Big 12, Year Two: Chris Klieman expects even more success at Kansas State in 2020

John. E. Hoover

The Big 12 Conference had four new head football coaches in 2019 — a 40 percent turnover. SI Sooners publisher John E. Hoover caught up with all four before they began spring practice to ask how they expect their programs to look different in their second offseason. With the Coronavirus shutdown all but ending spring practice for all Big 12 teams, their plans must certainly adapt. But the offseason words of Neil Brown, Chris Klieman, Les Miles and Matt Wells are now more relevant than ever as they try to evolve in Year Two.

On one hand, Kansas State was picked to finish ninth in the Big 12 Conference race in 2019.

New coach Chris Klieman was coming from North Dakota State, where winning apparently is a default setting (the Bison won four FCS national titles in five years under Klieman and won it again last year). But making the step up, surely he and his staff would be behind the curve.

They were also replacing a legend in Bill Snyder, who retired from his Manhattan throne for the second time, this time after a forgettable 5-7 season in 2018.

Klieman had to have come into his first season with tempered expectations.

On the other hand, K-State went 8-4 last year and made it to a bowl. They were the only team to beat playoff-bound Oklahoma during the regular season. And yet three of their five losses — including the bowl loss to Navy — were one-possession games and wound up heartbreakers.

So which is it? Did Kansas State overachieve in Klieman’s first season? Or, having left all those opportunities on the table, did the Wildcats underachieve?

Big 12 Year 2

BIG 12: YEAR TWO

“If you’d asked me that last spring, I’d have said we overachieved,” Klieman said last month in a phone interview. “Because we just still weren’t sure where we’re at, as far as our talent level across the board of our own team. And the fact that, you know, in 15 practices, how much did we really learn about our team — learning the offense learning the defense? But you know, as the season began, I thought we could be a bowl eligible team, and we had some things go well.”

Going into his first full offseason, Klieman has a handful of pressing issues to address.

First, he had to hire another new defensive coordinator. Scottie Hazelton took the DC job at Michigan State. Three days after Hazelton left, safeties coach Joe Klanderman was promoted to coordinator.

“Joe is one of the best defensive coaches I have ever been around, and he is ready for this role,” Klieman said in a press release. “In addition to already having coordinator experience, Joe knows our defense as well as anyone, and it is important to continue to develop our players and keep them in our system.”

Klieman also promoted cornerbacks coach Van Malone to assistant head coach and passing game coordinator.

“Not only is he one of the most respected defensive coaches in college football,” Klieman said, “but his experience, leadership and development of young men is unmatched.”

Secondly, Klieman lost 27 seniors from last year’s team. It was the most experienced team in the Big 12. On offense, the Wildcats returned all five starters up front in 2019. In 2020, all five (and the starting tight end) have graduated.

With that makeup, maybe an 8-5 season should have been the minimum standard. How does a second-year coach replace that kind of experience?

“Well, it will affect you if you lose too many seniors, without question,” Klieman said.

“The biggest thing we have to do is — we have great competition, and we have some pretty good young players — but, is rebuild the offensive line.”

FACING OKLAHOMA

  • 2019: K-State 48, OU 41
  • 2020: Nov. 14 in Norman

Klieman has a good place to start in returning quarterback Skylar Thompson. He had a surge of efficiency throwing the football last year, and he was more dangerous than anyone anticipated running it. Thompson finished 10th in the Big 12 in total offense, but his performance against Oklahoma — particularly his completion percentage on third down — showed what he’s capable of.

With Thompson and an experienced corps of receivers, K-State’s offense will have playmakers.

“Having the quarterback back in Skylar Thompson, you know, we can’t reinvent the wheel for him,” Klieman said, “because we saw unbelievable strides out of him, and we know he's a really talented quarterback in the Big 12 and we need to build our offense around his skill set.

“We have a number of wide receivers back and we have some tight end/fullbacks back. … And then on defense, we have a number of guys back. We lost really, really good players, but we have some really good players back.”

One of those is linebacker Justin Hughes, who missed all of last season with an injury and is back for 2020.

“Kind of the vocal leader, the heartbeat of the team,” Klieman said. “So that’s a big lift for us as well.”

Klieman said he doesn’t anticipate any structural changes this offseason. Sure, spring practice and everything else was blown up by the Coronavirus shutdown, but Klieman said the system that worked for him in Fargo will stay largely the same as his tenure progresses in Manhattan.

“We’re still gonna, you know, continue to try to implement what we believe,” he said.

“I don’t think there’ll be wholesale changes differently in the fact of what our staff believes in,” he said. “A number of ‘em were were with me at North Dakota State and a number and other guys that I’ve known for a while, we believe what we’re doing is going to be successful. Yeah.

“Do we have to adjust some things? I think you’re doing that no matter where you’re at or what time of year it is, just because of your talent, because of your experience, and leadership and stuff. But I don't see wholesale changes.”

Klieman did acknowledge one aspect that snuck up on him in Year One at Kansas State that he hopes he’s taken care of in Year Two.

“I always, at the end of the season, look back at myself and say, ‘OK, what could have I done better?’ ” he said. “And the first thing I’d look at is, I want to coach more football. And in this first year, because of all the newness that I had, I did more administrative things than … I’m used to. And I have to make an adjustment, so that I can do more football things, and delegate probably a few more administrative things.

“When I accepted the head job at North Dakota State, I’d been there for three years (as defensive coordinator) so I knew the infrastructure, knew the community, knew the alumni base, knew the fan base — knew everything. Well, coming here, I didn’t know any of that stuff.

“And so, maybe it was connecting with alums, maybe it was connecting with donors, maybe it was connecting with the fan base, maybe it was a difference in recruiting, whatever you want to call it. Just more things that that I wanted to be a part of, and now that I’ve been able to get, not a handle on, but an understanding of more and more areas, I’m able to say, ‘Well you know, this guy can help me with this, and this guy can help me with this,’ so that I can spend more time on the football-related.”

Klieman said he wasn’t surprised by Big 12 offenses, or even by the league’s defensive resurgence last year. He said he was impressed by the parity from top to bottom. Being stuck in a four-way tie for third can leave an impression, it seems.

One thing he said did surprise him was the Wildcats’ uneven season. The record, 8-4, was good. Something to be applauded, on the whole. But starting out the season with a huge, confidence-building win at Mississippi State and having the talent and grit to beat Oklahoma and yet losing by two touchdowns to Oklahoma State and Baylor, and dropping close games to Texas and West Virginia left him a bit puzzled.

“Yeah, I was surprised with a little bit of the roller coaster that we ended up going on, you know, winning three-losing two, winning three-losing two type deal,” Klieman said.

So what does he think contributed to that roller coaster? What could he have done differently?

“That sometimes maybe we got ahead of ourselves to try to put too much in when we had some success,” he said. “That maybe we could have scaled back a little bit to just continue to work on, you know, just our base scheme, our base fundamentals.”

Also, a run of injuries at receiver, running back and defensive back “put too much on the younger kids,” he said.

“Just, it’s hard in that first year because you’re trying to decide what you have to do first and what you have to do that’s the most important.”

Now armed with that understanding, Klieman is optimistic that 8-5 is hardly a ceiling.

“Our kids had a belief that they belong, and so, in a roundabout way, I would say we overachieved with all the newness,” he said. “But in the same respect, yeah, we probably left a couple of plays out there that we had a chance (to make) — and that’s what excites me. Because we made some good strides, but we still have an awful long way to go for us to get to the pinnacle of where we would want to go, and that’s to try to compete for a Big 12 championship.”

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