Three weeks ago, I reluctantly questioned the direction of Bill Snyder’s football program. Following the third straight loss to open conference play and a 2-4 record, I wondered if someone else was pulling the strings at K-State.
I should probably apologize.
K-State has won three straight games now and even if that question was valid at the time, there is no question now. Coming off its best and most complete performance of the season, Bill Snyder is still in charge of the Wildcats.
The conference schedule the Big 12 offices handed K-State this season, against the top three teams in the Big 12, was less than ideal for a program that was trying to replace two of its best players in school history, Arthur Brown and Colin Klein. The combined record of the teams that handed K-State its four losses, is 32-3.
Snyder’s program tends to rebuild rather than reload. Rebuilding takes patience and patience isn’t something that is prevalent in today’s college football environment. But Snyder adheres to a different set of rules than most if not all other coaches at the BCS level.
He’s never recruited on a level that allows that. He’s more likely to invest in a player that he believes will fall in line with his 16 goals and his value system, rather than one that Rivals.com or Scouts.com rates as a four or five star talent based on potential.
He had to replace nine starters on defense, and it had growing pains early in the season. Just look at the game winning drive North Dakota put together in the opening game if the year. It was a methodical, eight minute and 30 second drive, that the defense just couldn’t find a way to stop, leaving the Wildcats with only 28 seconds to answer.
It’s how he’s replaced those nine starters that has been so impressive. It is nothing unusual for his tenure at K-State, but it is rare that a defending conference champion from a BCS school would have to do it this way, using a combination of walk-ons and players that didn’t receive much attention from other BCS level schools, except for K-State.
K-State fans have long been aware that the recruiting services never think much of Snyder’s recruiting classes and he doesn’t think much of them. Snyder and defensive coordinator Tom Hayes have done more with less this season than in any other year I can remember.
Four starters on defense are walk-ons or former walk-ons, including Ryan Mueller who leads the nation in sacks with 10.5, and on Monday was named the Big 12 Defensive Player of the week for the second straight time. Linebacker Jonathan Truman, and cornerbacks Randall Evans and Dorrian Roberts also made their way to Manhattan as walk-ons. Evans and Mueller will likely receive some sort of post season accolades, with Mueller looking more and more like an All-American and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.
Mueller, a graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas has been going non-stop since he first set foot on the field in a K-State uniform two years ago. His playing time has increased each year, his first two seasons seeing the field primarily on third and long. This season, as the starting defensive end, he has flourished. His motor is unmatched. Against Baylor he had one of the coolest plays I’ve ever seen on a football field. He had an awesome highlight video of his senior year in high school that he posted to YouTube, so its hard to understand how he couldn’t at least earn two stars or a BCS-level scholarship offer.
Using the Rivals.com rankings, the average number of stars of the Wildcats’ first team defense is a star and a half. Stars matter at most places, but Snyder seems to see something in players, and squeezes every ounce out of them. Never more than this year.
No other Big 12 team lists a defensive starter that is a former or current walk-on, let alone the four that K-State runs out there. Only four of the Wildcat defensive starters even received a scholarship offer from a BCS level program out of high school or junior college.
It’s a testament to the players and the coaching staff that this collection of players that were hardly on any other Big 12 programs radar. The Wildcats are currently fifth in the conference in total defense with these players. Yes, K-State has recruited, and sometimes landed, the five-star recruit. But it has never worked out. The names Chris Boggas, Daniel Davis and Peni Holakeituai all make K-State fans shake their heads with disappointment.
All three were big-time recruits about 10 years ago, that every team in the nation was after. Bill Snyder landed them and none of the three made any impact whatsoever. But guys like John McGraw, Rock Cartwright, Ian Campbell and most famously Jordy Nelson came in, walked on, and agreed to do things the Snyder way. The way Mueller and friends have this season.
I’m not sure this is a sustainable or smart recipe to build a defense. I bet even Snyder would tell you that. But it’s hard to argue with the success K-State has had with its walk-on program. Next season, the Wildcats should only have to replace four starters on the defensive side of the ball. Mueller, Evans and Truman all return, and if Snyder and Hayes can find guys to buy into the system and program like those three have, the defense could be even better.