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A wizard’s gambit

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Bill Snyder keeps plugging away with his high risk/high benefit approach to offensive football.

Kansas State v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

One of the minor intrigues of the upcoming 2018 season is what Kansas State will look like with longtime offensive coordinator Dana Dimel departing to be the head coach at UTEP and Bill Snyder promoting WR coach Andre Coleman and QB coach Collin Klein to co-coordinators. As is often the case with a program who’s HC is an institution (or really at any program) Dimel often caught some of the criticism whenever things didn’t go as planned for the offense while Snyder typically remained above reproach.

One of the chief criticisms concerned how the Wildcat offense utilized the QB, namely how the Wildcats have routinely made the QB a major feature to their run game rather than using him primarily to distribute the ball to the RB or WRs on the roster. With Dimel gone, there is some optimism in Kansas that this will no longer be the case in 2018. This optimism is completely misplaced for a variety of reasons. It’s neither likely that the Wildcat offensive philosophy will change nor a good idea for it to do so.

The Wildcat offensive philosophy

You can summarize the Kansas State offensive philosophy as “Snyder won’t come without a plus one.” If there’s one “wizard’s trick” that has consistently allowed the Wildcats to punch above their weight it’s the way they use the QB in the run game to allow their offense to consistently work at advantage whether throwing or running the ball.

Beyond their extensive QB run game, Kansas State involves the threat of the QB run in just about every play they run. When they want to call a run for their RB they’ll attach a QB read on the backside, like on this dart play:

As the article linked a moment ago argues, “dart” is essentially another way that K-State runs “Iso.” They get a double team and lead block at the point of attack, which again is what this offense is all about. Naturally the design of this play means that the QB may have to be used as a runner if the backside defender chooses to crash and stop the run but typically it does go to the back.

Anyways, the QB is always either primarily or secondarily involved as a runner so you’re not stopping this offense without consistently beating blocks or else loading the box to regain a number’s advantage. The passing game is then built off the assumption that most teams are going to have to choose the latter. Much like the run game, where most plays (sweep, iso, power, and outside zone are the main run concepts) involve a double team and lead block at the point of attack, the passing game is designed to send the ball exclusively to 1-on-1 matchups.

They have a few ways of playing spread iso-ball with their receivers, both of which were utilized while helping star WR Byron Pringle score three touchdowns on Oklahoma State this last season. One is the use of “rubs” to get their favorite guy open against man coverage:

The other is to use typical forms of zone flooding, such as this combo which is basically a triple-post combo to ensure that there is only one DB matched up outside on Pringle in lots of space:

They catch Oklahoma State in an aggressive brand of quarters here so all of the DBs are pretty vulnerable but Skylar Thompson only has eyes for Pringle, isolated on top of the screen. Up front they’re running play-action off their “sweep-read” run for RB Alex Barnes to help buy time and get a seven-man protection. Snyder also mixes in play-action off the QB run game AND RPOs off the QB run game, most all of which tend to involve pretty simple reads for the QB on plays designed to get the ball to playmakers like Pringle.

Every man a role player

Like every team system, the Kansas State model only requires having truly good athletes in a few spots while everyone else is serving as a role player. The top WR and RB often represent a sizable chunk of the production in a given year.

The Kansas State “only come with a plus one” philosophy of using the QB as a runner sets up the good skill players much better than your typical scheme. A WR who’s always working against a 1-on-1 and often with the help of either abundant space or a rub from another WR is going to be made to look better than they even are, as is a RB who’s blocking scheme often accounts for all but the deep safety or a particularly athletic backside linebacker.

However the Kansas State system also sets up the role players much more effectively than a typical offensive system. Beyond the fact that many of the WRs don’t see that much action, the Wildcat offense is also phenomenal at allowing Snyder to utilize a traditional TE and FB in a uniquely old-fashioned manner.

That’s good old fashioned “weak iso” and the TE (Dayton Valentine) is simply extending the width of the front that the UCLA has to defend while the FB (Winston Dimel) is inserting behind the double team, which is working up to a linebacker. Most of the OL (and the TE) are just looking to maintain their opponents position along the front so as to allow a cutback while the Wildcats are moving the ball where they have....a plus one.

K-State has had FBs and TEs now and then worth getting the ball to in the passing game or as short-yardage runners. The 2017 FB Winston Dimel (presumably transferring to UTEP to continue playing for his dad, Dana Dimel) would get the ball in the run game from time to time and his predecessor Glenn Gronkowski (little bro to Rob) often got the ball on quick pop passes after faking lead blocks like the one above.

That’s all bonus though, K-State’s use of their QB as a feature runner allows them to utilize blocking specialists in those roles without limiting the ability of the offense to spread out the defense from spread formations and present a credible passing threat on standard downs. A normal offense that never throws to the TE or FB invites a more aggressive response from the defense but K-State is already accounting for such a response and negating it by using their QB.

Here’s how that very old school “weak iso” play looks on the chalkboard:

There’s no one in position to make the tackle on Alex Delton (20 carries for 158 yards and three TDs in that game) unless someone beats a block. Well, the DL are all being double teams or facing angle blocks, the backside LBs have to get there without a combo block reaching them, the play side LB has a FB coming right at him, and everyone else is in man coverage or deep zone.

