It’s been a while since I’ve been completely wrong about a team. While I’m by no means an expert handicapper (if I were I’d make money in Vegas, not writing blogs), I’ve covered enough football over the last decade that I have a good feel for most teams. I honestly thought this Kansas State team would be a contender on the national scene. I would like say that this Wildcat team has under-achieved, but I’m not sure they have. After watching the last 5 games and breaking down the tape. I’m sad to report that this team, as currently constituted, is your average, run of the mill 7 or 8 win team. At the start of the season, I thought the floor for this squad was 10 regular season wins.
I was dead wrong.
What I Got Wrong
I saw Will Howard as one of the top 3 quarterbacks in the Big 12 (could be 1, could be 3 doesn’t really matter). Through 5 games, he’s a mid-tier Big 12 quarterback. It’s all about decision making and composure (or lack thereof) with Will, and he’s been poor in both areas after being good/elite last season. He’s thrown 7 interceptions through 5 games after only throwing 4 in 7 games last season. It’s not only that he’s throwing interceptions, it’s that he’s mostly throwing the same interception over and over again.
Will can’t come to grips with teams playing a shell over the top and tight near the line of scrimmage. Teams are daring him to be patient and work the middle of the field in front of the safeties and behind the linebackers. He keeps getting anxious and forcing throws that were open last season but covered this season. He’s yet to see a safety covering the deep middle or notice defenses squatting on the quick outs. I don’t put that pick 6 against Oklahoma State on Brooks running the wrong route. What I see is Brooks realizing the corner is squatting on quick out, and turning the route into an out and up. If Howard sees the same thing, it might go for 6. Instead, he auto throws the quick out and the corner eats it up for 6 the other direction. He does the same thing on the pick late in the game. The defense is sitting on the out route to Sinnott, but it’s the first thing Howard looks at when he’s under pressure. The defender is in perfect position to pick it off because he knows it’s coming. The other team watches film, and Howard auto throwing quick outs is a staple of the K-State offense. They can fix that by throwing a few out and ups to get the corners off the out route, and make a few big plays, but for some reason, Howard is going to throw the 5-7 yard out route or die trying.
Defensive coordinators watch tape, and the tape says that if you make Howard throw a bunch of passes, he’s eventually going to blow up and throw you one. So far through Big 12 play, he’s thrown 1 touchdown and 4 interceptions.
You can’t win like that if you’re relying on your quarterback to move the ball, and that’s my biggest question:
Why is Kansas State relying on Will Howard to move the ball with these receivers?
Last season he attempted 119 passes in 7 games. Through 5 games this season, he’s thrown it 106 times. At the same time, his adjusted yards per attempt has dropped from 8.8 to 6.3. That’s a steep drop, but it’s not all on the quarterback. The receivers, tights ends, and yes, even the running backs have played a role in this decline. He’s having to throw more passes because there is no explosive element in this offense.
I thought Will Howard would play his way into the first 3 rounds of the NFL draft.
I was wrong.
There’s no way to sugar coat this, Kansas State’s skill players (WR, TE, RB) have been bad. The only thing keeping them out of the awful category is solid play by tight end Ben Sinnott. The receivers have been awful. Last season, the ‘Cats featured 5 primary receivers (Vaughn, Knowles, Brooks, Warner, Sinnott) with diverse skill sets. Obviously Deuce was a threat to take it to the house on every catch, but so was Malik on the boundary. Brooks played the slot role to perfection. Warner was the tough guy field receiver always good for a determined run after the catch to pick up key first down or touchdown. Sinnott shined in the red zone and provided Will with a big, reliable target. He was 5th on the team in receptions, but tied for the lead in touchdowns with 4 (one behind Warner). The pieces fit together to form a unit better than the overall sum of the parts.
This year, it’s the complete opposite. The top 5 receivers for the ‘Cats don’t work well as a unit. Everyone has a similar skill set. Phillip Brooks is an excellent slot receiver but asking a 5’8”, 170 pounds (soaking wet) receiver to be your primary receiver is a huge ask. When Brooks glitched out and didn’t block on the Will Howard run (you all know the play I’m talking about) my initial reaction was, “what the hell is Brooks doing.” I had the same reaction the second time I watched it, but I added in “why the hell is a 5’8”, 170 pound slot receiver being asked to go in motion, chip a defensive end, and then block on the perimeter?” Is there not a better player on the roster for that role? If you’re running tempo and he’s stuck on the field, you can’t call that play. Coaching is all about putting players in the position to succeed and having Brooks as a key blocker is not putting him in a position to succeed (this doesn’t excuse whatever happened on that play, but having Brooks lead the way on a run play is like using Uso in coverage... it doesn’t make any sense.
