Fri Mar 19 04:10pm EDT
An absurdly premature assessment of the 2010 Wildcats.
You can spin prodigal head coach Bill Snyder's first year back at Kansas State in any direction you like, depending on which you regard as the season's defining fact: That the Wildcats were still playing for the Big 12 North title in the final game? Or that they missed out on a bowl for the fifth time in six years? It's easy enough to dwell on the negative. Obviously, Snyder's return didn't prompt an immediate revival of the glory years under his watch in the nineties and early aughts, and at times -- an early loss to Louisiana-Lafayette, a 66-14 catastrophe at the hands of Texas Tech -- the whole project looked like an unmitigated disaster.
Compared to the tumultuous end of the very forgettable Ron Prince era, though, there was a lot of good in '09 -- the 'Cats broke even in Big 12 play, destroyed Texas A&M by seven touchdowns, beat Kansas and were playing for tangible stakes well into November. It was enough of a salvage job that Snyder, ever the icy, distant genius, earned a couple votes from his peers as the league's Coach of the Year, and seemed to give the program enough to look forward to that a worthy candidate might actually want the job when the 70-year-old hands it off again in the next few years. If that's still the case when Snyder enters the final year of his contract in 2011, his reputation as a master builder will be secure. (Again.)
What's Changed. There's no use pretending the Wildcats were very good in the passing game -- as a team, they finished last in the conference in yards per game through the air, were near the bottom in efficiency and passed for all of five touchdowns against I-A defenses. But what good did come from the pass was largely the work of a group that's entirely left the building, namely senior quarterback Grant Gregory, who wrested the starting job from Carson Coffman at the start of Big 12 play, along with senior receivers Brandon Banks and Attrail Snipes and All-Big 12 tight end Jeron Mastrud. That outgoing trio accounted for more than two-thirds of KSU's receiving yards, most of those from the diminutive Banks, whose extracurricular work as the league's most dangerous kick returner helped to establish him as the Wildcats' de facto big-play threat and lead the conference in all-purpose yards.
Coffman spent almost all of the second half of the year on the bench, but again remains by far the most experienced option to retake the QB spot in the fall. Given how well that worked out last time -- when Coffman's only major starts yield 15 and nine-point efforts in losses at Lafayette and UCLA -- the obvious fan favorite to win the job is sophomore Chris Harper, the prodigal Wichita product who transferred home after a year at Oregon. Harper is huge (6'3", 230) but still offers the kind of athleticism Snyder once exploited in his best quarterbacks (Michael Bishop, Ell Roberson) mainly via the option, which was certainly not the strong suit of the plodding Coffman. If Harper is the guy, he may not do much for the passing game, especially given the dearth of experienced targets. Based on his four-star recruiting hype and switch to receiver before leaving Oregon, though, he stands to quickly emerge as the best athlete on the roster and give the offense an entirely new focus with his legs.
What's the Same. In any case, the quarterback figures to play second banana again to thundering tailback Daniel Thomas, an easy first-team all-conference pick in his first season out of junior college and the only Big 12 rusher who managed to pound out 100 yards per game on average. Thomas hit the century mark five times, not including season-highs for anyone on the ground against the dominant fronts from Oklahoma (88 yards, 1 TD) and Nebraska (99 yards). With his regular contributions as a receiver (he had more yards and catches than any returning wide out), Thomas can expect to touch the ball 20-25 times on a weekly basis, a bruising proposition behind four returning starters on the line who'll carry over the physical, run-first mentality.
If you can find them, maybe you can hire ... the (TR)-Team. The run defense wasn't quite as formidable as its No. 16 national ranking suggests -- UCLA, Iowa State and Texas Tech, not exactly known for their powerful ground attacks, all gashed the Wildcats for more than 160 yards rushing, as did Oklahoma -- but the front seven was generally the strength of the team. And again, it consisted mostly of seniors: Gone are top-tackling linebackers Ulla Pomele and John Houlik and sack leader Jeffrey Fitzgerald; say goodbye to top run-stuffer Daniel Calvin, too.
Into that breach, as usual, the Wildcats could be plugging any number of junior college transfers. Six defensive linemen in the incoming crop are JUCOs, including the highest-rated member of the entire class, end Adam Davis, and a trio of 300-pound colossi (Javonta Boyd, Ray Kibble and Justin Williams) who'll vie for the run-plugging spot in the middle; Prizell Brown, a 2009 transfer who redshirted last year, is also expected to be in the mix. Assuming at least two of that number join the starting lineup, the entire D-line will consist of former transfers (including returning starter Antonio Felder, who came from Virginia) for the second year in a row, along with at least one former JUCO at linebacker (Troy Butler) and in the secondary (safety Emmanuel Lamur).
Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. In all, a whopping 16 of KSU's 28 signees in the 2010 class are already on campus for the start of spring drills next month, including the potential starters on the defensive line and a pair of quarterbacks, former JUCO transfer Sammuel Lamur (Emmanuel's brother) and true freshman Billy Cosh, son of defensive coordinator Chris Cosh. If Harper is getting most of the hype as the messiah at quarterback, Lamur isn't far behind: He nearly matches Harper for size (Lamur is listed at 6'4", 215) and also has a redshirt season in the system, winning the team's "Red Raider" award and high praise from Snyder as the best player on the scout team last fall.
Along with Harper, Lamur essentially doubles the odds that the Wildcats will discover the kind of athletic, dual-threat option nightmare under center that sparked the championship-level offenses under Bishop and Roberson, even if those odds remain fairly long. Put another way: They're not long enough to keep opposing defensive coordinators from actively pining to see Carson Coffman somehow come out on top.
Best-Case. Thomas is likely to remain the focal point, but he's already as productive as any running back can be expected to be; the key to taking the next step on offense is unlocking the potential at quarterback. KSU could easily improve on its meh Big 12 scoring average (22.8 points per game) by a touchdown or more if Harper and/or Lamur emerges as even a competent passer to keep defenses honest. That's probably not enough to push Nebraska for the North Division crown (although the Huskers do come to Manhattan off a K-State bye week), but combined with a typically solid Snyder defense, the 'Cats could be only a minor upset or two from 8-4 and a perfectly nice trip down to, say, the Sun or Alamo Bowl.
Worst-Case. New quarterbacks with practically zero live playing time are always a nerve-wracking proposition, and any team that relies so heavily on immediate help from transfers is courting potential disaster. This potentially a much improved outfit, but there are no proven playmakers to keep defenses' attention off of Thomas, and no standouts on the defense. All the key toss-up games -- Iowa State, Kansas, Baylor, Missouri, Colorado -- are away from home, where the Wildcats were one point against Iowa State from finishing 0-6 last year. A repeat performance will leave them home for the bowl season again, wallowing in the 4-8 range.
Non-Binding Forecast. If you buy into the potential of the upgrade at quarterback, you might talk yourself into imagining this team can be pretty good, possibly a top-25 contender given the schedule. I'm much more cautious, but I do think K-State is in perfect position to at least break even in conference play again and end the bowl drought; an upset over UCLA or Oklahoma State in Manhattan could have the Wildcats sitting at 6-2 going into November. That's a little scary for an outfit that hasn't won more than seven games since 2003, but barring significant injuries, anything less than 7-5 should count as a real disappointment.
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Previous Absurdly Premature Assessments: Boston College