Big 12 spring check-ins: Kansas State

Ian Boyd

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Spring practices are wrapping up for a lot of teams across the Big 12, but Kansas State has already knocked their practices out and are progressing into the inevitable, "okay who's portaling out and who else might portal in?" phase of the offseason. We've already seen a lot of transfers this season because of the new policies getting passed with one-time exceptions and other transfer-friendly measures but we'll probably see a few more still as different players get a sense of where they fit in their teams' pecking order.

Also let's not fool ourselves, plenty of coaches will come out of spring and say "man we need help at position A, B, and C" and they're going to put out feelers to guys who may or may not even be in the portal yet. Under Chris Klieman, Kansas State has quickly embraced the idea of being a destination team for players in the portal. It's entirely consistent with who they were under Bill Snyder when they'd mine the transfer and JUCO ranks every offseason to fill out the roster and try to find some talent they couldn't land in recruiting.

The Wildcats have already brought in a few transfers likely to have an impact on the coming season, including their new #0 receiving tight end Daniel Immatorbhebhe (replacing Briley Moore), two potential starters in the secondary in Iowa cornerback Julius Brents and Louisville safety Russell Yeast, and big Charlotte defensive tackle Timmy Horne.

Infrastructure stress test: Offense

Most everyone counted out Kansas State last season because they were replacing five seniors on the offensive line and the main impression everyone had of the Wildcats was the viral clip of the pulling guard who changed direction and lead into the cutback lane for a big gain against Oklahoma. Here on this blog everyone was warned the Wildcats had a potentially formidable space force and were unlikely to totally crater at the infrastructure positions given their K-Stateyness and Klieman's coaching acumen. They ended up leading the league early in the year before bowing out without quarterback Skylar Thompson and taking hits from COVID throughout the season.

The offensive line was solid last year but they struggled in pass protection. This coming year they'll return six or seven guys who started regularly in the 2020 season (everyone is back) and were working through a few different combinations in the spring. Some of the big wins include bringing back right tackle Christian Duffie, who's coming along, and then also center Noah Johnson who will be a sixth year "super senior" in 2021. Johnson was a huge part of their run game in 2021, they had a variety of plays in which they'd pull him around the edge where he shined.

Cooper Beebe and Ben Adler are also back, they have a lot of guys who showed promise who are back for another go in this coming season. They also return quarterback Skylar Thompson, which is massive considering the distance in passing acumen between Thompson and the version of Will Howard we saw last season in his stead. They're talking like they plan on having a Wildcat package for Howard in 2021 rather than using Skylar Thompson so much in the quarterback run game.

Howard is getting transformed into another Collin Klein, under the direct supervision of Collin Klein (now their quarterback coach), and is listed at 6-4, 232 now after showing up at 6-4/205 as a senior in high school out of Pennsylvania. Thompson had become a good quarterback run game operator in his own right but it sounds like they'd rather not risk it in 2021 given his upside throwing to Malik Knowles and Deuce Vaughn and Howard's clear knack for the quarterback power game.

The interior is set up to be pretty good with a lot of power and run blocking knowhow, Daniel Immatorbhebhe and Deuce Vaughn present to create matchups in the drop back passing game inside, the return of multiple ancillary blockers such as Jax "the destroyer" Dineen, and their newfound depth at quarterback. They also have Jacardia Wright back at running back after sporadic work 2020, at 6-0, 230 pounds he's been getting strong reviews and will probably carry their traditional power game while Vaughn brings pass game and overall explosiveness to the unit.

Infrastructure stress test: Defense

Things are much more mixed here than on offense. Last year the Wildcats were in good shape up front with Drew Wiley returning and owning the nose tackle position, Justin Hughes and Elijah Sullivan back at linebacker (although often missing time with COVID issues), but were hit very hard with injuries and COVID issues at safety.

They ended up moving star cornerback A.J. Parker to nickel (now departing), seeing a revolving door at field safety, and moving Jahron McPherson to strong/boundary safety to try and make the most of his run defense prowess.

McPherson is back as another sixth year, super senior and they brought in Yeast from Louisville to start opposite him so the Wildcats are in decent shape back there, but they're losing nickel Parker and then both starting linebackers and Drew Wiley in the box.

Yeast is an experienced field safety who should give K-State some solid athleticism and reliability on the back end while Horne was a big body at Charlotte (6-4, 319) who has some quickness off the ball but is probably doing his best work just reliably holding a gap. The Wildcats need Eli Huggins to be their next guy to take a big leap and emerge as a capable nose and then they need some linebackers like Daniel Green to take a leap and be ready to play good football. Evidently T.J. Smith is plan A at nickel, this will be another area to watch and perhaps the arrival of Brents from Iowa will allow the Wildcats to slide Ekow Boye-Doe or Justin Gardner (last year's starting cornerbacks) inside if necessary.

