MANHATTAN — Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein rarely sits through a news conference without being asked to explain how he has improved as a passer.
The question has no doubt become tiresome seven games into his senior season, but it’s understandable all the same.
Last year, he was a run-first quarterback with a funky throwing motion who completed 57.3 percent of his passes and didn’t make the Big 12’s all-conference team at his position. This year, his completion percentage is up to 70.5, he has thrown 10 touchdowns compared to two interceptions, he is still running hard and most experts favor him to win the Heisman Trophy.
Something changed. How could it not? That type of improvement doesn’t come by accident. Surely his mechanics changed or his footwork is different. They have to be, right?
“I don’t buy into any of that,” former K-State quarterback and current radio analyst Stan Weber said. “He could throw the ball last year. His arm strength was fine. His accuracy was good. It’s just that he didn’t pull the trigger like he does now. The ball is coming out earlier, because he’s more experienced and more confident.”
Klein was hesitant in the past for cautionary reasons. His No. 1 priority has always been protecting the football. Throwing in any situation increases the risk of a turnover. So he only tried to pass in ideal situations. When he saw a defense he didn’t like, he tried to scramble for first downs.
Now he has the confidence to read defenses quickly and audible into different pass plays. His reaction time is faster.
“When you’re passing, there is only a split second of opportunity,” Weber said. “If you’re looking for confirmation on what you read before the snap and take one more look during a play, that opportunity is gone. When you drop back and hit your last step, you need to be ready to throw. Collin wasn’t doing that last year. Right now, he is.”
He was at his best Saturday at West Virginia. With the Mountaineers stacking linemen and linebackers near the line of scrimmage to stop the run, the No. 4 Wildcats’ receivers had one-on-one matchups. Every time Klein saw weak pass coverage, he went for the kill, completing 19 of 21 passes and throwing for a career-high 323 yards and three touchdowns.
On most plays, Klein dropped back into the pocket, turned to his primary receiver and threw downfield. On one series he was so aggressive that he hit sophomore receiver Tyler Lockett for a 44-yard gain a play after he overthrew him deep. All three touchdown throws were 10 yards or longer.
“When a passing play is called, he’s a passing quarterback,” Weber said. “Last year when a passing play was called, he was capable but extra careful. He wanted confirmation that he didn’t need. He would wait too long and end up scrambling. Now he knows all the information he obtains before the play is accurate and he believes in himself. When you do that, good things happen.”
Making matters worse for West Virginia, he also ran for four touchdowns when the Mountaineers tried to stretch their defense.
“Most teams are an air-raid offense or a power run-game offense. We do a little bit of both,” receiver Curry Sexton said. “It’s a tribute to the program that we have and the gameplan we have each week. With Collin leading the way it opens things up for everybody else. He grows more confident daily within the system. That helps him so much.”
Klein provides fewer details about his improvements. He shrugs and simply says he tried to improve in all areas. That’s his style.
Experience is obviously a big factor, though. Klein spends more time in the video room than anyone else and isn’t afraid to ask his coaches questions. They have taught him catchphrases such as “see in front,” which help him always look in front of receivers on plays and he makes sure he has two hands on the ball when he is in the pocket.
Big plays are nice, but turnovers are never acceptable. His practice routine is designed around playing mistake-free football.
“There are a lot of little things that go into it,” Klein said. “It’s really just trying to, over time, focus on little things here and there and build off them.… Little insurance policies that you can work on and we drill that help.”
He also admits he is being more aggressive this season.
“You can’t be too afraid to make a mistake, otherwise you will start playing tentative,” Klein said.
Interestingly, Klein uses the opposite approach when he runs the ball. The Wildcats often utilize him on designed running plays that involve a fullback or running back as a lead blocker and a pulling lineman as a secondary blocker.
Those plays take several seconds to develop, which forces him to slow down, going against what players are taught at a young age: Run hard and run fast.
“It’s not an easy value,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said last week. “You see a lot of backs who just don’t have the patience to wait and pick their way.”
But Klein is always waiting on run plays to develop. Against Iowa State two weeks ago, he completely stopped in the backfield while waiting for two blockers to open holes on the right side of the field before blasting forward for a first down.
Last week against West Virginia, he slowed to a walk waiting on fullback Braden Wilson to shove a potential tackler out of the way on a touchdown run to the left.
Confidence in the pocket. Patience in the backfield. A combination for improvement.
“Collin is unique,” Weber said. “He’s the first player I’ve ever seen that reads blocking schemes as well as he does coverage. He understands where blockers are coming from, what the timing is and where the defense is going. It’s amazing. He is in complete control out there.”