1. K-State has a defensive identity that gives it a legitimate chance to beat any team in the country.
The success of the Wildcats' run defense cannot be overstated. While doubts should continue to exist regarding the team's ability to defend the passing game, the ability for the K-State defense to take away opponents' running game and make them one-dimensional is huge.
Texas Tech will cause K-State to tweak and improve its pass defense, but the real tests for the defense will be when more balanced attacks such as Oklahoma and Baylor take on the Wildcats. If K-State is able to force those teams into more predictable passing situations, I like the chances for an EMAW victory. If not, well, let's just say the Wildcats' special teams unit had better dominate.
In watching the games thus far, it would seem that Travis Britz is an all-league talent at defensive tackle, along with Ryan Mueller at defensive end (even if his statistics are down, he's still been a disruptive factor). Jordan Willis has appeared stout against the run, as have Valentino Coleman and Will Geary. The emergence of Travis Green at safety, a player that once appeared more suited to a career at linebacker and who has the look of a Big 8 / early Big 12 safety, has further enhanced the Wildcats' identity as a run-stuffing unit. Lastly, the physical open field tackling of cornerback Danzel McDaniel (WOW!) and sound play from Randall Evans has been encouraging.
Even in today's pass-happy era, the ability to run the football is a vitally important skill. A team that is able to routinely shut down the opponent's running game should be able to keep itself in virtually every game.
2. "I still haven't found what I'm looking for..."
K-State still seems to lack a true offensive identity. Does this mean that they are a bad offense? No, it does not. However, four games into the season, they have the look of a slightly above average running team and a slightly above average passing team, that has good balance between the two, but cannot dominate a solid defense in either area. Unlike last year, the problem is not multiple quarterbacks getting the snaps. Instead, no facet of the offense has established itself as the cornerstone of the offense. Look for that to change within the next two or three games as the team gets into the heart of conference play.
The lack of a true identity does not doom the Wildcats to be just an average team. However, it does make the possibility of the Wildcats beating the top Big 12 teams seem a little less likely. Coach Snyder always wants the Wildcats' offense to have balance, which is an intelligent and successful offensive approach.
The key to K-State offenses under Snyder has involved how the team would be able to arrive at that balanced approach to scoring points. Generally, that has involved a stout running game with passes based off of the running game that are opportunities for big plays. However, there is no reason that the opposite cannot be true, with the passing game opening up oppurtunities for the running game.
Coach Snyder is a major believer in spreading the defense out to run the football. When he goes with a five wide receiver set (like he did late against Iowa State and I was calling "quarterback draw" before the snap), the offense is just as likely to run the football as it is in a traditional two-back set. In the mid-1990s, when the offense would go with a single-back approach with four receivers spread into the formation and without a tight end, it was almost invariably a carry for the tailback in the middle of the field against a defense with only five defenders in the box.
At this point, what is unclear is what the core competency of the Wildcats' offense should be this season. The quarterback run game / pop pass combination can be devastating, but only if the quarterback run game is successful or at least successful enough to get those safeties biting on it. The same goes for traditional play action and the non-Wildcat formation tailback run game. The problem with this approach is that the Wildcats' traditional tailback run game and their quarterback run game against decent to good defenses (Auburn and Iowa State, with the exception of 20 minutes or so in that game) have not been strong enough to open up the plays used to make the defense pay for overcommitting to the run. Likewise, the passing game has not been consistent enough, accurate enough, or successful enough over the middle to significantly loosen things up for the running game.
A healthy Tyler Lockett can do wonders for the K-State offense, but it would seem that if K-State's offense is going to move from pretty good to very good, the offensive line's run blocking will dictate gameplanning moving forward.
3. Depth Concerns Speak to the K-State Way
Understandably, Kansas State fans were not thrilled with how things went in the fourth quarter against UTEP. The defensive backups allowed UTEP to move down the field for some easy scores. There were missed tackles, missed assignments, and some guys did not make plays. That UTEP had some late game success is not altogether surprising, but it does seem to highlight a few things about the Wildcats' football program. Concerns about depth were expressed. While that is probably a valid concern with regard to some positions, especiallly with some minor (we hope) injuries, I tend to see a few other things out of this, unrelated even to the blowout conditions, which are not likely to be discussed too much.
First, K-State fans should accept that the coaching staff is putting the right players out on the field. K-State fans, probably as much or more than most fan bases, seem to think that more talented players are always being held as reserves for one reason or another. Often, it is believed that because they haven't mastered the schemes or just because the coaching staff rewards players with certain intrinsic values over the new, talented, and undisciplined players. I am guilty of this type of questioning, too. To be fair, sometimes these viewpoints prove to be true (see Dakorey Johnson and Travis Green). However, the game against UTEP demonstrated quite clearly that the first string defense is vastly superior in execution to the second string defense.
Second, the success of the starters and some of the struggles of the backups should also speak to the coaching staff's ability to coach players up and teach them to play to their responsibilities once they get first team repetitions. Arguably, this is one of the deepest Kansas State teams since the early 2000s. This is not to say the two-deep is just stacked with NFL talent, but there appears to be legitimate talent in the second and third string for K-State that usually is not there.
However, the difference that can often be seen out of the first string is that those players have learned their responsibilities more or less to a tee, whereas the second string players may have more blown assignments and worse fundamental play. The takeaway is that this difference is a result of great preparation work that is applied to the first string in the team's practices. Ideally, that same preparation could be completed for the backups, but realistically, it is difficult to get those players the repetitions (I would imagine practice time constraints come into play here) to have their positions mastered to the same degree as the first team players that get all that live game action, film review of their play, and the bulk of the repetitions in practice
In other words, those first string players have been coached up and maxed out, whereas the backups have not yet had the full benefit of that. This makes experience a vital component to success. This is also part of the reason that K-State is annually replacing an average of six or seven defensive starters in Snyder 2.0.
4. Get the Starters Out Earlier in Blowouts
Now that we are into full-blown Big 12 play, this is likely to become a less frequent occurrence, but it was more than a little frustrating to see starters remain in the game so long against UTEP. The concern for injuries is the biggest problem. Also, the team needs to develop some depth and keep a raging Bo Pelini from running onto the football field. Here's to hoping that the Wildcats end up on the right side of some more blowouts...and get the starters out of there earlier.
5. Redshirt the Junior College Players
Provided that D'Vonta Derricott, A.J. Allen, and Isaiah Riddle have redshirt seasons available, it would be a good idea for them to redshirt. It is very unlikely that any of them will contribute signficantly this season, but it seems pretty likely that they could be major contributors in the next two seasons.
Think about how nice it would be for K-State if we could have Dakorey Johnson for another year. Instead, he played as the sixth linebacker and special teams player at times last year, but did not truly develop until his second year in the program. Also, don't forget that his brother, Quncy Morgan, isn't running across the goal line in the snow against Nebraska in 2000 if he didn't redshirt in 1998 out of junior college (I have to convince myself he would not have gained much playing time that season because of wide receiver depth in order to not lose my mind to the "what ifs" that would be piled into that 1998 season).
The second year out of junior college is when many players start to make a difference. Just look at Travis Green and Valentino Coleman, too. So what does all of this mean? It means that the book is not yet closed on Derricott, Allen, Riddle, and also Terrell Clinkscales (who is not redshirting) becoming major contributors to this Kansas State Wildcats football team. Some or all of them may still develop into starters for the Wildcats.