Kansas State: Beyond the Box Score Defensive Preview

When you think of Bill Snyder's teams from the 1990s and early-2000s, it's easy to think of Michael Bishop, Ell Roberson, Darren Sproles, David Allen, etc.  Their offenses were certainly as explosive as any.  But what made me fear playing those KSU teams was the defense.  Mark Simoneau, Terry Pierce, etc.  They always had killer linebackers, always had immediately effective JUCOs on the defensive line, and they had a multitude of ball hawks in the secondary, ready to pounce on mistakes.  In your head, you could conceivably put together a list of if's to stop the KSU offense (if we tackle well, if we force Bishop/Roberson to get rid of the ball, etc.).  It rarely worked, but you thought it might.  With the KSU defense, there were no if's.  It was simply "If we play really, really, really well, maybe we'll get lucky."

Past tense is the key here, of course.  That aura was already starting to fade before Snyder left in 2005 (though it certainly didn't prevent them from continuing to beat Mizzou ... f***ing Brandon Archer).  Since then, it's gotten worse.  With Snyder starting to work his own players back into the fold, what is their 2010 ceiling?  How much can a defense improve in one offseason?  Because they were pretty un-Snyderlike last time around.

Defense

Overall Ranks

F/+: 93rd

S&P+: 103rd
Success Rate+: 105th
PPP+: 93rd

Standard Downs S&P+: 104th
Passing Downs S&P+: 67th

Redzone S&P+: 119th

Q1 S&P+: 98th
Q2 S&P+: 99th
Q3 S&P+: 84th
Q4 S&P+: 63rd

1st Down S&P+: 105th
2nd Down S&P+: 99th
3rd Down S&P+: 73rd

Rushing Ranks

Rushing S&P+: 76th
Rushing SR+: 86th
Rushing PPP+: 68th

Standard Downs: 84th
Passing Downs: 19th

Redzone: 107th

Adj. Line Yards: 85th

Passing Ranks

Passing S&P+: 104th
Passing SR+: 111th
Passing PPP+: 95th

Standard Downs: 106th
Passing Downs: 86th

Redzone: 118th

Adj. Sack Rate: 105th
SD Sack Rate: 34th
PD Sack Rate: 95th

Kansas State allowed a semi-respectable 340 yards per game in 2009. That ranked them just 80th overall in that category, but in an offense-heavy Big 12, that's not terrible.  The problem was, they were playing a slow-down game on offense and trying to limit opposing offenses' time with the ball.  On a per-play basis, even taking schedule into account, KSU's defense was less impressive.  They ranked in the bottom quartile in terms of both efficiency (Success Rate+) and explosiveness (PPP+), they were a sieve in the red zone, and most damaging, they couldn't leverage teams into passing downs.  Once into passing downs, they were solid -- their passing downs ranks are much better than standard downs.  But it doesn't matter if you're allowing six yards per play on standard downs.  As I mentioned yesterday, they get a free pass considering the new staff and Snyder's getting re-acclimated with his personnel.  But there has been just enough turnover from last season that assuming improvement (at least more than marginal improvement) takes a bit of a leap of faith.  Maybe Snyder has earned that leap, but it's still a leap.

Rankings History

Category 2005
Rk
2006
Rk
2007
Rk
2008
Rk
2009
Rk
F/+ N/A* 36 70 95 93
S&P+ 39 30 41 79 103
Success Rate+ 25 34 17 77 105
PPP+ 53 28 59 80 93
Rushing S&P+ 21 45 20 88 76
Passing S&P+ 71 23 68 71 104
Standard Downs S&P+ 60 39 53 72 104
Passing Downs S&P+ 28 15 43 54 67
Adj. Line Yards 23 50 73 98 85
Adj. Sack Rate 63 8 34 35 105
* F/+ data does not exist for offenses and defenses until the 2006 season.

While the offense was up-and-down over Ron Prince's tenure, here's where you can tell things really fell apart for Mr. Killer Settlement.  Though the talent really was faltering by Snyder's final season, Prince and staff kept things at a similar level in 2006, thanks in part to Ian Campbell's emergence as a pass-rushing assassin.  In 2007, Campbell seemed to regress in a new role, and while KSU ranked a strong 17th in Success Rate+, they gave up far too many big plays, and their pass defense started showing cracks.  In 2008, of course, those cracks became canyons.

