MANHATTAN, Kan. — “High and tight” is a popular expression on the Kansas State practice field.
Quarterback Collin Klein once used the phrase to describe a recent haircut, but usually he is referring to the way coaches instruct players to hang onto the football, tucked snugly in the crook of their arm and high enough to make it hard for defenders to make the strip.
The prevalence of the “high and tight” mantra is one reason the No. 6 Wildcats lead the Big 12 with a plus-10 turnover margin. Kansas State (5-0, 2-0 Big 12) has only lost two interceptions and just one fumble while forcing 13 turnovers by its opponents.
The Wildcats have scored 59 points off turnovers. Opponents have been shut out.
Coach Bill Snyder has always emphasized taking care of the football, and an offense based around the ground game — and averaging 262.8 yards rushing — does it better than most.
“Sometimes you can fret about it too much,” Snyder said of turnovers, “and you become a little paranoid about it. I don’t think our players are. I think there’s just the right amount of attention that’s put upon it, but we practice diligently towards that.”
Snyder wasn’t kidding, either. Tight end Travis Tannahill estimated that players spend 10 minutes of nearly every practice in some sort of intense anti-turnover drills.
“They’re pretty physical,” Tannahill said. “You’re usually holding onto the ball, not running, but knees bent, kind of waddling almost, and you’ve got at least two guys on you either hitting you or poking the ball out or trying to distract you. It’s a good drill.”
Besides those high-pressure repetitions, coaches constantly holler at receivers, tight ends, running backs or anyone else who may have the ball to keep it “high and tight.”
As Tannahill pointed out, carrying the ball Snyder-style means foregoing the more stylish way that running backs might carry it in the NFL — at least, that’s the case with Klein and running back John Hubert, who have combined for 149 rushing attempts this season.
Tannahill said Klein naturally tucks the ball up the way his coaches want, while Hubert might tend to leave it swinging out a bit more. Still, he adheres to the instructions the vast majority of the time, particularly in the most dangerous situations.
“Through the middle and through piles, he’s always got two hands on that ball, which Coach emphasizes a lot,” Tannahill said. “He’s being coachable and doing what the coaches say. It’s always kind of the cool thing to have the ball way out here, you see the NFL guys doing it, but that’s not the team way to do it, and he’s doing it the right way.”
Defensive players are encouraged to strip the ball whenever they see it.
Seven Wildcats have forced fumbles this season. Three have intercepted passes. Cornerback Nigel Malone has done both, and he returned his most recent interception 55 yards in last Saturday’s 56-16 victory over Kansas.
Malone said the secondary’s better coverage of receivers combined with the defensive line’s improvement in rushing the passer has resulted in a stronger defense.
“We’re getting some good pressure on guys,” Malone said. “In practice we make an emphasis of trying to strip the ball out there in practice, so it really did justice for us in the game.”
The only program in the Big 12 with more forced turnovers this season is TCU, which has 14, but the Wildcats have a good chance to pull back ahead on Saturday. They visit Iowa State, which was last in the league in turnover margin last season and is seventh with a minus-1 margin this year.
So what’s more important, the offense holding onto the ball or the defense popping it loose?
”It all just goes together,” Malone said.