Typical preseason prognostications about Kansas State typically go something like this:
"What about Kansas St this year?"
"Um...losing a lot of starters...QB is back. Probably solid, not that great."
"That's when they turn out to be really good."
"Yeah, let's put 'em 3rd or 4th in the league just as a CYA."
For most fans and sportswriters, Bill Snyder's Kansas State Wildcats are something of an enigma. No one really knows why or how they are so good, some even crediting their success to unpredictable intangibles if not outright sorcery.
Will they be good this year? You can't hope to answer that question if you don't know why they were good in previous years. To get past an understanding of KSU's success that's based on Snyder's mystical or personal powers and into the actual cause and effect relationships at play takes a deeper look at the KSU model.
Ultimately, success at a given college football program is about leveraging the strengths of the program's resources against your opponent. Before Snyder arrived it wasn't apparent that Kansas St had any resources to speak of as a program, but they clearly do now.
Understanding how to translate "every man a wildcat" and Snyder's "16 goals" into an answer for "how the hell is Kansas St competing for Big 12 titles?" requires an understanding of KSU's resources and strategies for unlocking those resources.
Phase I Recruiting:
Here's a look at where Snyder's recruits have come from in his 2nd tenure as KSU's head coach (2009-present)
The obvious takeaway is that Kansas has access, by virtue of geography and of playing in the Big 12, to the Kansas City metroplex, Wichita, Dallas-Ft Worth, Houston, lots of rural towns in the great plains, and somehow to the Bay area and southern California.
All in all, a school could do worse in terms of recruiting turf, but the most interesting points is how many of Kansas St's players come from the state of Kansas itself. As Snyder immediately realized after arriving at KSU in 1989, recruiting in Kansas isn't as bad as it's made out to be if you know how to recruit and utilize JUCO's.
Kansas is home to some premier junior college football programs with Butler community college, Hutchinson community college, and Garden City community college all existing within the Jayhawk community college system. Since Snyder came back, the Wildcats have taken 15 JUCOs from six different programs within the state. Their success in the JUCO ranks has also allowed them to also add transfers from Texas and California programs.
The Wildcats also maintain a pipeline of rural regional kids that often end up playing a huge role in their program.
Small town football players are often totally overlooked by bigger, lazier programs for several reasons. First of all, they rarely have football programs with the resources to maximize the talent of the players. Secondly, it's harder for scouts and coaches to have a chance to see or visit them, so they often don't. Finally, the level of competition is lower, which breeds a lack of trust in the talent.
Scouts and big programs ignore these kids and thus Kansas St has access to talent that has a greater upside then many people realize. A lot of that talent is filtered through their walk-on program.
Even now KSU is projected to start walk-ons at defensive end (Ryan Mueller) and weakside linebacker (Jonathan Truman) that may be two of their better players and indeed two of the better defensive players in the conference. Both were from small Kansas towns and obviously neither got much recruiting attention.
The Wildcats have 124 players on their roster heading into fall practices and the players besides the 85 on scholarship aren't necessarily just there to get beat up in practice. Many of them will have a chance to be contributors and even earn scholarships or starting roles.
That means Kansas St has a larger pool of talent to choose from than a program that relies simply on their scholarship athletes and are consequently less vulnerable to the problems that arise in maintaining a depth chart with only 85 players.
Another result of pulling from this recruiting base is that Kansas State is ALWAYS stocked with upperclassmen, be they lower-rated recruits that have finally reached their potential after a few years of high level coaching or JUCO transfers who arrived as juniors. The tactics Kansas State is able employ have a lot to do with the fact that their players are generally older.
Most coaches would prefer to recruit in Texas or Florida, but there are advantages to recruiting in Kansas if you know how to maximize what's there.
Phase II: Culture
If you have the chance to ask Bill Snyder about his team you are likely to get a long, droning answer about various players' personal integrity, work ethic, and strong family life. A sportswriter attempting to get into Snyder's mind is likely to give up within ten minutes of listening to Snyder talk about family values and culture.
However, the culture at Kansas State is undoubtedly a crucial component to their success. There's a reason other programs don't feature maxed out walk-ons on a regular basis and aren't consistently able to transform JUCO players who were unable to get scholarship offers from major schools out of high school into productive players.
Turning kids with off the field problems, academic issues, lack of ideal measurables, or lack of attention into a cohesive unit requires a very strong culture and building that culture is undoubtedly one of Snyder's greatest strengths.