When Snyder took over again last year, it's pretty clear that he just had to start from scratch.  KSU regressed in most categories (they improved against the run, but faltered in every other measure), but they made timely plays.  They improved their turnover margin from -7 to +7 and, not coincidentally, they improved their record by a game as well.  The problem, of course, is that flipping your turnover margin is not a long-term recipe for success.  They recovered 63% of the fumbles that took place in their games; as Missouri learned from 2007 (59%) to 2008 (44%), fumble recovery percentage tends to even out, sometimes quite harshly.  Without the fumbles, and really, without the Texas A&M game, this was a below average unit in 2009.  If it can be chalked to "Snyder was figuring out what he had," then things could turn around rather quickly.  But KSU better hope Snyder starts to work magic again, because it's not really evident that the talent level will be any better in 2010 than it was in 2009.

Defensive Line

2009 Unit Ranking: 78th (10th in the Big 12)

Projected DE Depth Chart
Antonio Felder (6'2, 244, Sr., 23.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks, 1 PBU)
Brandon Harold (6'5, 264, So., 34.5 tackles, 10.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 1 PBU in 2008)
Adam Davis (6'1, 242, Jr.)
Grant Valentine (6'2, 224, Sr., 5.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks)
Josh Berard (6'1, 212, Sr., 1.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks)
Payton Kirk (6'5, 264, Jr., 0.5 tackles)

Projected DT Depth Chart
Raphael Guidry (6'4, 279, Jr., 14.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FR)
Prizell Brown (6'2, 265, Sr., 7.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks)
Javonta Boyd (6'2, 288, Jr.)
Ray Kibble (6'4, 296, Jr.)
Justin Williams (6'0, 290, Jr.)
Dustin Sobieraj (6'1, 239, Jr., 0.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks)

It's funny.  When Ron Prince loaded up on JUCOs, we scoffed and treated it as a sign of desperation.  When Snyder did roughly the same thing in this past class, I got a little scared.  Granted, Snyder didn't really do the same thing.  He signed ten JUCO transfers, not 18.  He actually showed that he's capable of both addressing current concerns and still keeping an eye on the future.  But still ... I had no doubt that almost none of Prince's JUCOs would work out.  Snyder has, shall we say, a slightly better track record in that regard.  Snyder especially loaded up on the defensive line -- four of the twelve players listed above -- Adam Davis, Javonta Boyd, Ray Kibble, Justin Williams -- are JUCO transfers from the 2010 recruiting class.

Really, KSU is two "ifs" away from having a strong defensive line in 2010.  IF Brandon Harold can return to his 2008 form, when he racked up double-digit tackles for loss and earned Freshman All-American honors, and IF at least one of the JUCOs turns into something resembling Jerome Evans or Mario Fatafehi, then things will improve considerably.  If KSU ends up having to build simply on returning players and their 2009 performance, it's not looking too hot.  Antonio Felder was decent, and he could be a solid No. 2 DE behind Harold ... but if he's your No. 1 end, your line probably isn't very good.  Same, really, with Raphael Guidry.  Both are great complementary guys, but you don't want them at the tip-top of your depth chart.

Linebackers

2009 Unit Ranking: 58th (8th in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
Troy Butler (6'0, 194, Sr., 39.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FR, 2 PBU)
Alex Hrebec (5'11, 251, Jr., 25.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 1 PBU)
Kevin Rohleder (6'0, 219, Sr., 24.5 tackles)
Jarell Childs (6'1, 225, So., 79 rushing yds, 6.1 per carry)
Kadero Terrell (6'1, 237, Jr.)
Blake Slaughter (5'11, 225, So., 3.0 tackles)
Clarence Bumpas (6'1, 226, RSFr.)
Thomas Ferguson (5'11, 204, So., 3.0 tackles)
Brian
Hertzog (5'10, 205, Jr.)

