New and improved Collin Klein more than just a running threat

Ronald Martinez

Known as one of the toughest runners in college football, the Kansas State quarterback is a much improved passer in 2012.

Two years ago, before the Collin Klein era really began in any serious way, the Kansas State quarterback only attempted four passes in a 39-14 beatdown of the Longhorns in Manhattan.

Now, the Wildcats so completely demolished the Texas running game that throwing the football wasn't even necessary, but Klein wasn't that good at it either, a major reason why he attempted only 18 on the year. After moving to wide receiver for his redshirt freshman season, when he caught six passes, it wasn't even guaranteed that he would play quarterback during his career.

Consider the 2012 version significantly different than the one the Longhorns saw on that cold, dismal night in the Little Apple. Even the version that Texas saw on a less cold, but ultimately equally as dismal night in Austin last year.

Sure, the mechanics are still reminiscent of a right-handed Tim Tebow, with a similarly slow and deliberate delivery, but Klein has never been a player who was big on style points. He's not that type of quarterback and Kansas State isn't that type of program.

Last season, Klein ranked 77th in quarterback rating at the end of the season after completing only 57.3% of his passes, a number that tied for 83rd in the country. Hardly world-beating numbers through the air.

During a senior season that saw him lead for the Heisman until the Wildcats fell to the Bears in Waco, Klein has improved his completion percentage by nearly 10% and improve his yards per attempt by more than two yards, all while maintaining a similar interception ratio after working on his accuracy during the summer.

The results bear out in the number of big plays -- after producing only 25 passes of 20 or more yards last season, Kansas State has racked up 38 already, with two games left.

Kansas State is throwing the football a little bit more this season, but mostly they're just doing it more effectively.

Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz agrees with the story told by the numbers:

He has gotten to be a better passer for sure than what he was a year ago. One of the most underrated aspects of their football team is they have three outstanding wide receivers that can match up probably about anybody in this conference. They're aware. Because of his threat in the run game, that certainly pulls a lot of people across the line of scrimmage. They are explosive with what they do in the passing game.

Those three outstanding wide receivers are senior transfer Chris Harper, sophomore speedster Tyler Lockett, who was injured last season prior to the Texas game, and junior Tramaine Thompson, a diminutive player at 5-8 who is a much bigger threat than his size would indicate. The three players combine for two thirds of the catches by Kansas State players this season -- the players behind them don't make many plays in the passing game and the tight ends and running backs don't either, though tight end Travis Tannahill is a solid player.

And it's been necessary, as opponents have done a more effective job of stopping the Kansas State running game, holding the Wildcats to less than four yards per carry in four of the last six games, including a mark of only 2.45 yards per carry against Baylor, which is allowing 4.65 yards per carry on the season even when leaving that Kansas State game in their total stats.

Some of it may be defenses loading up the box to stop the run, though they did that last season as well.

The difference now is that the play-action passing game is now more effective.

Defensive backs coach Duane Akina believes that Kansas State will represent a significant challenge when they take vertical shots after run fakes:

I think because of their offensive philosophy, it gives them an opportunity to have some one-on-ones out there. They do a great job with the play-action pass, max protection using a lot of seven-man protection, which allows them a chance to get vertical, and a lot of double move routes that really challenges defensive backs down the field. I think that is one of the reasons when you talk about passing efficiency, they are one of the leaders in the country in that regard.

Stopping a team that can run the ball as well as Kansas State (no. 15 in run S&P+) is a tall task for any defense, especially one as porous as Texas, diverting resources from defending the passing game and reducing the impact of the deep safeties on those shot plays.

Whether it's a result of major improvements along the offensive line, going to more of those max-protect looks, or Klein doing a better job of getting the ball out, he's only been sacked 12 times this season (tied for 18th nationally) after going down 42 times last year, truly remarkable improvement that is helping out the offensive efficiency of the Wildcats in a major way.

In other words, part of the improvement in the vertical passing game is probably a result of the offensive line protecting Klein longer so receivers have time to execute those double moves to get open.

To successfully defend play-action fakes Texas defenders, especially in the secondary, have to keep their eyes right, according to Diaz:

The key is eye discipline. You have to be locked in with your eyes against them. They're great at complementary offense, which means everything they do will look like something else they do. They'll have a pass off a run. But there's always a tell, something that is going to give it away. As long as you're locked in, run or pass, you should be going. You have to survive those downs when they throw it deep. They're finding a way to hammer you, hammer you, then hunt the explosive play.

Or maybe Kansas State just takes a page out of TCU's gameplan and just hammers, hammers, and then hammers some more -- there are no guarantees that Klein will have to attempt more than the four passes he did in 2010 if Texas can't stop the run.

Klein is still the same tough player who battled through a cracked sternum, broken ribs, a separated throwing shoulder, and a broken thumb on his right hand last season.

He's has been a bit more healthy this season as Kansas State has reduced his carries, aided by five blowout victories this season, but he still impressed defensive coordinator Manny Diaz:

I'd have to say the first thing that stands out about him is his toughness. The guy is obviously a warrior. He's taken some hits that you can't believe the guy gets up. He runs the ball right at you the next play. He's an absolute warrior. When you have a tough guy like that, the whole team follows. Over the last couple years, their team has taken on his identity. That's why they've been a tough nut to crack the last couple years.

Mack Brown called Klein a "machine" at the end of his press conference. It's rather fitting due to his ability to tolerate pain (does he feel pain?), though a true machine would probably be designed with better mechanics.

Ideal throwing motion or not, Klein now represents a much bigger threat in the Wildcat passing game than he has in the past.

Scary thought.

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