College Sports

K-State builds elite team with walk-ons, under-the-radar signees

For recruiting analysts, Kansas State is the college football program they would rather forget.

The Wildcats’ signing classes are panned each February. Yet the team plays its way into the Big 12 title chase, more often than not, each November.

This inverse relationship underscores both the fallacy of recruiting lists published by self-proclaimed “experts” and the genius of Kansas State coach Bill Snyder in identifying and developing talent that fits his system.

Snyder, 75, will not bring a roster filled with four- and five-star signees to Fort Worth for Saturday’s matchup between No. 7 Kansas State (7-1, 5-0 in Big 12) and No. 6 TCU (7-1, 4-1). But he’ll bring a boatload of walk-ons, former walk-ons and junior-college transfers who contribute to a team that leads the Big 12 in multiple key categories.

Among Big 12 teams, Kansas State leads the league in scoring defense (18.6 points per game), total defense (321.1 yards per game), time of possession (32:50 per game), fewest penalties (27.8 yards per game), red zone offense (92.9 percent conversion rate), red zone defense (71.4 percent for opponents), punt returns (18.4 average) and kickoff coverage (42.0-yard net). The Wildcats also rank third in turnover margin (plus-6).

K-State is making this happen with a roster that suited up 58 walk-ons or former walk-ons — approximately half the team — for a Sept. 18 game against No. 3 Auburn. Although roster limits for road games will cut back the walk-on percentage among Wildcats who take the field in Fort Worth, a recent count by CBSSports.com identified 14 players on the K-State depth chart who began their college careers as non-scholarship players. Counting specialists, there were 20.

For Snyder, these guys are the lifeblood of his program. His top offensive lineman, all-Big 12 center B.J. Finney, walked on after winning a state wrestling championship in Andale, Kan. The Wildcats’ top pass rusher, all-Big 12 defensive end Ryan Mueller, is a former walk-on who played private-school football in a Kansas City suburb.

Despite their lack of blue-chip pedigrees, Snyder gave them a chance because he saw traits in both players that he seeks in scholarship signees.

“You want to have good people with a value system in place,” Snyder said during this week’s Big 12 conference call. “You want them to be committed to what you want to do, have a selflessness about them and play within the framework of the team. You want guys who are committed to getting better, day in and day out, and understand there’s a method about that.

“Whether they’re a non-scholarship player or a scholarship player, all of that still holds true. Those values are what give you the opportunity to be successful.”

Ask peers or former assistants and you’ll hear stories about Snyder’s ability to uncover recruiting gems in uncharted locations. That results in days like Oct. 25, when Texas featured more five-star signees in its tailback tandem (two) than K-State had on its entire roster (zero). Yet the Wildcats pitched a 23-0 shutout, becoming the first team in 10 years to blank the Longhorns.

Such results puzzle fans and recruiting analysts. But not Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who held the same position on Snyder’s staffs at Kansas State from 1999-2001. In all three seasons, the Wildcats finished among the nation’s top five teams in total defense. Combined record: 28-10, including two 11-win seasons.

“I don’t think we ever had a top-80 recruiting class. But you didn’t want to play us,” Bennett said. “Evaluation is the key. And development has to happen. Bill is a master at both.”

Bennett, a Texas A&M graduate, recalled piecing together a linebacker corps that featured three Texans overlooked by schools in their home state (Josh Buhl, Jeff Kelly and Terry Pierce, a Fort Worth Western Hills graduate). Another linebacker from that era, 1999 all-American Mark Simoneau, caught Snyder’s eye as a fullback at Smith Center, Kan.

“Who goes to Smith Center, Kan., to find players?,” Bennett asked.

Snyder did. Just like he cobbled together this roster with a heaping helping of walk-ons, transfers and players who earned mostly two- and three-star ratings from recruiting analysts. But they fit together, remain disciplined and win. Former Texas coach Mack Brown, now an ESPN analyst, appreciates the effort Snyder puts into his craft.

“Bill’s the best,” Brown said. “He’s relentless. He’s the kind of guy who will be in his office on July 4, breaking down videotapes.”

