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October 20, 2011

What to Watch: Getting special

A model of consistency it's not.

Kansas State's special teams, like a comprehensive Vince Vaughn movie marathon, have forced those watching to choke down the putrid while basking in the magic.

For every missed field goal, there's been a clutch conversion. And for every muffed punt, there's been a long return. Blocked kicks (on both sides) and shanked punts have also worked their way into things this season. At a school known for sustained greatness in the third facet of football, the norm has ever so briefly been turned on its head.

No. 12 Kansas State at Kansas
By all accounts Kansas possesses a capable group of backs led by James Sims, but because the Jayhawks have played from behind for the majority of the season, committing to the run hasn't always been an option. The Wildcat defense has been susceptible to chunk plays here and there in 2011, and if KU can stay out of an early hole, there will likely be some yards to be gained on the ground.
Relying on a ground-and-pound offense, K-State has moved the ball on every defense its faced this season. Lining up against a porous Kansas unit that is allowing 227 rushing yards per contest could mean big days carrying the ball for both quarterback Collin Klein and tailback John Hubert, each of whom seem to gain confidence with every passing week.
Jayhawk quarterback Jordan Webb has been an efficient passer this season and has functioned as the centerpiece of a Kansas offense that has posted some respectable yardage totals. That said, K-State's secondary has developed a reputation for being opportunistic. If Kansas is forced to rely too heavily on its passing attack because of an early deficit on Saturday, the Wildcats' defensive backs will have every opportunity to feast on mistakes.
K-State quarterback Collin Klein looked to take strides throwing the football in the second half of last weekend's win over Texas Tech, and if ever there was an opportunity to build on that performance it's now. The Jayhawks have been woeful when it comes to defending the pass, and the Wildcats' crop of wide receivers certainly posses the talent to wreak havoc on a reeling Kansas secondary.
The Wildcats notched a pair of blocked field goals and a 100-yard kickoff return a week ago, which were enough to make most fans forget about the blunders that plagued the team's special teams units early in the season. And while there's no guarantee things in the kicking game will stay consistently positive from here, it seems obvious that the necessary talent is in place.
K-State by 16

The Wildcats' kicking game has seemed to right itself in recent weeks, but Bill Snyder, a coach who beats the consistency drum with a 10-pound mallet day in and day out, isn't ready to declare the early-season problems fixed quite yet. Things seemed to have steadily improved through the first half of the schedule, but you won't find anyone on any unit wallowing in his own greatness inside the school's Vanier Football Complex today.

Forget Tyler Lockett's 100-yard kick return that helped K-State seal it's sixth victory last weekend. Cast aside the two blocked field goals from Raphael Guidry in the same contest. On Monday, Snyder's message was unchanged and came through clearly.

He wants to see it again … and again. And probably again after that.

"On special teams, like everywhere else, we have our good and we have our bad," said Snyder, the father of an All-American who now serves as his special teams coach.

Any way you look at, the most recent performance was mostly impressive. On top of the two blocked kicks and the kickoff-return score, K-State's kick coverage unit forced Texas Tech into an average starting position of the 21-yard line. That said, the master of finding deficiencies within his own team, came up with plenty following the 41-34 victory.

You'll have to excuse the veteran head coach while he rains on everyone else's special teams soirée.

"We had another kickoff return that had the chance to go the distance, and we didn't execute that as well as we should have, so we lost that opportunity," Snyder said on Tuesday. "Our return game on punts was not in place and was not effective, so that wasn't good. Then, we missed the field goal and the extra point."

Whatever issues remain at this point won't be expected to iron themselves out, though. Instead, Snyder's system -- the one he's had in place for years -- is expected to handle that.

Each one of Snyder's practices gets started with special teams work and concludes in the same fashion. Kickers actually arrive an hour earlier than everyone else on the roster. And when the specialists do have a break in action, they're not back in the complex burning time, which was the case under the previous coaching regime.

"We do work in the middle, too. It's not just at the beginning and end," place-kicker Anthony Cantele said. "We're always kicking and staying loose just in case we're called upon during practice. (First-year special teams coach) Sean Snyder has us running up stairs a lot."

New special teams coach or not, there's emphasis placed here. Always has been. It's a fact Bill Snyder credits to having seen too many games won or lost in the kicking game over the years.

Despite its early season lapses, of which there has been no shortage, K-State hasn't garnered a reputation for prolific special teams by coincidence. Erasing the mistakes has taken work, sure, but the improvement is more likely a product of the system.

In the end, talent generally wins out, and it's no different here. And in Manhattan, what is seen as an improving kicking game will always get the benefit of the doubt.

"In our system, whoever is the best, will be on special teams," Bill Snyder said. "If (quarterback) Collin Klein was the best cover guy, he'd be on our punt coverage team. That might be a stretch, but you get the picture."

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