Saturday, April 14, 2007

Kansas State Spring Football Preview


Well, if Ron Prince’s goal was to make this ‘his’ program as quickly as humanly possible, I’d say running off pretty much everybody who wasn’t his recruit was a pretty effective way to do it. Electing to play true freshmen and JUCO transfers at what seemed like every position on the field—led by QB Josh Freeman and RB Leon Patton—KSU had plenty of ups and downs in ’06. They put up a decent fight against Louisville, then went to Waco and got drubbed by lowly Baylor. They bounced back with a nice comeback win over Oklahoma State, then got assaulted by Nebraska and Missouri. After ho-hum wins over Iowa State and Colorado, they pulled off the upset of the Big XII season, defeating Texas at home, 45-42. Granted, Colt McCoy was injured and UT made about 249 mistakes, but...a win is a win, and that was a big one.

And then KSU proceeded to lose to Kansas by 19 and Rutgers by 27.

Despite seeming disorganized every time I saw them, despite their not seeming to have a lot of standout talent (that wasn’t in the form of a true freshman, anyway), and despite the fact that they only beat one good team (and one decent one), Prince’s Wildcats made it to a bowl game and finished 7-6, a distinguishable improvement from the seasons before. Will it happen again in 2007?

Key Returnees

I guess one of the positives of playing a bunch of freshmen is you’re assured of a lot of returnees the next year. Looking at their bowl game depth chart, you see that 8 offensive starters and 8 defensive end-of-year starters return, and that really can’t be a bad thing. Ron Prince didn’t hit a total homerun with his first recruiting class, but there’s really no doubting that the incoming talent will more suited for his system than the outgoing, Bill-Snyder-recruited talent.

The big names on offense are at the skill positions. QB Josh Freeman has already been labeled a star despite a 6-15 TD-INT ratio. His skills as a true freshman were the opposite of the stereotypical true freshman. He seemed to know what he was doing, he rarely looked overwhelmed, he stood tall and confident...but it just seemed like he couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn half the time. Or, if the pass hit its intended target, it was going at the wrong speed. I’m biased by the fact that I saw him play horribly in the rain in Columbia last year, but I saw the tendency in other games as well. Another year or repetition will help him, as will the emergence of Jordy Nelson from Ron Prince’s doghouse. Nelson was one of the better WR’s I saw in the Big XII in 2005, and he disappeared for half the season...presumably (to me, at least) because he was a Bill Snyder recruit. No other returning WR had as many as 20 catches (though TE Rashaad Norwood was solid) in 2006, so Nelson will need to step up bigtime in his senior season.

Freeman will be aided by the continued development of sophomore RB Leon Patton (609 yards, 6 TD’s) and senior James Johnson (428 yards, 2 TD’s). The O-line returns three-fifths of its bowl lineup. There has been a lack of O-line continuity for KSU for a few years now, so this unit’s success will go a long way toward determining the success of KSU’s offense.

The defense returns everybody but possibly their two best players—LB’s Brandon Archer and Zach Diles. The now-experienced D-Line made some big plays but gave up 4.7 yards per carry over the last 8 games of the season. Junior DE Ian Campbell and senior DE Rob Jackson combined for an impressive 26 tackles for loss and 16 sacks in ’06. In the secondary, three bowl game starters return, along with SS Marcus Watts, who has been pretty good for a while. The experience will help a unit that gave up almost 200 passing yards a game and only came up with 10 INT’s.

In the secondary...the punter, Tim Reyer (42.1 yards/punt) returns, and that’s about it.

Spring Developments

It’s impressive how different spring practice coverage is from school to school. You get coverage of pretty much every snap at schools like Nebraska and Oklahoma and Texas (and to a slightly lesser extent, Missouri), however others (ISU, KSU) publish almost nothing. According to this press conference write-up, Ron Prince is really excited about how things are going. Wow, insightful.

You do get a couple of useful quotes from the press conference, though. It looks like James Johnson has possibly built a lead over Leon Patton for the starting RB position. I think Patton, a Darren Sproles type of back, has higher upside as a runner, but Johnson seems to have established himself as a more complete back. WR Daniel Gonzalez (15 catches in ’06...all but disappeared when Big XII play started) seems to have established himself as well. And the O-linemen are “improving their skills.” That, uhh, can’t be a bad thing.

Meanwhile, apparently Ian Campbell has moved from DE to OLB, and interesting move for a guy who’s 6’5, 235. But he's the most talented player on the K-State defense, so it makes sense that they want him in a position that allows him to make more plays.

Fun With Numbers

Here were the five statistical categories that were most directly related to KSU’s success/failure last year (I have redone the list with a different, more accurate correlation formula than the one used for this post):

1. 3rd Down Conversion Ratio
2. 3rd Down Conversion Rate
3. 3rd Down Conversions
4. Turnovers
5. Turnover Differential
Third downs and turnovers. Got it. In other words, stats didn’t really matter, just key, individual plays. Which makes sense, considering that a look at the stats does not reveal what one would consider a successful 2006 campaign for K-State. They were outgained by about 500 yards...they gave up 30 more first downs than they got...their turnover margin was -4...they had over 200 more yards of penalties than their opponents...they had a poor overall Time of Possession...and yet they won 7 games. You figure it out.

This list of categories also makes it pretty hard to predict what’s to come for K-State. Did they just get lucky last year? If so, does that mean they’ll be unlucky this year? Or is the fact that they found themselves in pressure situations (when your season was determined by 3rd downs and turnovers, you probably found yourself in some close games) as a young team a good omen for the future? Your guess is as good as mine.

They’ve got an interesting schedule as well. After starting the season at Auburn (power to Ron Prince for taking that game), their home opener comes against an improving San Jose State team. They also end the season, strangely, at Fresno State, meaning four of their last six games come on the road. Assuming they start 4-2 (home wins against SJSU, SMS, Kansas, and Colorado; road losses to Auburn and Texas), they’ll have a pretty good shot at their second straight bowl game, but if they slip up early, they might not recover. I really want to predict that bad luck will overtake them, but I won’t...upon first glance, I’m thinking 6-7 wins is the most likely scenario...I’ll say 6-6.