For years, it has seemed that the terms Bill Snyder, Kansas State football and special teams are synonymous with each other.
Time and time again, special teams have changed the outcome of a game and propelled K-State to victory. Through game one of the 2018 Wildcat football season, that idea is alive and well.
In the season-opener last Saturday, K-State escaped with a narrow 27-24 victory over FCS opponent South Dakota. Without big plays from the special teams unit Saturdays, the Wildcats could have very easily been looking at a 0-1 record instead of 1-0.
This may come as a surprise to some. Throughout the offseason, skepticism surrounded the often-overlooked third unit of football teams. The skepticism certainly was justified. After 2017, the Wildcats lost starters at every single position on the special teams.
How Harley Day began
From last year’s team, starting kicker Matthew McCrane moved on to the NFL. He was originally signed as an undrafted free agent by the Arizona Cardinals but did not make the team’s final roster. Starting punter Blake Walsh is now pursuing a career as a singer/songwriter. Long snapper Drew Scott and placeholder Mitch Lochbihler graduated. Kickoff and punt returners D.J. Reed (San Francisco) and Byron Pringle (Kansas City Chiefs) are both now NFL players.
Such turnover has not been seen before in special teams coordinator Sean Snyder’s eight years in the position.
But then Saturday arrived, the game began, and before long, sophomore Blake Lynch put to rest any doubts that he could succeed at kicking field goals for the Wildcats.
Lynch’s first attempt came with a little over four minutes remaining in the first quarter. From 24 yards out, he stepped back, lined up the kick, and put it through. Before the night was over, Lynch would connect on three more field goals from 22, 38 and 44 yards to finish four-for-four in his first career start.
At Tuesday’s press conference, head coach Bill Snyder commended his young kicker’s first performance.
“[Lynch] hit the ball awfully well and I was awful pleased with him,” Snyder said. “I was confident in what he was doing. I’d just seen him grow so much just in a short month’s period of time.”
Redshirt freshman Andrew Hicks also stepped up at punter for K-State in his first career in-game action. The Shawnee, Kansas, native punted six times for a total of 256 yards, averaging 42.7 yards per punt. His longest punt was 63 yards and he downed one inside the twenty-yard line.
On Tuesday, Snyder voiced his opinion of the performance of his new punter and the whole punt team.
“Our punt unit got no returns, everything was fair caught or with a roll,” Snyder said. “We didn’t get all the hits we’d like to in regards to our punter, but I think for the first time out he did reasonably well.”
Also at Tuesday’s press conference, Hicks spoke about the emphasis K-State places on special teams.
“Us being specialists, our stereotype is we don’t do that much,” Hicks said. “But here it’s like, okay, all the coaches know that we have a major role too and that we rep it so much at practice and stuff like that, you know, it really sets into other players, ‘Hey, specialists have a part too, here.’”
“If you don’t excel at, or have the capacity to hold your own on special teams then you better be the best defensive football team or the best offensive football team in the country in order to survive,” Snyder said. “You gotta have all of it.”
Finally, the return game rounded out the special teams performance against South Dakota. When senior wide receiver Isaiah Zuber took a punt 85 yards to the end zone with 12:12 left in the game to make the score 24-19, it reignited the home crowd and injected life into the team. The momentum gained from his score propelled K-State to its first win of the season.
In his first game as a return man, Zuber proved his worth and showed he can keep the tradition of successful Wildcat return men going.
On Tuesday, Snyder expressed the feeling that players being motivated was a reason the special teams performed so well.
“I thought all of our special teams people were more excited about playing the game than I can remember them being at practice at any particular point in time,” Snyder said.
Why is it that they were so motivated?
“I attributed it to— before the game— showing a highlight video of past years,” Snyder said. “I think there’s a stat out there, ‘Kansas State has more special teams touchdowns than any team, anywhere in the nation over the last, I dunno, 20 years. Something like that.’ But they’re all on a highlight tape and they got to see it along with coverage units making excellent plays.”
As for that stat Snyder referenced, K-State has been one of the best at special teams in recent history. Since 2005, the Wildcats have scored 48 kickoff or punt return touchdowns, which leads the country.
It is still early in the season, but the first game took a first step in the right direction as to if the famed K-State special teams success will fall off in 2018.
With a big matchup on Saturday against 18th-ranked SEC opponent Mississippi State, special teams could play a big factor in K-State’s success against the Bulldogs. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m., with the game airing on ESPN.