More than half of the starters on Kansas State's defense are from junior colleges. The Wildcats play like a veteran team because they are a veteran team.
How does Kansas State win?
A patient defense that doesn't allow big plays and tackles receivers shortly after catches. An offense that frustrates opponents with its run game and then hits big plays over the top. A commitment to almost never committing penalties or turning the football over via risky throws.
How does Kansas State go about executing this plan?
Excellent coaching and veteran players. Kansas State doesn't make a lot of mistakes typical of young players because it doesn't use many young players. Kansas State's defense has eight senior starters and three juniors. The Wildcats offense starts four seniors and five juniors.
But the players haven't all been in the system for very long. Many are junior college ("JUCO") recruits, and perhaps no school does a better job mining the JUCO ranks than Kansas State. In 2010, Kansas State signed seven JUCO players. In 2011, nine. In 2012, eight.
One area in particular that often benefits from JUCO players is the defensive line. JUCOs offer something that high school recruits simply cannot: physical maturity. Defensive linemen need to have the physical bulk to hold the point of attack against blockers. Because they are at least two years older (and thus have two more years in the weight room), JUCO defensive linemen are simply bigger and stronger than their high school counterparts.
Not surprisingly, defensive line is where Kansas State has seen the most success with JUCO players. Three of the WIldcats' four defensive line starters are from junior college, as are two of the four backups.
Additionally, two of the Wildcats' starters at linebacker did not sign with Kansas State out of high school (one a transfer from Miami, the other a JUCO signee). Rounding out the best JUCO-built defense in college football is the cornerback position, where both players are from junior college, joining a backup safety and corner also from JUCO.
Other prominent roles being filled by JUCOs include an offensive tackle and a reserve running back.
Interestingly enough, despite all the success had with JUCO players, Kansas State has not been landing the top-rated players from the circuit. In the last three years, only six of the Wildcats' 24 JUCO signees were rated in the top 50 by Rivals.com.
Kansas State is finding the under-the-radar JUCO players. That takes effort and scouting. It takes connections that Snyder built over years of coaching. It's done by making a concerted effort to have great relationships with junior college coaches, talking with the player's original high school coaching staff to get a feel for him, and having a system in place that is friendly for JUCO transfers.
It's doubtful that another program can duplicate Kansas State's success rate with JUCOs, but plenty of programs have had success with JUCO players in the past, like Jason Pierre-Paul and Cam Newton. Here are a few JUCO names you should know in case they land at your program:
Toby Johnson, Defensive Tackle
Johnson is a 6'4, 300-pound man for Hutchinson (KS) Community College's defense. Johnson has been offered by close to 30 schools in total, including Arkansas, Florida State, Georgia, Kansas State, Miami, Michigan State, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Texas A&M and USC. That's quite a list.
Johnson has not named a favorite and is still in the process of taking his visits. As with most JUCO recruits, playing time will likely be a big factor in the decision, as JUCO transfers usually only have two seasons of eligibility. Johnson very well could be the next star defensive lineman to come out of the JUCO circuit.
Beau Sandland, Tight End
Sandland has already made news this cycle for eliminating SEC teams from consideration because of a new conference rule requiring some core courses be completed at the JUCO attended by the player (and not online or at another institution).
Out of Woodland Hills (Calif.) Pierce College, Sandland is a very athletic big body (6'6, 250). Some of his top schools include Cal, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Arizona and Texas Tech. He is scheduled to announce a top five in early November.
Marquel Combs, Defensive Tackle
Sticking with the defensive line theme, Woodland Hills (Calif.) Hamilton's Combs is a fast-rising interior player. Combs has more than 30 offers, and normal JUCO destinations Ole Miss and Kansas State are very much in the running. The 6'3, 305-pound Combs is scheduled to visit Kansas State on December 1.
Mario Alford, Athlete
Alford committed to the Arizona Wildcats over the weekend after taking in the big upset win of the USC Trojans. Alford is very athletic and at 5'10, 180, could fit in well for the Wildcats at running back, slot receiver or defensive back. Out of Georgia Military College, Alford also held offers from Texas Tech and Ole Miss.
Alford is the second player from GMC to commit to the Wildcats, joining linebacker Brandon Golson. And Arizona is also recruiting teammate Trenton Brown, a massive offensive tackle.
Za'Darius Smith, Defensive End
Smith has one of the cooler names in this recruiting year, and is being pursued by two schools who know JUCO defensive ends quite well: Florida State and Mississippi State. West Virginia and Texas A&M also have interest in Smith, who is originally from Alabama, but the Seminoles and Bulldogs seem to be the two front runners.
At 6'6 and 250 pounds, Smith has enough bulk to not be a liability against the run, but he primarily excels as a pass rusher for Scooba (MS) East Junior College. Both schools offer a very good shot at early playing time, and a potential starting job.
Jeremy Liggins, Athlete
Liggins' story is told here by SB Nation's Jason Kirk. It's a bit confusing, but worth the read to know more about a player who could have a big impact for Ole Miss down the line.
While we’re here, let’s watch some of the many fine college football videos from SB Nation’s YouTube channel: