By Jimmy Burch
Tribune News Service
For recruiting analysts, Kansas State is the college football program they would rather forget.
The Wildcats' signing classes are panned each February. Yet the team plays its way into the Big 12 title chase, more often than not, each November.
This inverse relationship underscores both the fallacy of recruiting lists published by self-proclaimed "experts" and the genius of Kansas State coach Bill Snyder in identifying and developing talent that fits his system.
Snyder, 75, will not bring a roster filled with four- and five-star signees to Fort Worth for Saturday's matchup between No. 7 Kansas State (7-1, 5-0 in Big 12) and No. 6 TCU (7-1, 4-1). But he'll bring a boatload of walk-ons, former walk-ons and junior-college transfers who contribute to a team that leads the Big 12 in multiple key categories.
Among Big 12 teams, Kansas State leads the league in scoring defense (18.6 points per game), total defense (321.1 yards per game), time of possession (32:50 per game), fewest penalties (27.8 yards per game), red zone offense (92.9 percent conversion rate), red zone defense (71.4 percent for opponents), punt returns (18.4 average) and kickoff coverage (42.0-yard net). The Wildcats also rank third in turnover margin (plus-6).
K-State is making this happen with a roster that suited up 58 walk-ons or former walk-ons -- approximately half the team -- for a Sept. 18 game against No. 3 Auburn. Although roster limits for road games will cut back the walk-on percentage among Wildcats who take the field in Fort Worth, a recent count by CBSSports.com identified 14 players on the K-State depth chart who began their college careers as non-scholarship players. Counting specialists, there were 20.
For Snyder, these guys are the lifeblood of his program. His top offensive lineman, all-Big 12 center B.J. Finney, walked on after winning a state wrestling championship in Andale. The Wildcats' top pass rusher, all-Big 12 defensive end Ryan Mueller, is a former walk-on who played private-school football in a Kansas City suburb.
Despite their lack of blue-chip pedigrees, Snyder gave them a chance because he saw traits in both players that he seeks in scholarship signees.
"You want to have good people with a value system in place," Snyder said during this week's Big 12 conference call. "You want them to be committed to what you want to do, have a selflessness about them and play within the framework of the team. You want guys who are committed to getting better, day in and day out, and understand there's a method about that.
"Whether they're a non-scholarship player or a scholarship player, all of that still holds true. Those values are what give you the opportunity to be successful."
Ask peers or former assistants and you'll hear stories about Snyder's ability to uncover recruiting gems in uncharted locations. That results in days like Oct. 25, when Texas featured more five-star signees in its tailback tandem (two) than K-State had on its entire roster (zero). Yet the Wildcats pitched a 23-0 shutout, becoming the first team in 10 years to blank the Longhorns.
Such results puzzle fans and recruiting analysts. But not Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who held the same position on Snyder's staffs at Kansas State from 1999-2001. In all three seasons, the Wildcats finished among the nation's top five teams in total defense. Combined record: 28-10, including two 11-win seasons.
"I don't think we ever had a top-80 recruiting class. But you didn't want to play us," Bennett said. "Evaluation is the key. And development has to happen. Bill is a master at both."
Bennett, a Texas A&M graduate, recalled piecing together a linebacker corps that featured three Texans overlooked by schools in their home state (Josh Buhl, Jeff Kelly and Terry Pierce, a Fort Worth Western Hills graduate). Another linebacker from that era, 1999 all-American Mark Simoneau, caught Snyder's eye as a fullback at Smith Center.
"Who goes to Smith Center, Kan., to find players?" Bennett asked.
Snyder did. Just like he cobbled together this roster with a heaping helping of walk-ons, transfers and players who earned mostly two- and three-star ratings from recruiting analysts. But they fit together, remain disciplined and win. Former Texas coach Mack Brown, now an ESPN analyst, appreciates the effort Snyder puts into his craft.
"Bill's the best," Brown said. "He's relentless. He's the kind of guy who will be in his office on July 4, breaking down videotapes."
He does so to prepare for days like Saturday, when a title shot is on the line. Brown is far from surprised.
"Bill Snyder's doing what Bill Snyder does. It doesn't change," Brown said. "There are very few penalties, very few turnovers. They play hard. Their quarterback's playing well. They run the ball well and their kicking game is the best in the league."
They're also headed to Fort Worth with designs on winning a Big 12 title, even though Snyder never will be dubbed "Coach February" for his annual recruiting hauls.