Then there are the two M.I.A. receivers in R.J. Garcia and Keagan Johnson. Neither have lived up to preseason hype, but again, they’re kind of the same guy. Garcia is a rail thin 6’0”, 176 pounds slot receiver. Johnson is a heftier 6’0”, 193 pounds. Last season Malik came in at 6’3”, 200 and Kade tipped the scales at 6’1”, 204. One reason the ‘Cats struggle to break big runs is the lack of downfield blocking. Malik and Kade could physically hold their own. All Johnson and Garcia can do is hold. Kansas State’s 3 best receivers coming into the season are all best suited in the slot. That wasn’t the case last season.
Still, if they were pulling in catches, their blocking issues could be overlooked...but they’re not catching the ball either. Johnson, a transfer from Iowa, was seemingly hurt all camp, and didn’t establish any sort of on-field relationship with Will Howard. On top of that, it feels like every time Keagan touches the ball, he limps off holding a random body part. The same goes with Garcia. It seems like he’s always nursing some sort of injury. Together, the two players Kansas State was counting on to bring explosive plays to the offense have pulled in a collective 19 passes for 243 yard and a touchdown. Meanwhile Brooks has 27 receptions for 276 yards and 2 touchdowns on his own. The Johnson/Garcia receiving duo may be the most disappointing players on the roster.
I thought at least one would have a breakout season.
I was wrong.
The only receiver that’s played above expectations is Jadon Johnson, and I’d like to see more of him please. At 6’2”, 195, he provides decent size on the outside and has speed to burn. Why is Will Howard throwing deep seam routes to the 5’7” Brooks when Johnson is perfect in the role? Still, while Johnson has decent size and solid speed, he’s by no means a physical receiver and at best is an occasional deep shot guy. You don’t see many players haul in 17 receptions in the first 4 years only to become the primary outside guy for a supposed top 25 team. Anything you get from Johnson should be a bonus, but with the receiving group, it feels like he needs a bigger role. I have no idea if he’s up for it.
Then there’s Ben Sinnott. Ben’s having a solid year. He’s second on the team in receptions with 20 and honestly, that’s part of the problem. Howard routinely forces the ball to Ben, sometimes he catches the ball, sometimes he doesn’t, and sometimes it gets picked. Last season the red zone was Sinnott time. His role was defined, and he played it perfectly. He’s been fine this year, but do you really want him leading the team in reception yards? I think Sinnott is going to make a ton of money playing football, but he’s not going to make a ton of money as a primary receiver.
I thought this group of receivers would far surpass last season’s crew.
This is what I got the most wrong.
Out of all the position groups, running back has the smallest share of the blame for the slow start, but I don’t understand their place in the team. That’s a weird thing to say about Kansas State.
More and more, it seems like DJ Giddens is a guy that needs upwards of 20-25 carries to reach his full in-game potential. Klein fed him 30 times against UCF and he paid that off with 207 yards and 4 touchdowns. That’s the only game where he’s cracked 20 carries. Against Missouri he only had 9 carries.
I don’t get it.
You’ve got a physically imposing feature back with surprising speed and quickness and you don’t feed him the ball? Calling D.J.’s number is the easiest play in the book. This shouldn’t be a “balanced” offense. This should be DJ Giddens offense with Howard as a compliment in the run and pass game. Instead it’s Howard’s offense with Giddens as a role player. I thought the UCF game would put that game plan to rest, but instead, they brought it out against Oklahoma State and took their second loss in three games.
I don’t get it.
Then you’ve got Treshaun Ward. He’s been O.K., but all I hear is he hasn’t mastered the blocking scheme yet. At Florida State he averaged 6.6 yards a carry, at K-State he’s averaging 4.9. and taking carries away from Giddens in the process. I see him more as a third down back, capable of catching the ball out of the backfield and making defenders miss or busting a draw up the middle on a spread out defense. He needs to be on the field in some capacity, and while I like the 2 back look, I’m not sure it puts any additional pressure on the defense. Either way, you’re still defending a run play. I’d love to see the staff expand his role and use him as a straight up receiver more often, but if he’s behind on the blocking scheme, I’m not sure how much more you can put on his plate. He’s been fine, but I was looking for more explosion and not a guy that has to earn in 3 to 5 yards at a time.
I thought K-State had one of the better one-two punches at running back in the nation. They’ve been fine, and Giddens has one monster game under his belt, but I don’t think you’re going to find many folks making the “best one-two punch in the nation” argument at this point.
Again, I was wrong. I thought the running back play would be consistently elite.
