Kansas State defensive coordinator Tom Hayes likes to keep his priorities simple.
He asks his players to keep opposing teams out of the end zone and to stop the run. That’s it. Well, not entirely. He pushes for turnovers and sacks and strong coverage, too, but those are all secondary demands. Scoring defense and rushing defense are — by far — his most important statistics.
Excel at both, he says, and everything else falls into place.
“Those two stats have a lot to do with how you play on defense,” Hayes said Saturday at K-State’s media day. “I don’t care what anybody says. If we can keep them out of the end zone and keep them kicking field goals, we are going to be pretty successful.”
Not exactly the boldest of statements, but it personifies who Hayes is as a coordinator and the makeup of K-State’s defense.
So what if the Wildcats are occasionally susceptible to mid-range passes, often surrender more yardage across the middle than other teams and prioritize keeping receivers in front of their secondary? They don’t take risks and they are confident in the red zone and tend to toughen up when things matter most — exactly the way Hayes prefers.
That strategy held opponents to 23.2 points and 369.3 yards last year, when K-State finished 9-4, so Hayes isn’t looking for drastic change heading into the season. But his secondary demands may take on added importance with the bulk of K-State’s secondary returning.
“Anytime you have confidence in the guys you have and you have experience, like we have, you have the capabilities to do anything you want,” Hayes said. “Sometimes you become limited, but you feel like you can do anything when you have proven, established guys and we are fortunate to have that.”
That could, and perhaps will, lead to a more aggressive defensive approach.
Like always, Hayes has confidence in his front seven, which features run-stoppers Travis Britz, Will Geary and Jordan Willis up front and up-and-comer Elijah Lee at linebacker. He also knows what he is getting from returning corners Morgan Burns and Danzel McDaniel in front of all-conference safety Dante Barnett.
“Coach Hayes tells each of us to be a ball hawk,” said McDaniel, a senior. “He wants us just to go up and get the ball, make turnovers, strip the ball. He emphasizes a lot of things with us, wanting us all to be great players and a great defense.”
Those are the things you can ask from a trio that should make up a formidable secondary.
“There are a lot of great secondaries around, but I just feel like I have never been around a secondary this great,” McDaniel said. “I can’t wait to see what we can accomplish this year.”
A year ago, Barnett ranked second on the team with 77 tackles on top of three interceptions. McDaniel established himself as one of the nation’s hardest-hitting corners on his way to 59 tackles and an interception, which he returned for a touchdown against Oklahoma. And Burns made 55 tackles and three interceptions.
They had their mistakes along the way, particularly in coverage, but they were always quick to recover.
K-State will need to develop a new nickel back to replace Randall Evans, but Hayes has confidence in Donnie Starks, Nate Jackson and Cre Moore, who are competing for the job. They also need to find a new safety to play opposite Barnett. Sean Newlan, Kaleb Prewett and Kendall Adams are the main candidates.
“Training camp it is going to be very competitive back there,” Hayes said, “which I love, because competition makes everyone better.”
Plug them in and K-State will take its chances against the pass, perhaps more aggressively than normal.
“Our secondary gives a big confidence boost to the rest of the defense,” Lee said, “because we all know if we don’t get there, they will be there to make a play.”