The Wildcats will outnumber the run game in 2021, particularly with McPherson, but you still need to hold up at nickel and aggressively sending your strong safety to the box can compound the issue of you don't get good, reliable fits from the linebackers or sturdy nose play.

Space force speed test: Offense

This is where K-State fell short in 2020. Malik Knowles wasn't consistently healthy (or consistently good) enough to have the impact they needed at outside receiver and the issues at quarterback and left tackle made it a moot point anyways. Knowles came on toward the end of the season when he threatened to transfer and instead was incorporated into the offense more down the stretch. With an engaged offseason with Thompson he figures to be ready to finally break through if it's ever going to happen.

Kaitori Leveston has been considered to be the most promising talent at left tackle but the coaches have seemed highly reticent to give him the starting job. Cooper Beebe tends to get the most attention there but it's pretty clear he'd be at his best at guard considering his 6-3 frame. Duffie has played solid football and has been said to have come along this spring but they're keeping him at right tackle.

Either Leveston will earn the trust of the coaches, they'll leave Beebe out there, or someone new and young like Carver Willis who played some in 2020 will get the job.

K-State is not imposing with their offensive space force in 2021, they'll need to establish Knowles a lot more this season and otherwise look to continue to land damage working with Immatorbhebhe and Vaughn inside in the passing game while getting the power run game humming better. Technically we've yet to see this run game operate as intended as the Wildcats have lacked knowhow in the new scheme or worthy running backs and this should begin to change as their recruiting starts to bear fruit.

Space force speed test: Defense

Considering the Wildcats are losing Wyatt Hubert, I think things actually look very promising here.

Out wide, Ekow Boye-Doe and Justin Gardner were really quite solid at cornerback last season and it sounds like Julius Brents (6-3, 208) will actually supplant one of them or force them inside to nickel. I'm guessing Boye-Doe would go inside because Gardner was a little better and Boye-Doe is lighter, quicker, and perhaps a little better suited to defending a two-way go in the nickel.

Between the three of them, K-State will have some size and speed to throw at opposing receivers in order to make life a little tricky in the passing game.

Up front at defensive end, things have looked pretty solid since last fall when Felix Anudike and Khalid Duke showed up as immediately promising edge-rushing talents. One of those two will start opposite super senior Bronson Massie, perhaps Anudike, and whichever doesn't start will probably play in the passing downs package. Massie would move inside and use his quickness to beat guards on passing downs a year ago and probably does the same in 2021. The Wildcats also have promising redshirt freshman Nate Matlack in the mix and have talked about playing a 3-3-5 on passing downs that utilizes two defensive ends on the edge and another one standing up as a linebacker so they can move around and blitz different gaps.

Replacing Wyatt Hubert is tough, but they may be able to field at least one good edge-rusher and potentially multiple other solid pass-rushers all at the same time.

In summation

Kansas State's infrastructure inside on both sides of the ball is solid and overall in better shape than they ended up being in 2020, mostly because Thompson is getting healthy again and the depth behind him is improved. Their space force is also marginally improved, despite losing their top guy Wyatt Hubert, because they return or add talent at the other three space force positions.

Since K-State mostly cratered last season due to Skylar Thompson going down with an injury, it's hard to see the Wildcats failing to improve significantly in 2021. We'll see what else the transfer portal can unlock for them. A good inside linebacker would be a boost and they may add former Longhorn Juwan Mitchell there. A left tackle would be even better but this is probably unlikely.
 
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Ian Boyd

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Highly respectable is what I’m expecting, we’ll see how the O comes along in terms of them actually making the title game. They need 3 things to happen which haven’t happened yet.

1) Thompson comes back strong (just doing 7on7 still)
2) Knowles becomes a consistent game changer
3) to find a left tackle. Probably can’t be Beebe and he’s a good guard anyways.

All of those things need to happen. They could all happen but it’d be nice if one or two at least had already occurred.
 

Wings N Girls

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Highly respectable is what I’m expecting, we’ll see how the O comes along in terms of them actually making the title game. They need 3 things to happen which haven’t happened yet.

1) Thompson comes back strong (just doing 7on7 still)
2) Knowles becomes a consistent game changer
3) to find a left tackle. Probably can’t be Beebe and he’s a good guard anyways.

All of those things need to happen. They could all happen but it’d be nice if one or two at least had already occurred.
Seems like they can definitely be a sleeper team in the conference this season. Vaughan is so much fun to watch. Great write up - I don’t know how you know so much about all these cats.

Who are your other Big 12 sleeper squads for 21?
 

Ian Boyd

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
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Jan 14, 2014
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Ypsilanti, MI
Seems like they can definitely be a sleeper team in the conference this season. Vaughan is so much fun to watch. Great write up - I don’t know how you know so much about all these cats.

Who are your other Big 12 sleeper squads for 21?
We’ll cover em all in turn here.