Prodded to ponder what Joe Klanderman learned last season, his first as Kansas State’s defensive coordinator, Chris Klieman initially eschewed a direct approach for a more general one.
All of the coaches on his staff, Klieman said, had to master new skills. (Blame the coronavirus, of course.) One example: “How do you game plan when four or five of your starters are out on Friday?” Klieman said. “It’s not a fair thing for any of those guys.”
But Klieman then delved into Klanderman specifically.
“I know he learned a ton just about how he fits, how he uses the coaches,” he said. “Joe is one of the most intelligent football guys I’ve ever been around, and I’m excited for him, because I think your first year, you learn so much more about yourself than you do about being a defensive coordinator and calling things. I know he’ll have a really good year.”
One way Klanderman plans to do that: altering his role on gamedays.
After spending the last six years working in the coaches’ booths during games, this season, he’s returning to the field. It’s all about having a closer connection to the players.
Despite the advantages that come from working high in the sky — particularly seeing the entire field from a bird’s-eye view — it has a major drawback.
It’s a sterile environment.
“I want to be able to communicate with those guys a little more directly, maybe have my hands on the pulse a little bit more,” Klanderman said Thursday. “I’ve done that in the past and felt comfortable. ... I felt like as a play caller in the box, I got maybe too analytical. I’m on my charts and I’m on my stuff, and I got maybe away from my gut a little bit more than I would like to. Hopefully being down there in the heat — seeing a corner who’s tired or just being able to be getting sweaty — will help me as a play caller, too.”
Klanderman isn’t worried about no longer manning a seat in the booth, either.
“Coach (Steve) Stanard will be upstairs, the linebacker coach,” Klanderman said. “He’s got a great eye. He’s been up there for years and years, so that’s where he’ll be.”
Klieman said he’s recently spent more time around the defense than at any point since he became K-State’s head coach in December 2018, “as far as actively doing drills and actively meeting with players and coaching.” Because of that, he said, it became evident that Klanderman “is doing a great job” of putting the defensive assistants and players in situations they’ll have the best chance for success.
Still, Klanderman admits the unit is “a work in progress.” As late as last week, the Wildcats still were shuffling players through different positions.
“Maybe it’s a free safety moving to a strong, or a strong safety moving to a nickel — or whatever the case may be. They’re little moves, but until you see repeated pictures, you’re not quite comfortable with what you’re doing,” he said. “When you’re not quite comfortable with what you’re doing, I don’t feel comfortable pushing the envelope. I’m hoping in the next couple of months, we’re able to do that.”
Striking that delicate balance — keeping it simple and sticking to the team’s base defensive concepts on one hand, being creative (and thus becoming more complicated and exotic) on the other — is a daily struggle.
That’s where the staff’s close-knit relationship pays dividends.
“There are days I want to push ahead and go through some of the growing pains, and they kind of saddle me back, and then there are other days where I’d like to saddle back and they say, ‘Let’s go ahead,’” he said. “We never seem to be on the same page with that. That’s just a constant evaluation that I have to make.”
Only time will tell whether the lessons Klanderman learned last season will be beneficial this fall (and in the years to come). But he’s quietly confident in his group, which has its first test of the season at 11 a.m. Saturday versus Stanford.
“Whether it’s Stanford or whoever we play, if we can get 11 sets of cleats in the ground and we can get our eyes right,” Klanderman said, “I think we’ll have success.”