I think Coach Klein and Klieman are great coaches. I expect them to be at Kansas State as long as they want to be at Kansas State. I do not understand why they refuse to lean on what should be the strength of their team to win games. This is the best run blocking line in the nation. I still believe that, but like Giddens, they need time to beat up the defense, and I’ve only seen that patience in one game. Strangely enough, that game also happens to be the best offensive performance of the year.
The tackles have been bad in pass protection all season. The tackles are also being asked to pass protect way more than they should. KT Leveston is a massive human, but he’s a guard playing tackle. He has consistently struggled against the speed rush during his career. In 2021 he moved to guard, with Beebe playing tackle. Then he moved back out to left tackle in 2022 and had a solid season. Of course last season the Wildcats averaged 40 runs and 28 passes a game. This season they’re averaging 38 runs and 35 passes. I like that Klein is running more tempo, and subsequently more plays, but I don’t like the distribution at all.
Giddens is a workhorse, your left tackle is a monster. Why not put the extra plays in the run column instead of the pass column? If you want a hint at K-State’s confidence in Leveston as a pass blocker, when they needed to move the ball through the air Leveston was removed and Bebee slid over to left tackle on the last drive of the game. The fourth down deflection that ended the game came on an inside stunt that Bebee normally erases, but he was on the perimeter trying to block a speed rusher instead.
The right side was a struggle to start the season, with Duffie coming back from injury. Carver Willis, like Leveston, struggled with the speed rush off the edge. Once Duffie returned from injury, things improved, but like Leveston, Duffie is better in the run game than the pass game. The ‘Cats have two run blocking tackles spending a good part of their day blocking speed rushers off the edge instead of pounding speed rushers into the turf.
The same can be said for the interior line. Bebee is a stud, and when you put him next to Leveston, the ‘Cats should have the most dominant left side in college football. They should steam roll opposing defenses, but they’re not given the opportunity. Instead, Bebee has been used at left guard, left tackle, and right tackle. It’s hard to build consistency in the run game when your best run blocker, possibly the best run blocker in the nation, is playing all over the line because Kansas State has failed to recruit a functional tackle. Of course, that doesn’t matter as much if you’re a run heavy team. The more you run, the easier it is to pass block. Now speed rushers are teeing off on K-State’s slow tackles, and moving Bebee is the only solution. I think it’s negatively effecting his overall game.
The same goes with Gillum. He’s a great run blocker. His ability to pull from the center position is elite. He’s functional, but not nearly as good in pass protection. The same goes for the Taylor Poitier/Hadley Panzer duo. They’re good players, but both are better in the run game than the pass game.
I thought K-State’s offensive line was going to be one of the best position groups in college football. I thought they would road grade teams like Oklahoma State and Missouri into submission. When they get the chance to lean on a team like they did against UCF they’re one of the best position groups in college football. When they’re asked to pass block half the time, they’re mediocre.
I was wrong.
I thought this offense was going to be one of the best offensives in the Big 12. I thought they would utilize their veteran offensive line to dominate games, and then let Will Howard pick teams apart with deep play action shots.
I was wrong.
Last season Kansas State had one of the most unique attacks in the country. They were a run heavy team with a dynamic back capable of taking any handoff the distance. Defenses had to dedicate all their resources to stopping the run, making the reads easy for Howard. If the other team has 8 in the box to stop the run (some combo of 7 defensive linemen and linebackers and a safety), you’re guaranteed man coverage or a super soft zone on the back end. The deep safety Howard keeps throwing the ball to wasn’t there last year. He was in the box trying to corral Deuce. Last season Will was throwing into single coverage most of the time. This year, teams are keeping their safety deep and he hasn’t adjusted to the extra defender, or extra two defenders, in coverage.
After the Oklahoma State game, it’s clear a shift in offensive philosophy is warranted. I hope Klein takes this generic spread offense, throws it in the trash, takes the trash to the dumpster, then sets the dumpster on fire, and once the dumpster stops burning, it needs to be hauled off and dropped into a quarry. It’s not going to get this team where it needs to go, and puts emphasis on skill players that aren’t good enough to win you the game. I’d love someone to ask Klein what he sees on film that dictates a balanced offense.
Is the receiver group great in practice and not showing up in games?
Does the offensive line pick up twists and stunts in practice?
Do the tackles strap concrete blocks to their feet on Saturday?
This coaching staff has gotten away from the things that Kansas State does at an elite level (running the ball until the defense is puking on the field) and instead are putting the game on Will Howard and a one-note receiving group. I thought this was a minimum 10 win team, but unless the staff remembers what got them to the dance....
I was wrong....way...way...way wrong.
There is still time to get this fixed. The solution is right in front of them. I once against hope to see a return to the ground and pound style against Texas Tech on Saturday. I don’t see any other way forward for this team.