Wildcats look to improve on 10-win season
Kansas State made significant progress in year three of Bill Snyder's second takeover of the program, but the veteran coach will not be satisfied with the 10-win season and Cotton Bowl berth.
Not when his constant mantra ever since he first took over in 1989 is for his players, his coaches and his team to simply get a little better every day. Do that in 2012 and the Wildcats could contend in the Big 12.
The process, however, must start during spring practice, where key returning starters such as quarterback Collin Klein and linebacker Arthur Brown will get a chance to exert even more leadership after emerging as stars last season.
This is a squad that does not have much of a cushion when it comes to any margin for error. During their 10-3 run last season, eight of the Wildcats' victories came by a touchdown or less, including a 10-7 comeback win over Championship Subdivision opponent Eastern Kentucky in the season opener.
The narrow results are a credit to Snyder's coaching and a reflection on his recruiting. Kansas State does not assemble the kind of star power most Big 12 programs corral. Yet by bringing in two- and three-star players, Snyder finds hungry recruits itching to prove themselves in a system that can be tinkered to capitalize on specific talents.
Klein is a case in point. Although he does not possess a strong arm, his toughness and will to win were unmatched, not only in the Big 12, but perhaps all of college football. The leadership he exerted, as much by example as anything else, inspired teammates who saw Klein take a steady pounding while attempting more carries than any FBS rusher.
One huge key during spring practice will be to identify additional receivers who can become more dependable targets after the Wildcats had trouble separating themselves from coverage last season. Klein was left to improvise and threw for 1,918 yards while rushing for 1,141. Late in the season, however, he was unable to practice before two games because of pain and stiffness after also suffering a bruised sternum when Kansas State became predictable in a lopsided loss to Oklahoma.
Adding backfield depth to compliment running back John Hubert is a must. The Kansas State offensive front lost two starters, though the return of tackle Manase Foketi off a medical hardship should boost Klein's protection. Working Foketi in after his injury will be important as the Wildcats again rely heavily on center B.J. Finney, who made a strong debut as a freshman a year ago.
The strides Kansas State made on defense last year were significant, and influenced in large part by the addition of Brown, a Miami transfer who ranked ninth in the Big 12 with 101 tackles. Enough starters return, including ends Meshak Williams and Adam Davis, linebacker Tre Walker, safety Ty Zimmerman and cornerback Nigel Malone to make the defense solid.
The group must connect with a new coordinator, however, after Chris Cosh left to take a similar position at South Florida. Veteran assistant Tom Hayes, who actually once served as interim head coach for arch-rival Kansas, takes over and has the knowledge to make the transition seamless as long as he can handle the staff and players. He'll get the opportunity to make any tweaks he finds necessary during spring practices.
Kansas State athletic director John Currie has set forth an "aggressive goal" to begin work sometime before the start of the 2012 season on a massive $75 million overhaul of the west side of Snyder Stadium. The current structure will be razed to accommodate new suites and a press box that will run from goal line to goal line. The new addition has been called the "gateway" to the north end of the Kansas State campus. The project follows the construction of an $18 million basketball practice facility, which is scheduled to open this summer.
The departure of Chris Cosh to South Florida did not require Kansas State to scramble for a new defensive coordinator in the offseason. Tom Hayes, a 30-year veteran of college coaching, was promoted from his position as secondary coach. Hayes previously served as a defensive coordinator at Kansas, Oklahoma, UCLA and Stanford, and even served as interim coach at Kansas for the last three games of the 2001 season following the dismissal of Terry Allen as head coach. Oddly enough, Kansas State opens the 2012 season against a Missouri State team coached by Allen.
KEY QUESTIONS:Collin Klein must develop more confidence in his passing touch and receivers improve enough for Kansas State to connect more through the air. The promotion of Tom Hayes to defensive coordinator will not bring any drastic changes, though the Wildcats must use the spring to understand any tweaks to the system. A 10-win season will create higher expectations Kansas State must keep from becoming distractions while realizing it has the talent to contend in the Big 12.
RB DeMarcus Robinson The sophomore was considered a solid in-state prospect after earning All-State high school honors, yet has not yet contributed for the Wildcats. He is in the mix to get into the backfield rotation.
