To fret or fret not. That is the question.
In the run-up to the start of the 2014 football season, it has become apparent that many of the national and even regional commentators follow nearly identical storylines about teams and their chances for success in the next season. Is the number of returning starters that an offense or defense has relevant? Yes. Is it the be all, end all? Certainly not.
Some could say that traditional method for mass evaluation of teams is all that is possible given the number of teams. It is arguably a gargantuan task just to do it for a single conference. Others might claim that not providing in-depth analysis is lazy journalism, or at the very least lacking in creativity. And, finally, others may claim that the tried and true method is accurate and has only minimal flaws.
he development, successes, and failures of a college football team are due to innumerable factors with a group of kids generally 18 to 23 years old. As such, a worthwhile analysis needs to dig a little deeper than just returning starters, statistics, and the number of stars that some of the incoming recruits have. Fortunately for you all, Bring on the Cats is a website dedicated to Kansas State University athletics. As a result, this article is aimed to focus on four areas or topics that K-State fans should be more and less concerned about. We will start off with the bad news first.
Four Things to Fret About
1. K-State's offense in short yardage situations
Without the Wildcat—and, more to the point, without Daniel Sams in the Wildcat—one has to worry about the ability of the K-State offense to keep drives alive and convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns. It is difficult to see who will be able to operate the Wildcat with a high degree of effectiveness, but it could be essential for one of the running backs or Taylor Laird (if he has the tools) to provide an option in that role. The Wildcat provides a numerical advantage that becomes particularly important in tight quarters. It can be very, very hard to be successful by running a simple i-formation ground attack into the teeth of even an average defense that expects the run.
2. Lack of a consistent pass rush
First off, I acknowledge that Ryan Mueller is Rambo on the football field. However, for all of the havoc that he causes in opponents' backfields, it could again be very troubling for K-State if opposing quarterbacks consistently get time to throw the ball because the rest of K-State's defense rarely disrupts the passing game. There are three reasons this happened last year: (1) K-State didn't blitz much due to the bend-don't-break approach (which has generally been a wise approach); (2) when the Wildcats did blitz, it could be seen from a mile away; and (3) besides Mueller, nobody else on the defense seemed to show much of an ability to rush the passer, unless you count a handful of plays by Mike Moore playing defensive end in pass rushing packages. Marquel Bryant, Jordan Willis, Tanner Wood, Laton Dowling, and the interior defensive linemen (Terrell Clinkscales, many K-State fans are looking at you) will need to step up for this not to come back and bite K-State.
3. The end of Ty Zimmerman's eligibility
Many K-State fans are arguably in denial and have sought to discount the enormity of losing Ty Zimmerman. He was essentially the quarterback of K-State's defense for three or four seasons. He was rarely beaten deep. He was a sure tackler. He was excellent in run support. He even came up with some very big plays here and there. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for a safety in today's game, he almost never seemed to be out of position. K-State fans are painfully aware of how much the defense's play dropped off during his late season injuries the past two seasons. Heck, even TCU's sputtering offense came to life in large part to Zimmerman's absence. None of this is meant to discount the ability of Dante Barnett, Dylan Schellenberg, and the other candidates at safety. Instead, it is just to point out the need for K-State to have very solid play at both safety positions and the difficulty that replacing Zimmerman could entail.
4. Would a switch to more passing alter K-State's identity?
Tyler Lockett has developed into an almost impossible-to-cover route runner. Jake Waters possesses a live arm and is particularly accurate on deep throws. Why not throw caution to the wind and put the ball in the air 50+ times per game? Does anyone remember those Texas and Oklahoma games in which he amassed more than 500 combined receiving yards? Yes, those were spectacular performances. Does anyone remember the outcomes? Oh yeah, two losses.
