Ask any of the members of the Kansas State secondary and they’ll tell you the same things.
This group has a lot to prove.
As head coach Bill Snyder noted Tuesday, they’ve still got a long way to go, but the progress through five games is evident.
“We have a lot to prove, especially with last year and people doubting us, but I feel like it’s more of a team effort,” cornerback Bubba Chapman said. “And we’re pressuring the quarterback now more, so everything that needs to tie together has come together real well.”
While the defense does give up its fair share of yards, so do most Big 12 teams. That’s just the reality of playing in a pass-first league. What’s been different this year is K-State’s ability to get to the quarterback and force him to make difficult plays.
“When your front seven is playing as hard as they’ve been playing, it opens up a lot of opportunities for us in the secondary, and it makes our job so much easier,” safety Ty Zimmerman said. “Having that pressure is key, because the quarterback has to get rid of it faster than he wants to.”
Against Kansas, the Wildcats’ secondary allowed Dayne Crist to move the ball down the field on two-straight drives before the front seven turned up the heat and forced some turnovers after halftime.
In Norman, K-State’s strip and score off Landry Jones was also a turning point.
Through two Big 12 games, this much is obvious: when the defense buckles down and pressures, good things usually follow.
“It’s really a mental thing for the quarterback,” cornerback Nigel Malone said. “It throws him off his game a little bit when you get pressure on him.”
Malone said while the front seven is getting plenty of due credit for the improvements, both units play a part in it.
“It goes hand in hand,” Malone said. “When you have a good pass rush, it makes the coverage easier. When you have better coverage, it makes the pass rush easier.”
Of course, K-State hasn’t gone up against the best the Big 12 has to offer in terms of scoring offenses. That comes next week. But for now, a unit that received — and deserved — most of the credit for defensive lapses last season, looks better.
“That’s going to happen just from playing two years and having experience,” Zimmerman said of the improvement. “Everything keeps slowing down and you get more comfortable out there.”
“Just experience,” he said. “We’ve been there before. We’ve seen it. We know how to play against these offenses. We’ve developed more confidence being a year older.”
Chapman said one of the toughest things about playing against such quality passing attacks is having a short memory when you get beat. He did just that against Kansas, getting burned on a route before coming back and intercepting the ball on the next play on a similar pass.
“You can’t let one pass get to your head,” Chapman said. “You’ve got to flush it and move on to the next play.”
Malone said confidence is one of the biggest necessities against top teams.
“You can’t play scared,” Malone said. “Especially playing corner, there’s so much room for error you can’t play scared. You have to be confident.”
As for Snyder, the head coach recognized both the need for improvement after last season and the way his team has gone about it this year. It’s early, but he likes what he sees so far.
“We’re a work in progress, still,” Snyder said. “I think we’ve managed to produce numbers that would indicate our pass rush has made improvement, but I don’t think we’ve gotten where we need to be, and I think the numbers might be a little misleading in that respect.
“I am pleased that we’ve made the progress we have. Hopefully it’s on a continual uprise.”
Snyder isn’t the type to look ahead to a potential top-five matchup between his Wildcats and West Virginia, but he knows tougher tests for his secondary are coming.
“The teams that we have left on the table probably average 100 points a game,” he said. “We’ve still got a lot ahead of us.”