This “play man coverage and rely on your extra LB up front” strategy was the same employed by Vanderbilt when they held K-State down in a 14-7 victory early in the year. That worked for stopping the Wildcat RB Alex Barnes (34 yards on eight carries) and their DBs handled the rub and iso routes well (Ertz completed 10-28 passes for 78 yards and two INTs), but the QB run game still produced a 24 carry, 126 yard, one TD day for Ertz and Vanderbilt barely survived. For UCLA the QB run game was too devastating for this strategy to hold up.

A wizard’s gambit

This all begs the question of “well then what’s the issue here? Why are K-State fans frustrated by this approach? Why don’t more teams utilize this strategy?”

The answer is probably fairly obvious, everyone is hesitant about using a player who has to be healthy enough to direct the offense and throw passes every Saturday as a featured runner.

Here’s how the position has looked for Snyder since he came back to Manhattan in 2009:

2nd Snyder era QBs in the run game

Year Quarterbacks Carries-Yards, YPC, TDs
Year Quarterbacks Carries-Yards, YPC, TDs
2009 Grant Gregory: 6-1, 205. RSR. Carson Coffman: 6-3, 212. RJR. 106-308, 2.9 ypc, 3 TDs (Gregory) 54-64, 1.2 ypc, 2 TDs (Coffman)
2010 Carson Coffman: 6-3, 212. RSR. Collin Klein: 6-5, 227. RSO. 110-157, 1.4 ypc, 9 TDs (Coffman) 76-432, 5.7 ypc, 6 TDs (Klein)
2011 Collin Klein: 6-5, 227. RJR. 317-1141, 3.6 ypc, 27 TDs.
2012 Collin Klein: 6-5, 227. RSR. 207-920, 4.4 ypc, 23 TDs.
2013 Daniel Sams: 6-2, 207. RSO. Jake Waters: 6-0, 210. JR. 152-807, 5.3 ypc, 11 TDs (Sams) 118-312, 2.6 ypc, 6 TDs (Waters)
2014 Jake Waters: 6-0, 210. SR. 154-484, 3.1 ypc, 9 TDs.
2015 Joe Hubener: 6-5, 212. RJR. Kody Cook: 6-1, 196. RSR. 180-613, 3.4 ypc, 13 TDs (Hubener) 67-158, 2.4 ypc, 2 TDs (Cook)
2016 Jesse Ertz: 6-2, 212. RJR. 183-1012, 5.5 ypc, 12 TDs.
2017 Jesse Ertz: 6-2, 212. RSR. Alex Delton: 6-0, 210. RSO. Skylar Thompson: 6-2, 200. RFR. 65-336, 5.2 ypc, 3 TDs (Ertz) 100-500, 5 ypc, 8 TDs (Delton) 69-267, 3.9 ypc, 3 TDs (Thompson)

More often than not in the second Snyder era, this process has worked out fine for the Wildcats. Collin “Optimus” Klein was a tank who finished every year slower and stiffer than he started but did manage to finish every season strong despite his tremendously heavy workload. Jake Waters got a lighter workload and split time in the QB run game with Daniel Sams in 2013 and then in 2014 the Wildcats had to lessen the load when Sams transferred and Waters was injured midway through the year and had to play through it.

The 2015 and 2017 seasons were the ones that went poorly and left a bad taste in Wildcat fans’ mouths. The 2015 season started off with young Jesse Ertz winning the starting job only to go down on one of the first plays of the season. He rebounded in 2016 and had one of the stronger rushing seasons by a Wildcat QB, particularly in the lethal 11 personnel package illustrated above, but then was injured again in 2017.

The main problem wasn’t the offensive design though but a knee injury that Ertz suffered in high school which wasn’t fixed up or healed well enough for the stiff-arming Iowan to handle the duress of toting the rock every week in Snyder’s offense, save for the 2016 season. Both the 2015 and 2017 seasons ended for Ertz with knee injuries that required additional surgeries.

The other problem was at the back-up position. In 2015 Ertz’s back-up was walk-on Joe Hubener, who was a solid runner in the QB run game but averaged only 6.7 ypa and threw 10 INTs in the passing game and lacked help at RB or WR. In 2017 the Wildcats plugged in Alex Delton but a pair of concussions knocked him out for large chunks of the season and forced them to turn to RS freshman Skyler Thompson earlier in his developmental curve than they would have liked.

But the upshot of this three-year saga is that the Wildcats are entering 2018 with one of their most athletic and explosive running QBs yet in Alex Delton and then another guy in Skylar Thompson who has started multiple Big 12 games in this offense. Chances are that the K-State starting QB won’t see his load lightened anytime soon.

Over the course of the second Snyder era, the years in which they had a single QB at the helm all year (four of nine seasons) they’ve gone 39-13, never winning less than nine games and winning a B12 title in 2012. In years in which they had to start multiple QBs they’ve gone 35-29, never winning more than eight games.

At 78 years old, it’s hard to know how much longer Snyder can maintain his coaching career but his recent moves have made his staff younger yet still filled with his acolytes, particularly former players like Klein or new DC Blake Seiler. I think we can expect to see Snyder continue to plug along with the same formula as ever in pursuit of the breakthrough season where they are lucky with QB health and talented enough elsewhere to win another Big 12 title and perhaps even visit the playoffs.