Tom Hayes uses a clever drill to prepare Kansas State for the high-octane offenses that dominate the Big 12. Before every play in practice, the defensive coordinator tells his players to turn their backs to the ball until the offense is ready to go. When they finally whip around, they have less than five seconds to analyze the formation and defend it accordingly.
The Wildcats use this exercise seemingly every week, as it has helped them keep pace with up-tempo juggernauts through the years, but it will be of little use in the Liberty Bowl.
Arkansas doesn’t resemble a Big 12 offense in any form.
“It will be real unique for our defense, based on the track meets we are in every week with the Baylors and the Texas Techs and how fast they go,” Hayes said. “Arkansas has got a very similar approach to us. It is unusual.”
So unusual, that Hayes doesn’t know who to compare the Razorbacks to.
“There is no one in our league,” Hayes said. “They aren’t spread. They are a running, pro-style football team. It’s two backs or one back with a quarterback under center. We just don’t see that in our league. It is good for our players to see, but it is going to be a challenge.”
The biggest challenge will be mental. Playing an opponent that prefers to huddle between plays, control clock and run the ball right at you with power is easier in many ways than sprinting all across the field trying to defend one home-run swing after another. In that sense, K-State players are looking forward to Saturday’s game. Fatigue shouldn’t be an issue.
But deciphering calls and lining up in the correct places could be more difficult than they no-huddle look K-State is accustomed to. This game could feel like a chess match.
“It will be easier on you physically,” K-State linebacker Will Davis said. “But mentally, it will be every bit as hard, if not harder.”
“It will probably be a little different, but we aren’t worried about that,” added defensive tackle Travis Britz. “We are just worried about playing our game and using good technique.”
The huddle gives Arkansas more time to consider plays, and without an emphasis on running the most plays possible — its 818 plays this season was lower than K-State’s 829 — the Razorbacks have ample time to change into different plays after analyzing K-State’s defense.
That limits what Hayes can do from the sideline.
“I don’t get a chance to look at the formations and help them with checks and calls,” Hayes said. “I can help them a great deal with those fast teams, because they are always at the line of scrimmage. It puts more on the players. They will have to be ready for that.”
They will also have to be ready for an offense that utilizes its tight end, another rarity in the Big 12. And not just any tight end, the best tight end in college football.
Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry won the Mackey Award this season and earned All-America honors. He caught 46 passes for 647 yards and three touchdowns, while also helping block for a running attack that amassed 2,497 yards.
“You can’t go through all the tape we have over the past month and not see what a special player he is,” Hayes said. “He’s not just a pass receiver. Some people say tight ends are either a receiver or a blocker. Well, this guy is both. He is a threat down the field and also a really good blocker. He gets your attention right away.”
It is unclear how K-State will defend Henry. The Wildcats haven’t faced a legitimate receiving threat at tight end since David Morgan of Texas-San Antonio, and he gained social-media attention that game for running for a first down with K-State defensive back Nate Jackson draped across his back.
Perhaps this time linebacker Elijah Lee will cover Henry. Or maybe K-State goes with another safety. Or maybe Hayes calls for zone coverage.
There is no telling how K-State’s defense will react to Arkansas’ offense. It hasn’t played a similar opponent all season.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett
Kansas State vs. Arkansas
- When: 2:20 p.m. Saturday
- Where: Memphis, Tenn.
- TV: ESPN