TE Andre McDonald The 6-foot-8 target needs to pay more attention to detail, yet could become a consistent threat as long as he also performs the requisite blocking assignments required of Kansas State tight ends.
WR Curry Sexton Unsung in-state recruit contributed last season as a true freshman, so he will have an advantage in experience over newcomers vying for receiving spots. Sexton must improve, however, to become a regular.
"We're always picked as underdogs and are never favored to win anything. For us to go out and do what we did (last season) was great for our program. People are starting to notice us now, but we're nowhere near where we need to be. And we're going to go get it." Kansas State WR Tramaine Thompson.
Nothing seems to come easy for Kansas State, which rallied in several games last season and won eight by a margin of a touchdown or less. The 10-3 finish was capped with a loss to Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl, but the experience sets up for the Wildcats for another strong Big 12 run after placing second a year ago. Several of Kansas State's top playmakers from last season return, including QB Collin Klein, RB John Hubert, WR Chris Harper, LB Arthur Brown, CB Nigel Malone and SS Ty Zimmerman. That is enough leadership to shape a bright outlook in 2012. One key will be for Klein not to get battered like he did a year ago, plus Brown must avoid nagging injuries to perform at his rangy best.
Klein was considered by many to be the most valuable player in the BCS last season when he accounted for 40 touchdowns, including 27 on the ground, which tied the national record for rushing TDs by a quarterback set previously by Navy's Ricky Dobbs. Out of 317 attempts, which included sacks, Klein averaged 3.7 yards per carry. RB John Hubert gained 970 yards, though the Wildcats need more production from tailbacks and receivers. It is important for Harper to maximize his potential after transferring from Oregon, where he was recruited as a quarterback. The offensive line is solid, with C B.J. Finney a budding star. OT Manase Foketi sat out most of last season with a foot injury and received a medical hardship.
When LB Arthur Brown is at his best, he is a treat to watch disrupting plays with his quickness and instincts. LB Tre Walker is sneaky good too, preserving a win with a fourth-down tackle at the goal line last season against Miami. CB Nigel Malone came in as a junior college transfer and emerged as a sneaky cover man, breaking on routes well enough to snag seven interceptions. SS Ty Zimmerman, a son of an outstanding Kansas high school coach, shows outstanding instincts in the back end. Questions often exist along the defensive front for the Wildcats, where openings exist at tackle. Two ends, Adam Davis and Meshak Williams return, and could blossom into stars as seniors if they play with more consistency.
Usually solid on special teams, the Wildcats allowed a touchdown return off a punt in the Cotton Bowl. Attention to detail will include many special teams drills in the spring as P Ryan Doerr and PK Anthony Cantele return as seniors. Such details enabled DT Raphael Guidry to set a Kansas State record with five blocked kicks last season, though he has departed. Malone returned one of those deflections for a two-point defensive conversion in the Cotton Bowl. KR Aaron Lockett is dangerous as long as he has recovered from a lacerated kidney.
QB Tavarius Bender Participating in spring drills after graduating a semester early out of high school, Bender could be asked to provide depth behind Klein. He is a multi-threat with strong rushing instincts and a decent arm.
WR Marquez Clark Rated by Rivals as the No. 16 junior college recruit nationally, Clark is expected to contribute immediately after transferring from Navarro J.C. in Texarkana, Texas. He set NJCAA single-season records for receptions (98) and receiving yards (1,639).
FB Glenn Gronkowski The bloodline is obviously superior since three brothers play in the NFL. Gronkowksi was among several greyshirts who sat out last season and could be versatile enough to be tested at wide receiver and tight end during spring drills.
WR Tyler Lockett will enter spring drills with an undetermined workload as Kansas State evaluates how much contact he should be subjected to after suffering a lacerated kidney last season. He emerged as a breakout freshman star as both a receiver and returner.
DT Samuel Harvill will participate in spring drills after suffering a knee injury last season as a freshman and opting to redshirt. Once he packs on more bulk, Harvill should contribute up front.
OT Manase Foketi will participate in spring drills after missing most of last season with a foot injury.