K-State's Ryan Henington and Wayne Jones make smooth transition to Sam linebacker
Converted safeties fit nicely in Wildcats' new scheme
MANHATTAN — Their Kansas State career paths are quite different, and yet here Ryan Henington and Wayne Jones are, together at a position that had all but been forgotten in the Wildcats' defense.
With the proliferation of spread offenses in the Big 12 and nationwide, strong-side linebackers had slowly given way to a fifth defensive back until K-State's coaches brought it back in the spring. But to fill the spot, they turned to the secondary, and that's where safeties Jones and Henington came in.
"I had a small talk with (defensive coordinator Joe) Klanderman in the winter after the (2020) season and he kind of mentioned it to me — asked me to play some Sam linebacker," said Jones, a junior who started all 13 games at safety as a redshirt freshman in 2019 but shuffled between safety and nickelback last year, starting just twice. "I was all for it, just because anything to help out the team I'm willing to do.
"I didn't know too much about it, but I had some idea that we were going to be in a 3-5."
Ah, yes. Not only did the Wildcats go with three linebackers in last Saturday's impressive 24-7 victory over Stanford, but they did it with three down lineman while keeping five defensive backs on the field. Henington got the start at Sam linebacker next to Daniel Green (middle) and Cody Fletcher (weak side), but split time with Jones.
"They played really well," Fletcher said of Henington, who made three tackles, and Jones, who had one. "Seeing those two guys come to that position was really nice.
"They both have their strengths for sure and they help us out a lot, in the pass game especially."
Head coach Chris Klieman and Klanderman began working on the 3-3-5 alignment in January, partly with Jones and Henington in mind. Leading up to the game — without revealing the three-man front — Klieman said the third linebacker was just one version of a package that also included graduate transfer Reggie Stubblefield and sophomore Aamaris Brown at nickelback.
"For me personally, it was an individual meeting," Henington said of his move to linebacker. "Klieman does an outstanding job of communicating with his players.
"I just remember they brought me in and they had an idea and they said, 'Hey Ryan, we see you playing the Sam linebacker position. We think it will be a better fit for you and a better fit for the defense,' so it was kind of a win-win situation."
Henington, a fifth-year senior from Junction City, came to K-State as a quarterback in 2017 under former coach Bill Snyder. But as a redshirt freshman, he saw action in three games on special teams, eventually switching to safety when Klieman took over two years ago.
"I went to coach Klieman and they said, 'Hey, we can use you on defense, come on,' and I was there as a safety last year," Henington said. "I think I found a really good fit for me now at linebacker."
Henington said he feels more comfortable at linebacker simply because he had a full spring to work at it. That was not the case with safety, because of COVID-19.
"The physicality is a lot different," said Henington, who has added 20 pounds to his 6-foot-1 frame over the past year and now weighs in at about 220. "I had to prepare my body a lot this offseason to be able to play in the box.
"(The gain) is lean mass, so it doesn't do you any good just to drink milkshakes and eat burgers, but it took a lot of hard work."
The 6-foot Jones is listed at 208 pounds, same as last year, but Klieman and Klanderman said during the spring when they made the move that they thought he was more effective in tighter spaces than in the open field.
"I enjoy (the new defense) a lot just because of the position I'm at," Jones said. "It allows me to be more free, be closer to the box, which I really like.
"I think the biggest thing for me is just dealing with the linemen. Coming from safety, you're 10 yards away from them. I think I'm transitioning well, but I've got a lot of work to do."
Klanderman expressed confidence last week going into the Stanford game that Henington and Jones were up to the task.
“I don't think there's a team on the earth that's taken more snaps in spring ball and fall camp than us, just the style of practice that we implement," Klanderman said. "They've definitely been forged by fire, and they've been great in practice.
"Again, I don't know how they're going to respond in games when things are a little bit different – especially early – but they're quality kids. They're intelligent football players. Wayne's been in the fire before, albeit seeing it from a different angle. Ryan has too."
Jones and Henington aren't the only Wildcats transitioning to Sam linebacker. Defensive end Khalid Duke, arguably the team's top pass-rusher, also saw some action there when they weren't in a four-man front.
"Me, (Henington and) Duke, during practice, during the game, we were talking about what we were seeing," Jones said. “It's just a constant transformation.
"We're always trying to help each other out, just so we can have the best mindset out there on the field, whether it's me out there, Ryan or Duke, so we all know what we're doing."
Henington and Jones in particular have bonded during the transition.
"Wayne is like my absolute brother," Henington said. "I love Wayne and he's like family to me, and we've kind of gone through this transition together.
"We've competed and pushed each other and he's a tremendous player. He's definitely elevated my game."