Kansas State was hit hard by injuries last season, but the Wildcats could be poised for a quick rebound in 2016. A Bill Snyder-coached team is always a dangerous opponent in the Big 12, and this year's version could surprise if the right pieces fall into place on offense. The defense returns standout talents in linebacker Elijah Lee and linemen Will Geary and Jordan Willis. Getting back to a bowl game is a reasonable expectation, but the Wildcats are aiming higher for 2016.
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Previewing Kansas State’s Offense
K-State’s quarterback situation last season may best be described as a nightmare. Starter Jesse Ertz was lost for the year on the season’s opening drive due to a torn ACL in his right knee. Then potential backup Alex Delton was ruled out for the season the following week with a knee issue of his own. Injuries left the Wildcats with little choice but to hand the offense to Joe Hubener, a former walk-on who served as the backup passer on his high school team.
That led to undesirable results. K-State completed 47 percent of its passes, and the Wildcats ranked 113th nationally in passing efficiency. Not surprisingly, K-State lost its first six conference games and had to rally to reach a bowl. Those numbers must improve drastically for K-State to win in 2016. Bill Snyder is hopeful they will. He will look to Ertz and Delton to lead the charge. Both players have recovered from their knee issues, and both showed flashes of brilliance during spring practices. Ertz blew away the competition in spring and summer practices a year ago, and his strong arm makes him the favorite to reclaim his starting spot. But Delton brings speed and dual-threat capabilities to the position.
Whoever wins the starting spot will be surrounded by promising skill players. Charles Jones, Dalvin Warmack and Justin Silmon all return at running back. Byron Pringle, Isaiah Zuber and Denzel Goolsby will strengthen K-State’s receiving corps. The biggest question mark comes up front. The Wildcats lost four starters from their offensive line to graduation.
Previewing Kansas State’s Defense
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K-State coaches compared their secondary to a revolving door last season. At one point, the unit had so many injuries that Snyder asked defensive coordinator Tom Hayes which defensive backs he could expect to play the following week. And Hayes didn’t have an answer. K-State’s secondary was thought to be a strength in the preseason, but it quickly became a weakness. The return of Dante Barnett, an all-conference safety, should make a world of difference. He missed all but one game last season with an injury and is now back for his fifth season. Barnett is the quarterback of K-State’s defense. With Kendall Adams playing alongside him, it should be much harder for teams to throw on the Wildcats. Duke Shelley will lead the way at corner after a promising freshman season in which he flashed moments of brilliance in pass coverage. Cal transfer Cedric Dozier should play opposite him.
With a veteran group returning up front and in the middle, K-State has the makings of a promising defense. Linebacker Elijah Lee led the team with 80 tackles last season, and Charmeachealle Moore came on strong at the end of his junior season. Jordan Willis, Tanner Wood and Will Geary should all be formidable players on the defensive line.
Previewing Kansas State’s Specialists
It won’t be easy to replace record-setting kickoff returner Morgan Burns. Then again, replacing gifted kickoff returner Tyler Lockett seemed like a tall order before Burns logged multiple touchdown returns last season. The Wildcats will look to Dominique Heath, Warmack and others to replace Burns. K-State should feel comfortable at kicker, where Matthew McCrane didn’t miss last season, converting seven field goals and 15 extra points. Nick Walsh returns as punter after averaging 41.6 yards last season.
K-State suffered its first losing season under Snyder since 2005 last fall. Many factors, including injuries, led to the 6-7 record, but the Wildcats aren’t making excuses. They are eager to bounce back. Healthy quarterbacks plus a veteran defense provide a nucleus for success. But the Wildcats will face a rigorous schedule that begins with a road game against Stanford.