Kansas State Preview: Defense

After the Kansas State's Big 12 Championship season a year ago, the Wildcats had to go back to the drawing board after losing almost their entire defense. How has the new-look unit fared? Come inside for more.

Kansas State's defense has struggled a bit early, giving up 4.3 yards per carry and 171.7 rushing yards per game, despite not playing the heftiest competition. Though the defense did look significantly better in last week's 37-7 win over Massachusetts, a good sign for a team that allowed 24 points to North Dakota State and 27 points to Louisiana. Their advanced metrics reflect the caliber of competition. Though Kansas State's base stats are OK, the Wildcats have an S&P+ — a play-by-play metric that is adjusted for schedule strength — of 67th nationally. A big part of that comes from their inability to stop the run, with the Wildcats ranking 88th in rushing S&P, while their overall defensive success rate of allowing offenses "successful plays" on 43.6 percent of their downs, ranks 79th.

Of course, that wasn't unexpected. While the Wildcats were a force a year ago, they typically haven't performed especially well with advanced statistics. Kansas State ranked 24th nationally in defensive S&P+ last year, a number that put them fourth in the Big 12 (Texas, for all its faults last year, was fifth, at No. 32), and K-State lost a whopping nine starters off that defense. Last year's defense had five players selected first- or second-team All-Big 12, and four are gone, including the Big 12's Defensive Player of the Year and the Defensive Lineman of the Year.

The Wildcats spend most of their time in a 4-2-5 nickel, presumably for two reasons. The first is to combat the Big 12's numerous spread offenses (which of course, Texas largely runs as well). The second is to get more speed on the field in general. And the third (I know, I said there were two) is that the Wildcats quite simply don't really have three linebackers who are strong against the pass.

The defensive line lost all four starters from a year ago, including two of the league's best pass rushers in Meshak Williams and Adam Davis, both of whom earned All-Big 12 mention, with Williams earning the Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year award. Defensive tackle Vai Lutui was a second-team All-Big 12 pick. And while Kansas State is often a rotating ground for JUCO players on the defensive front, this year's crop is somewhat of an exception, with three former high school recruits, including one former walk-on, forming the spine. The walk-on, defensive end Ryan Mueller (6-2 245), played quite a bit a year ago, and has taken to his starting role with gusto. He has 17 tackles, including 4.5 stops for loss and two sacks in the early going. Opposite Muller is Marquel Bryant (6-3 241), who has just two tackles so far this season. Travis Britz (6-4 293) has been a nice addition to the starting lineup at defensive tackle, making three stops in the backfield so far, including a sack. Chaquil Reed (6-3 309) was a JUCO transfer a year ago, and he bulked up significantly in this offseason to help stop the run.

The Wildcats have had significant success in the past few years in opting for smaller linebackers — even at middle linebacker — who can run, like departed Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Arthur Brown. Blake Slaughter (5-10 227) is this year's version, and he's been a tackling machine early, making 27 stops, including three tackles for loss and two sacks. Former walk-on Jonathan Truman (5-11 219) isn't far behind with 25 tackles, the second-best mark on the team. Those two are the primary linebackers, while Tre Walker (6-3 225) will come in for more certain running situations.

The cornerback positions are filled by a pair of former walk-ons in Dorrian Roberts (5-10 168), who walked on from Hutchinson Community College, and Randall Evans (6-0 190), who served as one of the team's top three defensive backs a year ago, earning seven starts. Roberts actually came to the team in 2011, but redshirted, then sat out last year with an injury. When the Wildcats go nickel — which again, is most of the time — Evans slides down to the nickel back spot, with Kip Daily (5-11 180) moving to the outside. Daily is a talented corner who transferred in a couple years ago from Blinn C.C., and he played in six games a year ago. He had two picks against UMass, including one that he returned for a 38-yard touchdown.

The leader of the secondary is safety Ty Zimmerman (6-1 204), a former grayshirt quarterback recruit who eased seamlessly into his role as a free safety. Zimmerman is tied for third on the team with tackles with 18, and he returned his lone interception 32 yards. Last year, Zimmerman was named an AP third-team All-American after making five interceptions, all of which came in Big 12 play. He's also vitally important — he missed two games ago, one of which was the Baylor contest where the Wildcat secondary was picked apart. Strong safety Dante Barnett (6-1 186) also has 18 tackles and an interception this season, along with two other passes broken up.

Mark Krause (5-11 218) has done a solid job as a directional punter early. He's averaging 42.7 yards per punt, with five of those punts fair-caught and another four getting downed inside the 20. Just one punt has been a touchback.

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