MANHATTAN (AP) — Many expected dramatic improvement from Kansas State’s defense this season. Hopes were not nearly so high for the offensive line.
The line lost three seniors — Wade Weibert, Zach Kendall and Kenneth Mayfield — who had helped Daniel Thomas put up one of the most prolific single seasons in school history. Kansas State finished 7-6 and reached a bowl game, while Thomas was drafted by the Miami Dolphins of the NFL.
Losing that much experience rarely breeds confidence, and it didn’t help when center Shaun Simon and left tackle Manase Foketi went down with injuries in the first two weeks of the season.
The No. 11 Wildcats (7-0, 4-0 Big 12) have nonetheless put themselves in the thick of the Big 12 race, with a high-profile showdown against 11th-ranked Oklahoma on Saturday.
“We’ve all taken it upon ourselves to improve every day and show that these guys were great guys, but they’re not irreplaceable,” center B.J. Finney said. “Losing Shaun and Manase, it hurt us, but by the same token, we had guys that were ready to step up and ready to play because we’d been taking preparations two-deep very seriously.”
With 6-foot-8, 313-pound senior Zach Hanson filling in at left tackle position and redshirt freshman Finney returning to center, the offensive line looks better than ever.
So does the rest of the offense.
Ever since a sobering near-loss to Eastern Kentucky in their home opener, the Wildcats’ offense has gradually become more effective, if not flashy.
Quarterback Collin Klein said the offense is consistent, sticking to assignments and fundamentals. He credits offensive line coach Charlie Dickey for much of the growth.
“Coach Dickey does a great job with those guys across the board, making sure they’re prepared with the game plans as well as the individual techniques they need from week to week,” Klein said. “I know they have and will continue to make great improvement.”
Kansas State’s efficiency is particularly apparent inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, where the Wildcats have come away with 33 scores on 38 attempts — 25 of them touchdowns. While the O-line has committed some costly penalties during this season, it has done a good job eliminating those mistakes lately.
Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder was especially pleased by a penalty-free performance against Kansas on Saturday. The Wildcats average only 45 yards in penalties per game, the second fewest in the Big 12.
“We’ve really limited those a great deal, so that speaks to the discipline that we’re gaining,” Snyder said.
It also speaks to the cohesion that has developed on the offensive line. While that chemistry has continued to build throughout the season, Finney said the majority of the linemen’s trust in each other formed during camp.
“When you hit the field, the trust has to be there,” Finney said. “So the trust builds through the season, yes, but the main part of the trust is built during camp before you even hit the game field.”
The Wildcats know it is essential that all offensive linemen know not only their own roles, but the roles of the other four.
“It’s the right hand knowing what the left hand’s doing,” Snyder said. “They always have to have a good understanding of what all five guys are doing. If they don’t, you’re probably going to have some missed assignments, which they’ve been pretty good about not doing.”
Perhaps the offensive line has over-achieved, and that’s why Kansas State is undefeated heading into the showdown with Oklahoma. Either way, the rest of the Wildcats will take it.
‘’I don’t really think anybody predicted that they were going to play as well as they did,” said safety Tysyn Hartman. “We lost so many guys last year to graduation and such, and to injury at the beginning of the season, but coach Dickey’s done a great job getting those guys ready every week. They stay at it and they work hard, and they’ve been playing well because of it.”