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Secrets of Snyder-ball: The DL

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Bill Snyder’s success this decade has depended on fielding strong defensive lines. Can they magic another top unit and win the league in 2017?

AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl - Texas A&M v Kansas State Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

In all of the fun write-ups and descriptions of Kansas State’s success under Bill Snyder as “wizardry” it’s easy to miss out on one major fact. The Wildcats have regularly had one of the better DLs in the Big 12 conference this decade and consequently have been able to win games in the trenches in a finesse league.

The NFL draft had their star DE Jordan Willis as a third round talent and his 17.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks in 2016 were the guiding force behind K-State finishing second in the Big 12 in defensive S&P. Snyder’s ability to regularly build DL that compete ferociously in the Big 12 is an enormous factor in their success over this decade and their ability to consistently punch above their recruiting weight.

The Wildcat defensive tackles are always stout and effective at protecting their linebackers but the defensive ends have been really impactful for the Wildcats in their run this decade. Here’s a glimpse of the production they’ve seen from their starting DEs rotations over this decade:

The Wildcats have generally fielded at least one plus pass-rusher at the DE spots every year save for in 2010, when Snyder was still rebuilding the team. They didn’t get big numbers in 2014 but Mueller was moving around on the line that season and they used a 3rd down package with a young Jordan Willis (4.5 sacks) subbing in, eventual starting LB Elijah Lee playing on the edge (4.5 sacks), and DT Travis Britz who added another three sacks.

In other words, Snyder’s 60-31 record this decade (39-23 in the Big 12) has been built largely off his ability to regularly field strong defensive lines that can get a pass-rush with four guys. That Snyder has regularly fielded some of the hardest talent to find (DL) despite one of the league’s lowest rated rosters (per 247 composite rankings) is some of the true wizardry of the second Snyder-era.

It’s worth breaking down how they’ve been fielding these teams per Bill Connelly’s excellent summation of roster building in terms of talent acquisition, development, and deployment.

Talent acquisition

You can see a big change on the table above from 2012 to 2014 when the K-State starting DE spots began to be staffed by home grown players that were recruited out of high school rather than JUCO transfers. It’s often assumed that Snyder’s strategy still revolves around JUCOs but that simply doesn’t work for the Wildcats anymore. Everyone else in the country has gotten wise to the fact that there are many JUCO programs nationally that do a good job of taking great athletes with character or grade concerns and then helping them transition and prepare to later join four-year programs.

The Jayhawk community college system is really strong in that regard so JUCO transfers will likely always be a part of the Wildcat formula. However, in the last three recruiting classes the Wildcats have signed a total of five JUCO players that were ranked in the top 150 by 247. Two of them were DEs, but it’s clear enough that the Wildcats are not relying on that pipeline to maintain their standards along the DL.

The 2016 DE rotation of Jordan Willis, Reggie Walker, and Tanner Wood was entirely comprised of high school recruits that came up the ranks in Manhattan. Willis and Walker were both largely overlooked, raw athletes that responded very positively to K-State culture and training while Wood was a big, athletic QB in a Kansas high school that they moved to DE after he arrived on campus.

Snyder has used JUCO transfers more as a patch in his second tenure to tie his roster over until they could find and develop some high school recruits. The last three years in particular have seen the Wildcats use the JUCO ranks more like other programs, as a useful supplement rather than a primary pipeline.

The strengths of the Kansas State program these days relate much more to development and culture. While that was useful in the past for making the most of JUCO talents, it’s most effective when applied over four or five seasons with a player. Jordan Willis was the best DE that K-State has fielded this decade and this was due in part to the fact that he got four full years of Snyder education on DE play.

Talent development

For every year of the second Snyder era the coaching staff has included a coach that specializes with the DEs and another that focuses on the DTs. Mo Lattimore, a K-State alum, has coached the DTs over this entire period. The DEs were initially coached by K-State alum Joe Bob Clements but then he took a job doing the same thing at Oklahoma State. Then they promoted another home grown assistant and KSU alum Blake Seiler who coached the position from 2014 until this offseason when he was promoted and given the responsibility for developing their LB corps.

He was replaced by John Fabris, who isn’t a Wildcat alum but who did coach DEs for the program in 1997 and 1998 under Bill Snyder’s direction.

It’s pretty commonplace these days for teams to have two assistant coaches focus on DBs, often splitting up safeties and cornerbacks, while a single coach handles the DL. At K-State they still focus on detailed coaching up front with two DL coaches and their DC Tom Hayes (plus some GAs, no doubt) handling the entire secondary. That emphasis is reflected in their strategy which asks a good deal more of the DL than it does from their secondary.