Here's where KSU always seemed to thrive in the 1990s.  Simoneau, Pierce, Ben Leber, Jeff Kelly, Josh Buhl ... the number of star linebackers KSU produced in that time was insane.  This time around, however, things are significantly different, at least so far.  I had high hopes for Alex Hrebec last season, but they didn't really pan out (ha, I just realized I used the same Hrebec picture for that preview ... continuity!).  He fell into a backup role and wasn't nearly as disruptive as I thought he would be.  With the losses of John Houlik and Ulla Pomele, it would really help Snyder out if Hrebec could develop into a mini-star now, as I'm not sure who else has any star power whatsoever.  I don't want to sell rover Troy Butler short -- he was certainly decent last year and definitely better than Hrebec.  But in general, there's just not a lot to get excited about here. Prove me wrong, Hrebec.

Secondary

2009 Unit Ranking: 102nd (12th in the Big 12)

Projected CB Depth Chart
Stephen Harrison (5'11, 183, Sr., 21.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 11 PBU)
David Garrett (5'7, 175, Jr., 22.5 tackles, 1 FF)
Matthew Pearson (6'0, 190, Jr.)
Terrance Sweeney (5'8, 176, Sr.)
Drew Mueller (5'9, 176, RSFr.)
Ian Peters (6'0, 190, So.)

Projected S Depth Chart
Emmanuel Lamur (6'4, 219, Jr., 56.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 2 FR, 2 PBU)
Tysyn Hartman (6'3, 206, Jr., 44.0 tackles, 5 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR, 6 PBU)
Logan Dold (6'0, 185, Jr., 3.5 tackles)
Torell Miller (6'2, 207, So., 4.0 tackles, 1 INT)
Dahrnaz Tigner (6'2, 236, Jr.)
Joseph Bonugli (6'0, 194, RSFr.)

Here's where conventional wisdom and numbers disagree.  In general, the secondary was considered the strength of this Kansas State defense last year.  Cornerback Joshua Moore and safeties Emmanuel Lamur and Tysyn Hartman combined for 10 interceptions and three fumble recoveries, and in general this seemed like a ball-hawking unit.  The problem was, when they weren't picking off passes, they were likely getting burned.  (I realize that has a bit of an "All he does is catch touchdowns" tinge to it. Alas.)  That, and they were amazingly inconsistent.  They gave up 12.0 yards per pass and seven touchdowns to Texas Tech, then 7.0 yards per pass with three picks against A&M.  They allowed just 5.9 yards per pass to Todd Reesing, then allowed 11.0 to Blaine Gabbert.  They were all over the map, giving both optimists and skeptics reason to bolster their points of view.

Heading into 2010, the secondary is clearly the most experienced, most accomplished unit on the KSU defense, despite Joshua Moore's unexpected decision to turn pro.  Lamur is a freakish athlete, and he and Hartman combine to form the most "eyeball test" friendly safety duo in the North, if not the entire conference.  If they can derive a level of consistency, look out.  But it's hard to tell when improvement is on the way, and when players have maxed out.  We shall see.  Meanwhile, Stephen Harrison could be rather underrated at corner.  We'll see if he's "No. 1 corner" caliber, but let's just say that his ratio of passes broken up to tackles made is encouraging.  You can break up a ton of passes, but if you also have a ton of tackles, that says opponents picked on you a lot; Harrison broke up a strong 11 passes, but his 21 tackles suggest that either he wasn't thrown at a lot, or he missed about a hundred tackles.  I'll lean toward the former.

Special Teams

2009 Unit Ranking: 61st (7th in the Big 12)

Place-kicking: 108th
Net Punting: 66th
Net Kicking: 37th
Returns: 14th

Projected Starters
K Josh Cherry (6'0, 190, Sr., 27-for-30 PAT, 12-for-20 FG, Long: 47)
P Ryan Doerr (6'3, 188, So., 38 punts, 41.2 average)
KR Tysyn Hartman (6'3, 206, Jr.)
PR Tysyn Hartman (6'3, 206, Jr., 8 returns, 13.1 average)

The biggest special teams play of KSU's season didn't actually show up in any of the above rankings.  Emmanuel Lamur blocked ISU's extra point at the end of their game at Arrowhead, giving the Wildcats a 24-23 win.  If Lamur doesn't block that, and ISU goes on to win in OT, the entire tenor of KSU's season changes.  They finish with the same record as they did under Prince, they're eliminated from the North title race well before the end of the season (the blessings of a back-loaded schedule allowed them to move to 3-1 in conference before playing, and losing to, three of the four toughest teams on their conference slate -- Oklahoma, Mizzou and Nebraska), and some of this season's optimism doesn't grow as strong.

