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November 7, 2013

Game Up Close: Containing Amaro

Kansas State has faced its fair share of talented pass catchers in 2013. Many have been fast. Some have been big. Others were both. But all of them were wide receivers and perhaps the biggest challenge awaits the Wildcats on Saturday against an exceptional tight end in another pass-happy Big 12 Conference offense.

Although Texas Tech, 7-2 overall and 4-2 in league play, has a steady group of fast, deep threats at the receiver position -- something K-State, 4-4 and 2-4, has consistently and mightily struggled with this season -- the defensive game plan entering the 11 a.m. kickoff in Lubbock, Texas should be heavily geared toward containing midseason first team All-American and All-Big 12 junior tight end Jace Amaro.

The Wildcats didn't have their best game of the season on the ground against Iowa State, but it was still quite good and efficient. Running back John Hubert eclipsed the 100-yard mark for just the second time in 2013, while quarterbacks Daniel Sams and Jake Waters combined for 89 yards on 20 carries. This rushing attack seems to be hitting its stride at the right time and it needs continue on Saturday to control the tempo and game clock. All signs point to that happening after the Red Raiders surrendered 277 yards to Oklahoma and 281 to Oklahoma State in consecutive weeks.
Advantage: K-STATE
Running the ball is not the first nor is it the best option for the Red Raiders this weekend. The combination of DeAndre Washington and Kenny Williams were fairly solid against Oklahoma State by collectively racking up 114 yards on 19 carries, but neither is a major big play threat. Not to mention, Tech ranks No. 103 in the Football Bowl Subdivision by averaging just 124 yards per contest. The only way this becomes a factor is if the Wildcats worry so much about the pass that the run opens up, which definitely could happen.
Advantage: K-STATE
For the first time all season, it appears both quarterbacks Jake Waters and Daniel Sams have fully settled into their roles, especially in the passing game. Most importantly, neither has turned the ball over the past six quarters. Waters is clearly the better option, but Sams has certainly made some strides and defenses need to scheme for both. The Red Raiders have given up some yards in recent weeks, but by no means are they a pushover. Establishing the run game will be key for K-State in order to open up and have a lot of success with its passing attack.
Slight Advantage: K-STATE
This is a no brainer. The Red Raiders like to throw the ball all over the place, including deep, and the Wildcats, although improving, have struggled with that all season. Plus, Tech has a plethora of fast and highly skilled pass catchers for quarterback Davis Webb to throw to. The true freshman signal caller completed 45 of 71 passes for 425 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions against Oklahoma State. K-State might have the confidence heading into this contest, but it hasn't shown it can completely slow down a heavy air assault this season and Tech might be the best one yet.
Big Advantage: TEXAS TECH
This is usually a huge strength for the Wildcats. However, it has been far from it during Big 12 play. Kicker Jack Cantele has been inconsistent and the return game has been quiet even with Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson healthy. Really, the best part of K-State's special teams right now is punter Mark Krause. Of course, the possibility is there for it to change, but the Red Raiders have been more stable in this area as of late.
Slight Advantage: TEXAS TECH
Although K-State has won back-to-back games and Texas Tech has dropped each of its last two contests, it doesn't change the fact this still isn't a very favorable matchup for the Wildcats. And regardless who has the momentum, the Red Raiders are a more complete team right now. K-State could benefit from the early kickoff, but Lubbock is a tough place to play and it will have to play its absolute best to pull off the upset and get its first win on the road this season.
Advantage: TEXAS TECH

"They tell me he is about a 4.6 (40-yard dash) guy, and that is pretty good for the kind of size he has," K-State coach Bill Snyder said earlier this week. "If you never saw him and just looked at the numbers, you would realize there has got to be an issue there."

At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, Amaro has converted his game from a safety valve in pressure situations to one of college football's most dangerous weapons in a little over a calendar year. The San Antonio, Texas, high school product is one of two Red Raiders with at least eight receptions in eight consecutive games -- one shy of Michael Crabtree's record-setting nine straight contests in 2007 -- and recorded career highs in receptions (15) and receiving yards (174), while also hauling in his fourth touchdown of the season, in a 52-34 loss to Oklahoma State last weekend.

"He is very physical after he catches as well," continued Snyder. "He presents major problems to anybody, I think, and they are the obvious ones. They want to get the ball to him, not at the expense of disrupting their offense. They spread it around and get it to a lot of people. When he can get a crease, they will get the ball to him, and he is physical enough that he can catch a ball in a crowd.

"Where he is really dangerous is when he is advancing the ball up field. He is a really big guy working against smaller secondary players, so if he makes those catches, he is pretty physical after the catch and can rack up yards after contact. He gets a lot of yardage that way, and I do not know what the numbers would be there. I have not seen him catch the ball and somebody come tackle him in his tracks. That just does not seem to happen."

So just how good has true freshman quarterback Davis Webb's trusted target been? Amaro currently ranks No. 3 in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total receptions (79), No. 5 in receiving yards (1,035), No. 6 in receptions per game (8.8) and No. 9 in receiving yards per game (115). All of those are easily the best numbers in the Big 12.

To put it a different perspective: The next best tight end to Amaro's production in nine games during 2013 is North Carolina's Eric Ebron. He has 44 receptions for 669 yards through eight games. That's a difference of 35 catches and 366 yards.

"He's a great athlete," sophomore safety Dante Barnett said. "He's one of the best tight ends in the Big 12 or really in the nation so getting to guard him and play against him, we really enjoy it."

K-State's defense, a unit that has drastically improved since the beginning of the season after losing multiple starts from the squad that posted an 11-2 overall record in 2012, might be up for the challenge mentally, but the Wildcats, like many others, don't have the right personnel to defend Amaro, and the Red Raiders, under the direction of first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury, have been stellar at find ways to incorporate him in the flow of the offense.

"I couldn't tell you what he likes. I think he just likes getting the ball and I don't think it matters to him where he gets it, but I shouldn't and can't really speak for him," Snyder said. "I think they're intelligent people and they're going to try to get him in the best possible position they can get his hands on the ball and I'm sure that varies from team to team. Some defense might be a little bit more vulnerable in one area and somebody else may be a little more vulnerable."

For K-State, who has used scout team members Evan Loomis and Cody Small to mimic Amaro in practice, the weakest link for its defense this season has been pass coverage. And with the attention needed on the other Texas Tech receivers from the cornerbacks to limit the deep ball and because the tight end position calls for it, the job to cover Amaro will rest with the linebacker and safeties.

"We get matched him with I'm sure more than maybe the corners because he's at the tight end, but he likes to line up in the slot position because he's so skilled," junior linebacker Jonathan Truman said. "We might get lined up more than the d-back would but we'll find away."

Confidence is certainly not an issue for this K-State defense. Nor does Amaro scare the Wildcat players. But if history is any sort of indicator, facing a spread offense like Texas Tech is worrisome and that alone doesn't make Snyder very enthusiastic about the matchup.

"For a team that is coming off of throwing the ball 70 times in a ball game and taking 100-plus snaps every once in a while, then you know they are going to cast the ball downfield," the 74-year-old coach explained. "It is not always those deep throws. It can be those five-yard throws that result in 80-yard plays, and they have the ability to do all of that.

"Yes, it is a major concern week in and week out. Probably with a team like Tech, it is probably as big a concern as anything you have."

If K-State can keep Amaro in check and not allow him to continuously bail out drives, the defense will put the Wildcats in a position to remain competitive throughout the contest.

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