me living on the street.

When coaches talk about breaking tendencies, this is a prime example. LSU wasn’t prepared for this, because this wasn’t on any of the tapes they scouted. I’m surprised LSU didn’t burn a time out in this situation, but I’m glad they didn’t.

Clear Space

This play is designed to get Phillip Brooks the ball on an out route, everything else is window dressing. That alone is a testament to Klein’s faith in his players. Forcing the ball to Deuce is mighty tempting in this situation. Deuce can get three yards on his own, the hard way, but Klein opted to get Brooks wide open the easy way.

Vaughn is utilized as the most explosive decoy in the nation. Nothing on the boundary side of the field matters, and that’s where Kansas State’s two most explosive playmakers (Vaughn and Knowles) are lined up.

The field side is where the action is going down. It’s a simple concept. Wheeler and Warner clear out their defenders with deep go routes and Brooks uses that space to beat his man on the slot out route. It’s important to have Wheeler at 6’4”, 240 on the field instead of a traditional receiver. He’s the guy that’s opening up all the space. If he gets jammed at the line, this play is D.O.A. Brooks needs space on the outside, and Wheeler, and to some extent Warner, are strong enough to beat a jam at the line and get down the field.

Strong Sammy

It’s a tough to see from this shot, but the key for Wheeler on this play is his ability to fight his way through the jam and get to his defenders outside shoulder. Once he gets on the defenders outside shoulder, he’s strong enough to push him up the field. You’ll notice Warner is playing directly off Wheeler’s outside shoulder, making it impossible for his defender to step up and jam him into the route.

Race to the Sideline

At this point, Coach Klein knows he has the first down as long as Thompson and Brooks execute. There is no way for the LSU safety to close on Brooks because he’s inside and Brooks is running away from him. The LSU safety (blue square) knows what’s coming, and is closing hard, but can’t do anything to stop it. That’s what I consider excellent play design.


One last thing about the play design. I didn’t mention it before, but if you go back to the first still, you’ll notice Brooks lined up inside the hash instead of on it, or outside. That’s done for a specific purpose. Klein is clearing out the sideline and wants Thompson to have ample room to complete the pass inbounds while giving Brooks the opportunity to turn it up the field after the completion. If you ignore my shaky drawing, you see that Brooks has room to make something happen after the catch because he lined up inside the hash. If you move that bunch formation wider, he’s trying to make the catch pinned to the sideline, and it’s a more difficult play.

The only chance LSU had on this play was for Kansas State to fail in execution. That happens a good bit in college football. There are plenty of ways for this play to go wrong, despite excellent play design. I’ve seen the receiver get impatient and cut the route a yard short and get drilled before making the line to gain. I’ve seen the quarterback put it on the receivers body, bringing him to a stop, and allowing the safety to close and break up the pass (or break up the receiver). I’ve seen the quarterback airmail the out route in the face of pressure. I’ve seen the receiver worry about turning up the field before making the catch and drop the ball. I distinctly remember a Purdue receiver in this position stumbling out of his break and eating turf instead of picking up the first down. College football is unpredictable, and that’s one of the reasons I love it.

Brooks and Thompson, however, execute this play to perfection. Brooks runs the route to the proper depth. He has a first down as soon as he catches the ball. Even if the safety sticks him, he’s already broken the line to gain. Thompson leads him into the open space instead of putting the ball on his body, further stretching the space for Brooks. Not only was this play a sure 1st down, but it was designed and executed so well that it had touchdown potential.

So Close

Phillip Brooks gets the corner on this play. Full credit to the LSU defender for staying with the play and dragging him down from behind, because Brooks is more than capable of turning this thing up the field and taking it to the house.

How This Translates to 2022

Skylar Thompson is balling out in Miami now, and Adrian Martinez, one of the most polarizing quarterbacks in recent college football memory, is at the helm for Kansas State. Play designs like this are the reason Adrian will thrive in the Kansas State offense.

At Nebraska there would be a read option, fake screen, and the left guard performing a cartwheel instead of blocking. The receiver would still run the out route, but Martinez would be asked to make three decisions while running for his life before getting to the out route. The K-State offense under Klein isn’t going to require him to be a hero on every play. Sometimes less is more, and I expect a simplified offense with fewer decisions to help Martinez cut down on the back-breaking mistakes.

In terms of versatility, every receiver from this play returns in 2022. Deuce will be deployed all over the field in the Klein offense (don’t worry, he’ll get plenty of carries as well). Sammy Wheeler is a solid hybrid tight end option capable of staying in to block or splitting out and playing wide receiver. Throw in the addition of Ole Miss receiver transfer Jadon Jackson and the maturation of RJ Garcia, and dare I say the Wildcats are well stocked at receiver for the first time in the Kleiman era.

What excites me the most about plays like this, and the way Klein utilizes the personnel in general, is the addition of tempo to the mix. Kansas State can run zone option out of 11-personnel with Wheeler as an attached tight end and Deuce in the backfield on 2nd down, and then line up with the exact same personnel in a 5-wide look on 3rd down without allowing the defense to sub into a better grouping. Try and cover this with a linebacker instead of a safety, and it’s a Phillip Brooks house call.

I’m giddy thinking about the possibilities and I’ll draw a few more of my thoughts out in these articles over the next month.

In Conclusion