Like I said, however, "timely blocked PATs" doesn't really fit into the special teams rankings, so we're left looking at a unit that ranked strong in two categories, decent in another, and terrible in another.  K-State had one of the strongest return games in the country thanks to Brandon Banks, but he has departed, so unless an unexpected option emerges, odds are good that KSU will regress in this category this year.  They should improve, however, in both Net Punting and Net Kicking.  Punter Ryan Doerr was just a freshman last season, so he should naturally expect to get better, and kickoffs master Josh Cherry returns as well.  Cherry was iffy at best as a place-kicker, but he does at least present some strengths in one way or another.  As a whole, this unit will likely regress because of the loss of Banks, but maybe not by a lot.

Summary

It's easier for me to be optimistic about the Kansas State defense this year than the offense, at least if Brandon Harold truly does return to form.  The secondary looks the part and should improve, while the front seven should at least hold steady.  If Harold and Nameless JUCO Lineman #1 come through, then Snyder will have at least enough ingredients available to keep things close like he did last year (Texas Tech game aside).  I'm still not sure if he has enough ingredients to win games over the better teams in the conference (they didn't last year), but they should at least be decent.

As I mentioned yesterday, this season is a complete tossup for KSU.  Nebraska and Mizzou are a step or two ahead of everybody else in the North, but KSU will have as much of a claim to third place as anybody.  But they will have to win a few of the large number of tossup games on their slate.  Beat UCLA, and the outlook turns rather optimistic.  Lose to ISU, and last place in the North may be likely.  There is a lot up for grabs for the Wildcats in 2010, and I can't really tell what is a realistic expectation.

Moving forward, I am also unsure of what K-State is capable of under Snyder, not necessarily because of Snyder himself, but because of the environment surrounding K-State.  Think about where we were about 12-18 years ago.  If you pulled together all of the signees that Kansas, KSU and Mizzou pulled in for a given recruiting class and ranked the top 20, KSU was landing probably 11-14 of them, leaving KU and Mizzou to fight over the remaining 6-9.  For a couple of years, Kansas took a temporary step forward under Glen Mason, then Mizzou did the same with Larry Smith, but KSU was still dominating recruiting among the three schools.  Now, that has changed.  In recent years, Mizzou has landed probably 8-12 of those 20*, with KU pulling in an additional 5-7.  At most, KSU was landing 5-7 of their own there.  The talent advantage KSU had over Kansas and (especially) Mizzou in those days is long gone, and as of yet, there is no sign of them getting that back.

* Note that this is not me saying Mizzou is as good now as KSU was in the late-1990s.  They're not.

Getting both Arthur and Bryce Brown in purple uniforms next season (Arthur has already announced his transfer from Miami, while Bryce is trying to secure his release from Tennessee) would be a nice start, even though neither has lived up to their five-star hype just yet (it's not too late).  Combined with guys like Chris Harper, the athletic upside of the 2011 KSU team could be much higher than what Snyder inherited.  But for the last few years we have seen just how much more depth and athleticism Mizzou has built over KSU, even with the losses of Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, etc.  And if you can't even get past KU and Mizzou, you can't get back to your previous heights.

I don't think Kansas State's ceiling is anywhere near as high for Bill Snyder as it was a decade ago, but that doesn't mean KSU can't still be building for the future.  If they can win some of this year's tossup games -- UCLA, Iowa State, Baylor -- and get to a bowl, that's a good place to start.  And while they're not talented enough to guarantee even that level of success, it's still not smart to bet against Bill Snyder.

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