It is unlikely that the coaching staff has any intent to abandon the run. However, if K-State loses some of its physical ground-and-pound identity, does that not allow the team to capitalize on worn down opponents at the ends of games? Does it mean that Snyderball (the time of possession tactic employed to slow down and frustrate opposing offenses by limiting possessions) will go by the wayside? Does it mean that K-State won't just be able to win one or two games per year (Texas Tech last year, Texas in 2010, and Kansas pretty much every season all come to mind) by flexing its muscles and proving to be the stronger team? None of that is known now. It is worth remembering that Bill Snyder built K-State into a very solid team in the early-to-mid 90s with offenses that leaned on the passing game. The hope is that this season's team can still roll up its sleeves and pound the ball when it needs to, while still utilizing the unique talent that Lockett possesses.
Four Things Not to Fret So Much About
1. The running back position
When was the last time that Bill Snyder didn't feature a solid player at the tailback position? Bill Snyder's first tenure saw J.J. Smith become the school's all-time leading rusher, only to be surpassed by his younger teammates Mike Lawrence and Eric Hickson. After seasons that saw talents such as Josh Scobey, Frank Murphy, and Joe Hall line up at tailback, Darren Sproles came in and rewrote the record books.
The lowest point for the position was the 2005 season, and even then Thomas Clayton, who went on to play in the NFL, was manning the position. In Snyder 2.0, Daniel Thomas had two excellent seasons and then John Hubert was solid for three years. A little discussed fact is that Hubert managed beat out three different players that either have played in the NFL or else are battling to make a roster (Bryce Brown, Angelo Pease, and Timothy Flanders). Rewind to preseason 2011. How highly did people think about John Hubert back then? As a result, history seems to indicate that K-State fans shouldn't sweat this position as much as the media is telling us to. Too much attention is being paid to returning experience. Look for Jarvis Leverett to take the lead at this position, as he looks the part of a Big 12 running back. The other three guys who are battling it out (Charles Jones, DeMarcus Robinson, and Dalvin Warmack) are also viable options at this position. If the offensive line plays well, there is no reason that one or two of these backs should not be able to emerge and succeed.
2. The number of returning starters on defense
Many of the preseason prognostications have written K-State’s defense off for dead because it only returns four starters. As mentioned above, I think the loss of Ty Zimmerman will be huge. Most of the other departed starters were one-year starters that were nothing more than solid and sound players. Alauna Finau, Chaquil Reed, Dorrian Roberts and Kip Daily all fit into this mold. The loss of several senior starters is not a surprising trend for Bill Snyder’s teams, which are often littered with seniors on the two-deep. Also, Tre Walker was listed as a starter, but was probably on the field for less than a quarter of all snaps in conference play.
Meanwhile, the four returning starters are all bona fide all-league candidates (Mueller, Travis Britz, Jonathan Truman, and Dante Barnett), with perhaps only Truman being a stretch. That is not even counting nickel back Randall Evans, who should technically be considered as a returning starter in place of Walker. He is also a fringe all-conference talent. The narrow view taken by several prognosticators is understandably unaware of some of the talent shown by K-State’s young reserves in situational roles last year. Those same prognosticators may be surprised by Mueller and a group of no-names combining to form a solid defense, especially if Zimmerman's spot is shored up.
3. The offensive line and its "two" returning starters
The pundits have seized onto this. "Oh no! More than half of their starting offensive line is gone! They are going to leak like a sieve." That is seemingly the view that some analysts have taken. It is not as though this is only applied against K-State, as it seems to be the preferred method for validating the likelihood of an offensive line's success for the next season.
To be fair, experience is a particularly big factor on the offensive line. However, again, with regard to Kansas State, this is a failed conclusion for three main reasons. First, to anyone who actually observes these things in any sort of depth, Boston Stiverson and Keenan Taylor were essentially 1A and 1B at one of the guard positions last season (and likely in that order, but for an injury suffered in the preseason by Stiverson). Arguably, the line’s play took off some after Stiverson got into the rotation and back into playing form. Second, in order to evaluate the prospects of the 2014 offensive line, it is worth looking at who those two returning starters are. B.J. Finney will be a four-year starter that is an All- candidate and many believe that he is not even the best lineman on the team, given the skills of Cody Whitehair, a junior who will be a three-year starter. In other words, these are not just two average starters that return. The third reason that the pundits’ conclusion is flawed is that it assumes that the cupboard is entirely bare behind the returning starters.
