Kansas State University

Everyone is special at K-State

MANHATTAN — Here comes Joseph Kassanavoid. He's a freshman backup quarterback at Kansas State, and like most of his teammates he plays on special teams.

Right now he's out of position to make a tackle on the opening kickoff of the Tennessee Tech game. He's a good six feet away from the ball carrier, and there's a blocker in his way. It looks like someone else is going to have to bring the return man down this time.

But Kassanavoid doesn't give up. Through what could best be described as an improvisation of strength, he shoves the blocker in his path backward and directly into the man running with the ball. The two collide, drop to the ground 15 yards in front of their own end zone and Kassanavoid is credited with the unusual tackle.

His teammates wildly celebrate the brilliant special teams play, and don't stop until the game is over.

That's the kind of enthusiasm K-State coach Bill Snyder loves to see from his players. He values reliable special teams play the way most people value a solid pass rush or effective running game. And he wants everyone around him to follow suit.

"We want all of our youngsters to have the same feeling about it that we have," Snyder said. "That you have the opportunity to change games in a special way. What happens in special teams is every bit, if not more so, significant than what happens on offense or defense."

It's not difficult for his players to buy into that philosophy. All they have to do is look back at the incredible special teams tradition that K-State has established over the years.

Since 1999, K-State has scored 70 non-offensive touchdowns. Only Virginia Tech has scored more. Since 2002, the Wildcats have blocked 35 kicks. Only three teams have done better. These are stats that Snyder likes to harp on.

He's also proud of the six All-American special teams players K-State has produced since 1992, and that doesn't even include human pin ball Darren Sproles. From deadly return men David Allen and Andre Coleman to notable kickers Martin Gramatica and Jamie Rheem, many of Snyder's best players have made a name for themselves on special teams.

Senior wide receiver Brandon Banks moved close to that group last week by returning two kickoffs of more than 90 yards for touchdowns in the same game. No other player in program history has done the same, and only 11 have done so nationally. Despite a great deal of kicking woes this season, that big performance has the Wildcats thinking big again on special teams.

But Snyder has not gone out of his way to compliment Banks. What he's been particularly impressed with is the play of Banks' blockers. That could easily be passed off as standard coach speak, but what sets the Wildcats apart from other programs is that their players say the same thing.

Junior defensive back Emmanuel Lamur said he didn't even bother congratulating Banks after the returns.

"It's about the team, not just one person," he said. "When Banks scored, I was out there patting all the blockers on the shoulder pads and saying great job. Some people forget about the blockers. They just think about the guy who scored."

Snyder drills that universal respect for special teams into his players the day they arrive on campus.

His message: no one is too good for special teams.

"In other words, we're not going to say this guy is too valuable on offense or too valuable on defense and we're not going to play him on special teams," Snyder said. "If a No. 1 is on offense or defense and is good enough to be the No. 1 on the special teams unit, he's going to be there."

He uses the same approach with his coaches. Traditionally, Snyder has not employed an assistant coach who specifically handles special teams. When former Ron Prince assistant Jeff Rodgers left to coach special teams for the Carolina Panthers earlier this year after being retained by Snyder, his position was not replaced.

Much like what is demanded from the players, coaching special teams is the responsibility of the entire staff.

Maybe that's why offensive line coach Charlie Dickey, who junior Wade Weibert said is in charge of coaching extra points, tells his players that a team's toughness is defined by how its line blocks on those plays.

"It makes a lot of sense," Weibert said. "On the protection unit, we take one step and you have to stop a whole lot of guys. You've got two or three defenders coming on you. It's your ability to dig down and be able to hold a guy off. It takes a lot of toughness to do that, and he's right. So we take a lot of pride in that area."

With so much emphasis placed on those special teams areas, and everyone on the roster essentially having to try out for a spot on special teams, nobody takes their extra responsibilities lightly.

As Snyder teaches, if a tight end on the right side of the field misses a block when the ball is run to the left, that mistake has essentially no effect on the play. But if a block is missed on a special teams play, it affects everything.

"Every single effort on special teams is going to impact the play," Snyder said.

His players understand. They know special teams are a big deal at Kansas State, and also realize that playing well on kickoffs or punts is the quickest way to impress the coaching staff.

It's the kind of motivation that gets a backup quarterback to make a tackle from six feet away.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle