Sizing up the Kansas State Defense

The season is still roughly 60 days away, but it’s never too early to take a preliminary look at where things stand. I’m a firm believer in delivering less ideal news first, and since the offense appears to be this team’s strongest facet heading into the fall – I elected to break down the defensive side initially.

I’ll be the first to admit it can be a bit maddening watching Tom Hayes’ scheme in action, and while at times it may seem like a fruitless strategy to the naked eye – it’s been relatively effective in taming the rest of the wide-open league.

With the exception of the injury-riddled 2015 campaign, the bend-but-don’t-break defense has averaged a national FEI ranking of 34th (exactly 34th in 2016) and S&P+ ranking of 42nd (43rd in 2016) since the start of 2011. It’s predicated on playing fundamentally sound and limiting big gains in the secondary while forcing the opponent to run more plays and make mistakes – particularly in the red zone. Last year’s unit had a tendency to give up the big play in key moments (although still ranked a respectable 45th nationally in IsoPPP+ - a measurement for explosive plays allowed) but was very good against the run (ranked in the top 20 across most advanced categories). They also were quite good in the red zone (22nd nationally in RZ defense despite ranking just 8th in the conference in RZ TD% allowed), though of 36 TDs surrendered on the year – 16 (44.5%) of those came from more than 20 yards out (an alarming stat). So what’s to be expected in 2017?

Key Losses: DE Jordan Willis, OLB Elijah Lee, DB Donnie Starks, OLB Mike Moore, S Dante Barnett

It’s never an easy task to replace a ferocious edge defender like Willis or dependable run-stoppers like Lee and Moore. Starks was much-maligned for his crotch-thrust on Texas A&M’s Josh Reynolds in last December’s bowl game, but he was quietly one of the most reliable options in the secondary. Barnett…was not very good last season (after a previously terrific career).

Key Additions: OLB Da’Quan Patton, OLB Daniel Green, DB Elijah Walker, DE Anthony Payne

We’ll see if all these names remain on the roster by the time September arrive - but if so, look out. One thing all these guys have in common…is speed (something that’s seemed to lack the last couple of years). It’s rare to see first year players see significant playing time under Snyder, but I wouldn’t be surprised if most (even all) of these guys garner plenty by the end of the season (especially Walker).

Probable Starters:

DE – Reggie Walker

DE – Tanner Wood

DT – Will Geary

DT – Trey Dishon

Should be a solid front end, assuming Geary rejoins the team (he’s been battling some personal issues since at least last fall). He and Dishon played a huge part in walling off the middle last season. I’m not particularly confident in their backups just yet (Price, ???). Walker was a monster opposite of Willis last season as a true freshman (5.5 sacks, 11.5 TFL). I anticipate him living in the opponent’s backfield this year. Wood should be adequate having been around the program for a long time and showing flashes on third down packages. Kyle Ball and Boom Massie are two other names to watch here.

LB – Trent Tanking

LB – Sam Sizelove

Both appear capable of handling starting jobs after limited duty, although I’d like to see Patton eventually overtake Tanking’s spot. Jayd Kirby should see plenty of time as well and Daniel Green ought to make some noise.

CB – DJ Reed

CB – Duke Shelley

DB – Cre Moore

DB – Kendall Adams

DB - Sean Newlan

A really mixed bag with this group. DJ Reed was picked on early in 2016 (mostly due to his height) but the opposition quickly learned to navigate away from his eye-popping athleticism and ballhawking ability (3 picks, 16 passes defended). He finished as an all-conference performer and already has a solid case as the best corner in the league. The other corner spot is where things get a little dicey. Duke Shelley emerged as a shutdown CB as a true freshman in 2015 and was quickly bombarded with whispers of the NFL draft. 2016 was a different story, as he found himself benched part way through the year after struggling in coverage (he developed a severe propensity to bite on ball fakes and double moves, and only compounded things when he forgot how to tackle). But there’s at least hope that he can regain that form, and this team is going to depend on it. Cre Moore looked like he belonged in multiple stints at the nickel slot last season after many wondered if he’d ever contribute after being well-regarded out of high school in Oklahoma. Kendall Adams should have the top safety title locked down, although he was inconsistent at best in 2016 (he did show some capacity to jump passes, though). Sean Newlan looks like he’ll get the nod across from him but after seeing him in the spring game, his grasp on that job looks tenuous at best. My hope is Elijah Walker and/or Denzel Goolsby can leapfrog him on the depth chart (and quickly). AJ Parker and Jonathan Durham should also be in the secondary mix.

I’m not sure what to make of this unit overall quite yet, though I fear it’s a clear downgrade from last year. I believe they’ll be adequate (especially when considering the offensive firepower), but I also expect them to be the difference between a 9-3 finish and conference title contention. Here’s to hoping they prove me wrong.

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