There are admittedly some pretty serious concerns about losing two offensive tackles that started the past two seasons and will likely be playing on Sundays. One of those spots is almost certainly locked up by Luke Hayes. There have been numerous reports raving about him and I have a conspiracy theorist’s conclusion (not based on inside information) that he started at guard for the white team in the spring game to prevent early season opponents from having K-State film on him at the tackle position. It is far from a stretch to expect that at least one of the other linemen will be ready to step into a starting role at either tackle or guard, depending on where Whitehair lines up.
4. The impact of the junior college players
First off, this is not to say that I do not hope that our junior college players have a huge impact. In fact, I hope that they somehow (good luck!) manage to beat out the 1997 class of junior college players as the best group that Coach Snyder has brought to Manhattan. However, this is something that is not worth loyal K-State fans fretting about. The adjustment from a junior college to any major college football program is a big one. Not only is there a major talent upgrade in terms of competition, the junior college players are expected to come into an entirely new system and compete against other talented players that may have become familiar with the system for three or four years, while having the benefit of a Division I level strength and conditioning program for that entire time. This adjustment is especially difficult when a player does not make it to campus in time for spring practice.
While it is reasonale to expect Luke Hayes to start and Danzel McDaniel to start or be the top backup at cornerback based upon his showing this past spring, it is more difficult to project players that have not yet even taken part in a K-State practice. Also, it should not be assumed that Terrell Clinkscales and D'Vonta Derricott will automatically dominate the league at their respective positions. Their first battles will involve getting on the field.
Many media projections think that K-State’s beleaguered (by graduation) defense must have an infusion of junior college talent. However, Clinkscales will have some stiff competition at defensive tackle due to the young talent that exists at the position. If anyone watched the Marquel Combs situation unfold in Lawrence last fall, it is apparent that being a highly regarded junior college defensive tackle does not always translate to immediate success at a Big 12 program. Furthermore, K-State fans have become familiar with junior college players (especially junior college defensive tackles) taking until the end of their first year or into their second year to make much of an impact. Despite all of that, defensive tackle is a good position to come in and quickly garner playing time because it is not among the more complicated positions for a player to learn.
Derricott and Isaiah Riddle have even more challenging paths to playing time than Clinkscales. This is for a three key reasons. First, K-State only plays two linebackers most of the time and teams are not as likely to substitute at the position. Second, there are some solid players already in tow. Lastly, learning how to play linebacker against the teams of the Big 12 is not something that can easily be picked up by most players. Derricott and Riddle will likely have to compete with some players that are similarly athletically skilled and have experience in K-State’s program (Mike Moore, Jonathan Truman, and Dakorey Johnson) and/or have more experience in reading and reacting to Big 12 offenses (Truman and Will Davis). Derricott may have a better 40-yard dash than any other K-State linebacker, but it is far from a given that he will earn any starts.
Andre Davis, Jesse Mack, A.J. Allen, Terrale Johnson, and probably Riddle are all players that have solid potential, but that also should not be counted on immediately just by virtue of being junior college players. Several articles have mentioned the likelihood of Davis having a big impact at the wide receiver position, while also ignoring the developing talents that the Wildcats possess in Deante Burton and Judah Jones. This has persisted even after both players had very strong spring games.
It would be best for K-State fans to be cautious with their optimism for these junior college recruits this fall, but also to revel in any successes that they have. In short, consider it gravy.
We all know that Bill Snyder frets about every single detail of the Kansas State University Wildcats football team. Where do you think K-State's fret level should be the highest or lowest?