There's no great secret here, Snyder simply works long hours and invests time into the lives of his players on a regular basis. As a top recruit or a talented JUCO transfer, if you don't respond to coaches speaking into your life and pushing you every day, there's undoubtedly another player who will and the coaches will give him your spot on the depth chart.
There can be little doubt that having so many rural kids and JUCO transfers who are fighting for every chance or opportunity they can get has an additional multiplier effect in forcing every player on campus to seek their highest potential.
There are a fair number of Wildcats in the NFL today because when talent goes to Manhattan the culture ensures that it isn't wasted.
Phase III: Deployment
Besides the unexamined benefits of recruiting in Kansas, Wildcat strategy is one of the more interesting aspects of the program and a big part of why they are consistently good.
Remember that building up a program is all about leveraging your strengths and advantages and the Wildcat schemes absolutely do this.
Snyder-ball has been ahead of the curve on spread tactics for a very long time, even influencing great minds like Urban Meyer. When Snyder initially came back to Manhattan he plugged RB Daniel Thomas and eventually QB/WR Collin Klein in to run his multiple-option attack.
Snyder has always eagerly embraced the leverage and reduced box afforded by spread formations and has typically made great use of the spread-option to create opportunities for his best players to get the ball in space. While they've become famous for using the "Wildcat" as an enormous piece of their offense with players like Daniel Thomas, Daniel Sams, and Collin Klein, Snyder is now quickly integrating newer spread-option concepts.
With Jake Waters at the helm and Jesse Ertz, more of a pocket passer than a featured runner, as the 2nd in command, the Wildcats now employ more packaged plays that have the QB making option choices between hand-offs and passes.
Snyder's offensive brilliance is usually the most overlooked factor in KSU's sustained excellence. While his command of the option run game has defined most of KSU's great offenses, between Snyder and OC Dana Dimel exists a large acumen of offensive strategy and know-how.
You can always be sure that their playbook will include multiple and modern ways to feature whatever good players they happen to have on campus. The 2013 KSU offense was ultimately built around Jake Waters' strengths, primarily because a passing game allowed them to make the most out of having the best receiver in the Big 12, if not the nation, in Tyler Lockett.
Many sports writers and prognosticators will look at KSU and says "option running team with no experienced RB back and both offensive tackles gone...I see problems" but while KSU had fine players at those positions the cornerstones of the late surge in 2013 haven't left.
Stud interior linemen Cody Whitehair and BJ Finney aversatile fullback Glenn Gronkowski and tight end Zach Trujillo are also back. A major benefit of having a deep roster of tough contributors is that the Wildcats always have the players to utilize multiple positions and formations. Snyder is a organizational genius and precise overseer of their program, developing players to complement Waters and Lockett won't be an issue.
In 2014 they'll zero in on two major tactics:
First, they'll use spread formations with Gronk joining Waters in the backfield while four receivers are split wide. The unnoticed storyline of the Wildcats 2014 season, available to anyone paying attention to the team or watching their spring game, is that they have a pretty strong young WR corp. Despite being an exceptional athlete, Daniel Sams was unable to crack the depth chart at receiver because the Wildcats had other young players like DeAntre Burton and Judah Jones as well as veterans like Curry Sexton who combine good athleticism with more precise route running.
These players will always be in the right spots to execute Snyder's ball control passing game, which makes them a tough cover for a defense concerned with preventing Lockett from taking the top off the coverage.
The 'Cats will also use their typical array of bigger formations with multiple fullbacks and tight ends on the field designed to punish and wear out Big 12 defenses recruited and designed to handle finesse, spread attacks. Because Trujillo is a capable receiver, they'll still be able to mix in a ball-control passing game to their multiple zone/option run game while in bigger formations.
Check out their version of shallow cross:
Trujillo (Y) has simply to understand how to find space and depth against the linebackers and then catch the ball and turn up field if the coverage leaves him open. KSU can send an up and coming athlete like Jones or Burton on the shallow cross while Lockett runs a deep route to create separation between the safeties and linebackers.
The Wildcat offense is all about execution, versatility, and precision and, like many offenses, relies more on skills and teamwork then athleticism. Thus, the KSU roster of maxed out and well-coached upperclassmen combined with a handful of premier athletes usually makes for a strong group.
In 2014, Waters, Lockett, a versatile supporting cast and a few legitimately good OL will allow Snyder to brew some potent potions in his magical cauldron.