Making the most of the DL

The Kansas State defense is designed to bend without breaking and to defer as much stress as possible from the back end to the front. The Wildcats prefer to stand back, keep the ball in front of them, and then close. When everything is humming with a good pass-rush up front and savvy/athletic corners behind them like in 2012 or 2016 then you get outcomes like the 18 interceptions by the starting DBs in 2012 or the 12 interceptions by the 2016 secondary.

The challenge is working out how to make the most of a talented DL to set the secondary up to play conservatively without over stressing the front and creating holes so big that they can’t be patched by the backfield.

The Art Briles Baylor Bears regularly overstressed the Wildcat fronts with their wide splits, four-receiver sets, and power run game. The problem that is posed by a team that can move gaps up front while holding defenders outside with the passing game is universal and can spell doom for a team that wants to maintain a two-deep, preventative shell like K-State does. Briles is now gone, but his principles live on across the league, particularly at places like West Virginia:

The challenge for the 4-3 defense against these four-wide sets is that to play two-deep effectively you have to play with only five defenders in the box but there are six gaps across the front to account for. Two-deep teams like K-State often handle this by having their outside linebacker line up outside of the box but be positioned to “fold” back into the box to handle a b-gap. Against splits like this though, that LB can be dragged so far out of the box to be a realistic aid against the pass that he can’t help back inside.

K-State has solutions, of course.

The inside-backer (I) and four DL are going to take on the five blockers and attempt to cancel out the four interior gaps. They do this by asking the DE playing outside the nose tackle to play a “heavy” technique. In this technique, the DE will respond to any attempts by the OT to hold him outside by instead working his way inside to the B-gap and thus hopefully spilling the ball outside where the outside backer (O in this diagram) or force DB (the free safety, “F” in this instance) can effectively reach the play after first assuring that the Wildcats aren’t gashed by a quick pass outside.

On this play West Virginia tried to thwart that design by motioning their RB before the snap but the Wildcat DL shifts after the snap and still works to cancel out the B-gaps and spill the ball outside where their defensive backfield is waiting to pounce.

They employed a similar strategy against the Texas Longhorns, who were using the Briles offensive scheme in 2016, and were able to contain Texas RB D’Onta Foreman to 124 yards and zero TDs on 24 carries, which was quite good in comparison to the rest of the conference and good enough to hamstring the Texas O. When you can handle a spread run game with five in the box you’re going to put yourself in good position to win more often than not.

Obviously this kind of tactic requires some “read and react” techniques by the DEs and DL in general, but when you’re putting an emphasis on DL coaching and development then it’s possible to recruit strong, raw athletes and teach them to be effective both as pass-rushers and run defenders. In the instance above they had RS freshman Reggie Walker operating as the “heavy” DE and he was often effective in that role. Against Texas they had to rely on the bigger, sturdier Tanner Wood to match up with likely future first round Longhorn LT Connor Williams.

It also has to be noted that the Wildcats, although often deeper up front than much of the rest of the league, are able to buy their DL a lot of time to breath and sometimes fewer overall snaps with their own ball-control approach on offense.

Can Snyder carry this tradition on and win big in 2017?

The Big 12 will be very competitive in 2017 and a K-State title is not possible unless they enjoy one of their stronger seasons up front along the DL. They’re obviously going to have to do this without Jordan Willis and also without Blake Seiler directing the DEs development as he has over the last two seasons.

The defensive backfield this 2017 DL will be charged with protecting and setting up for success is replacing both starting linebackers, the nickel, and the strong safety. Both starting cornerbacks return but things could get dicey in the middle without excellence in the trenches.

Outside at DE Reggie Walker returns though after his freshman All-American campaign and Tanner Wood has been a reliable back-up and run-stopper the last two years if not particularly impactful yet as a pass-rusher. On the interior they’re hoping to get potential four-year starter Will Geary (nose tackle) back in the fall and they return another rising young player in DT Trey Dishon who had four TFL and three sacks a year ago as a RS freshman.

If homegrown DL Walker and Dishon make leaps as sophomores rather than enduring slumps while Snyder’s staff builds around them and local products like DTs Will Geary and Mitch Copeland or DEs Tanner Wood and Kyle Ball have strong years then there’s a chance that Snyder could ride off into the sunset after winning one last Big 12 title.