Kansas State quarterback Skylar Thompson was the happiest person in the stadium when James Gilbert broke free for a 17-yard touchdown run last week against Bowling Green.
The junior passer wildly pumped his fists as Gilbert burst past the line of scrimmage, broke a tackle and scampered into the end zone. Then Thompson turned to the sideline and enthusiastically pointed two fingers at K-State offensive line coach Conor Riley before celebrating with teammates.
Based on his reaction, you would have thought Thompson was the one who just made a big play instead of Gilbert.
In a roundabout way, he did. Moments before Gilbert’s touchdown, Thompson checked out of a passing play when he recognized Bowling Green was blitzing three defenders. Instead of trying to quickly get the ball to one of the three receivers on the field, Thompson chose to give it to Gilbert on a delayed hand-off. That decision led to six points.
“That fires me up,” Thompson said. “I love that stuff more than throwing a touchdown, because it’s me calling the play or changing the play and it working and being successful. All the weekly preparation going into that and then it paying off is awesome.”
Best of all, it wasn’t the first time Thompson has accurately surveyed a defense and switched to a scoring play this season.
Thompson found himself in a similar scenario in K-State’s opening game against Nicholls.
On that play, the Wildcats were lined up in the I-Formation on the Colonels’ 25. When Thompson recognized the defense was coming at him with an edge blitz, he switched plays and gave the ball to Gilbert on a traditional hand-off.
The result: Gilbert rumbled for a 25-yard touchdown.
Gilbert has looked fantastic in his first two games with the Wildcats (rushing for 218 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries) since transferring in as a senior from Ball State, but he has given Thompson credit for some of his biggest plays.
“Skylar is taking the next step up and he is the right guy for the quarterback position to lead our team,” Gilbert said. “His knowledge and all the time he spends watching extra film is really paying off.”
Changing plays was not one of Thompson’s strong suits last season. There were games, notably against West Virginia, where his audibles at the line of scrimmage led to turnovers.
He has clearly improved under new coach Chris Klieman.
The play he changed against Bowling Green was the direct result of a conversation he had with Riley earlier in the week. While studying film, Riley suggested Thompson check into a delayed hand-off to Gilbert if he saw the Falcons bringing outside pressure. The offensive line coach was confident K-State could score with that particular play against that particular defense. Thompson agreed and pointed Riley’s way when the plan worked to perfection.
“They have simplified some things,” Thompson said. “I’m not thinking about a million different things, as far as my pressure checks or what I am doing or what our plan is. It has allowed me to play quicker and make those decisions.”
Thompson also suggested K-State attempt a bomb to receiver Malik Knowles on a fourth-and-three from the Bowling Green 34 last week. The play call wasn’t traditional, but Klieman and new offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham gave him the green light to try it. That play ended with a touchdown, too.
Thompson has only played in two games under Klieman. He has a long way to go before he masters the intricacies of this system. But he’s on his way.
That much is obvious when you watch him change plays at the line of scrimmage.
“He’s up here all the time trying to watch film, trying to get the edges that he needs to understand the game plan and the opponent,” Klieman said. “I think he’s so much more comfortable and confident at the line of scrimmage to be able to adjust the play. We’ve given him a lot of freedom to do that, and he’s done that a lot through two games and got us into a better play. I just love his preparation and his command of the offense right now.”