He does so to prepare for days like Saturday, when a title shot is on the line. Brown is far from surprised.

“Bill Snyder’s doing what Bill Snyder does. It doesn’t change,” Brown said. “There are very few penalties, very few turnovers. They play hard. Their quarterback’s playing well. They run the ball well and their kicking game is the best in the league.”

They’re also headed to Fort Worth with designs on winning a Big 12 title, even though Snyder never will be dubbed “Coach February” for his annual recruiting hauls.

Spotlight

Devin Chafin, Baylor RB

If Baylor coach Art Briles has things figured correctly, the running back who posted his breakout game against Kansas will become a major force in the Bears’ stretch drive toward a Big 12 title. Devin Chafin, slowed for most of this season by a high ankle sprain, rushed for 112 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s 60-14 rout of the Jayhawks.

That represents almost half of Chafin’s season rushing total (227 yards) and two-thirds of his touchdowns (three) heading into Saturday’s game at No. 15 Oklahoma (11 a.m., FS1). Chafin, who rushed for 251 yards last season, has carried just 44 times in the first eight games for No. 12 Baylor (7-1, 4-1 in Big 12). Briles views Chafin (6-foot, 225 pounds) as a timely addition to leading rusher Shock Linwood (777 yards, 10 TDs) in the Bears’ offensive arsenal.

“It’s the first time all year he’s been healthy,” Briles said. “He’s fresh and he adds another dimension to us. Devin’s tough and he’s fast.”

Ideally, Briles wants Chafin to spell Linwood more frequently in the Bears’ remaining regular-season games. Chafin said his body feels unusually fresh for November.

“I actually felt really good after the game,” said Chafin, who averaged 8.0. yards per carry against Kansas. “Not too beat up or anything. I just want to keep on getting healthy as the season goes by and contribute as much as I can. When me and Shock start doing our thing and doing good together, it certainly opens up a lot of other areas with our offense.”

Storylines

Wrong Top 10: Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, who led his team to the No. 10 spot in the AP poll after last year’s 7-0 start in his first season, is back in another top-10 list this week. Kingsbury ranks No. 9 among the nation’s most embattled coaches, according to the website coacheshotseat.com. Although positioned between two coaches likely to be dismissed after the season — Florida’s Will Muschamp (No. 8) and Michigan’s Brady Hoke (No. 10) — Kingsbury, 35, has no job-related concerns. He signed a contract extension through the 2020 season in August before the Red Raiders (3-6, 1-5 in Big 12) began a season that has seen Kingsbury’s mark fall to 3-11 in his last 14 games against FBS opponents.

Milestone efforts: Among FBS leagues, the Big 12 ranks second nationally in total offense, with its 10 teams averaging 447.3 yards per game. Broken down into individual performances, that includes more milestone days for 100-yard receivers (49) than 300-yard passers (28) or 100-yard rushers (28).

Power 5 showdowns: As the College Football Playoff rankings become more important each week, so will the Big 12’s record against other Power 5 leagues in nonconference play in the minds of committee members. The Big 12 posted a combined mark of 22-8 in nonconference play, including these records against other Power 5 leagues: Big Ten (3-0), SEC (1-3), Pac-12 (0-1) and ACC (0-2).

Burch’s picks

No. 6 TCU 31, No. 7 Kansas State 28 (6:30 p.m. Saturday, KDFW/Ch. 4): Horned Frogs survive another squeaker, down their toughest remaining opponent on regular-season schedule.

No. 15 Oklahoma 38, No. 12 Baylor 31 (11 a.m. Saturday, FS1): Sooners’ pass rush and Baylor’s legacy of struggles in Norman, Okla. (0-11 in school history) prove to be too much for the Bears.

Texas 27, No. 23 West Virginia 24 (2:30 p.m. Saturday, FS1): Longhorns catch the Mountaineers at the perfect time for an upset: making a long road trip after a gut-wrenching loss.

Iowa State 35, Kansas 28 (2:30 p.m. Saturday, FSSW): In a battle between two teams playing for pride, the Cyclones stand taller.

Last week: 4-1

Season: 52-5

 

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