Before leaving last Saturday’s game with a (still undisclosed) injury, Collin Klein was on his way to another stellar performance. He left the field after completing 16 of 24 passes for 245 yards plus 64 yards rushing for a touchdown – the trajectory postulating unremarkable stats for Klein, but stellar for the average NCAA quarterback. At this point in the season, it’s unlikely that Klein won’t be invited to New York for the Heisman crowning ceremony. There are three reasons Klein is the frontrunner for the award this year: his team is 9-0 (record is always a major component of voting), Andrew Luck and RGIII have moved on to the NFL, and Klein is an improved player. The question is, how much?
There are two distinct facets of Klein’s game that have stood out this year. The first is his handling of the option. The next time you see Klein and John Hubert bounce outside, watch your quarterback. Klein is running smart. Teams are keying on him and often sell out, leaving Hubert and Pease available for the pitch. Egotistical quarterbacks get greedy and keep the ball for themselves. Scared quarterbacks keep the ball because pitching leaves them open and vulnerable while they’d rather be tucking and bracing. Klein is neither. Not only is he waiting until the almost perfect moment to toss the ball, but it’s landing exactly where it needs to be. He’s leading running backs by half a step, allowing them to continue running without ever slowing and losing momentum. If this skill translated into the NFL, Klein would be a first round pick.
The second item to consider is Klein’s passing game. There was no more discussed item this summer than Klein’s improvement in the passing game, and how he would be one of the conference’s most dangerous passers. At first glance, it may appear this isn’t the case. Klein is only sixth in the conference in passing yardage with 1,875 yards. Nick Florence of Baylor has 3,000. Texas’s David Ash is ahead of Klein, and half of Texas would prefer to see Ash on the bench. If you consider the fact that Iowa State, TCU and Oklahoma State have had to start multiple quarterbacks due to injury and disciplinary issues, Klein is ninth of ten sets of starting quarterbacks in the conference. KU is the only other school not to have 2,000 passing yards. However, none of this is an indication of Klein’s passing game.
Why should Klein be considered an effective passer when K-State’s vertical attack is so comparatively ineffective? Unlike West Virginia and Oklahoma, K-State is still a run-first team. The Wildcats average 225 yards on the ground – only one other team averages over 200. While the Big 12 is a pass-first conference, Kansas State runs against the grain. In considering Klein’s effectiveness, it’s important to consider the opportunities he’s been given. When the ball is in the air, Klein completes 71.1 percent of his passes. Only Geno Smith is better (72 percent). And unlike Smith, Klein is completing more downfield passes rather than screens and quick outs. Proof? Klein leads the league in yards per attempt with 10. That’s huge. And when quarterbacks are chucking the ball downfield, it’s usually a dangerous scenario. Not with Collin, who’s only thrown two interceptions to his 12 touchdown passes. No offensive coordinator will ever argue with that ratio.
Yet while we sing his praises, it’s important to stress that Klein shouldn’t be crowned the sole hero of Manhattan because of these statistics. The receiving corps he’s been blessed is making things, if not easy, then at least easier. Tyler Lockett was named the conference’s special teams player of the week for the second time this year following his punt return for touchdown against Oklahoma State. He’s absolutely electric. Chris Harper has been running some of the crispest routes in the nation. The K-State receivers are consistently getting five yards of separation from defenders, simplifying Klein’s decision-making as his throwing options are considerably safer. Additionally, tight ends Zach Trujillo and Travis Tannahill have displayed some very laudable toughness this year. More than once this year Tannahill has been absolutely sandwiched while hauling in a pass over the middle, but has refused to drop the pass no matter how hard he’s hit.
So how much has Collin Klein improved as a passer? In an offense designed to make opposing teams sell out on the run and exploit one-on-one match ups with the secondary, The Jug is hard pressed to provide a definitive answer. Klein has looked good. He’s also been blessed with receivers and an offensive line that make him look good. Oklahoma has demonstrated by far and away the best pass defense in the conference. Against Oklahoma, Kansas State was good (no turnovers), but not great (offense held to under 20 points). Texas Tech, the league’s second best passing defense, absolutely failed at attempting to contain Kansas State. Yet games against TCU’s whacky 4-2-5 defense and Texas’s ever dangerous unit should demonstrate that Klein has truly taken his game to the next level – and may be ready to go toe-to-toe with the Alabama defense when all is said and done.