The Kansas State Wildcats opened the 2017 season ranked No. 20 in the AP Top 25 poll and were seen by many as a dark horse candidate to challenge Oklahoma for the Big 12 title. Things started well enough following back-to-back 55-point performances over weak non-conference competition before an upset at the hands of Vanderbilt. The Wildcats then dropped three of their first four conference games.
However, as has often been the case under Bill Snyder, K-State emerged as a thorn in the side of its foes. The Wildcats finished 8-5 overall and 5-4 in conference play after rebounding to win five of their final six games, including a 35-17 victory over UCLA in the Cactus Bowl that helped the team carry momentum into the offseason.
Expectations are likely to be lower in 2018. Nevertheless, with a veteran offense and a knack for rebuilding through a collection of junior college transfers, walk-ons, undervalued high school recruits and other overachievers, the Wildcats are always a candidate to make life difficult for the rest of the Big 12. Still, several questions remain, and we explore five of the biggest storylines for Kansas State ahead of its upcoming spring practice.
5 Storylines to Watch During Kansas State Spring Practice
1. Quarterback competition
The quarterback position was hit hard by injuries last season, as Jesse Ertz, Alex Delton (above, right) and Skylar Thompson all made starts for the Wildcats. With Ertz now out of eligibility, Delton and Thompson are expected to compete for the starting job. Delton completed 57.6 percent of his passes for 637 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions. He saw significant action in five games and put together his best performance against eventual Big 12 champion Oklahoma in October, completing 12 of his 14 pass attempts fo4 144 yards, a TD and an interception, and rushing for 142 yards and three scores. After missing the final three games of the regular season, Delton returned for the Cactus Bowl and set a career high with 158 rushing yards and scored three more times on the ground while throwing for 52 yards and a touchdown. That performance gives the 6-foot, 200-pound rising junior the edge heading into spring.
But Thompson has great upside, and he won’t give up the job without a fight. Thompson entered his redshirt freshman season as the third-string signal-caller, and made his first career start against West Virginia. Though he struggled against the Mountaineers, Thompson led K-State to a huge 45-40 win over Oklahoma State in Stillwater, and threw a one-yard touchdown pass as time expired to beat rival Iowa State in the regular-season finale. In those two wins, Thompson was a combined 25-for-34 passing (73.5 percent) for 356 yards and four touchdowns without an interception, and he added 105 rushing yards and two TDs on 25 carries. Thompson saw action in eight games and totaled 689 passing yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions, and ran for 267 yards and three scores.
2. Finding a pass rush
Kansas State struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks last season. The Wildcats recorded a 14.9 percent havoc rate, which ranked 81st nationally. K-State ranked sixth in the Big 12 with a total of 24 sacks last season, which ranked 70th in the country, and the Wildcats recorded four of those sacks in the season opener against FCS opponent Central Arkansas. Therefore, K-State ranked No. 90 in sacks against FBS competition. Making matters worse as we look ahead to 2018, the Wildcats will be without four of their top pass rushers from last year. Defensive lineman Will Geary and linebacker Jayd Kirby, who ranked first and second with 4.5 and 4.0 sacks, respectively, have graduated, as have Tanner Wood and Davis Clark, who both tied for fourth with a pair of sacks.
There are potential pass rushers remaining on the roster, including linemen Kyle Ball and Reggie Walker, who combined for 4.5 sacks as sophomores in 2017. Elijah Sullivan, a linebacker, also is expected to return to the starting lineup and should take on a larger role next season. The Wildcats will rely on newcomers, such as junior college transfer Rashaan York, who could compete for early playing time.
3. Filling holes left by early departures
The Kansas State offense was quite young in 2017. In fact, the two-deep depth chart the Wildcats fielded against UCLA in the Cactus Bowl didn’t feature a single senior. In other words, it appeared K-State could have welcomed back all 11 offensive starters for the 2018 season. However, a handful of players opted to leave school.
It wasn’t a shock Byron Pringle declared for the NFL draft. Pringle was an explosive receiver that averaged 24.1 yards per catch on 30 receptions, and led the team with six TDs, and also contributed a touchdown as a kick returner. However, the Wildcats didn’t likely expect to see wideout Dominique Heath and fullback Winston Dimel transfer elsewhere. As of early March, a total of eight Wildcats had announced their intentions to transfer, including backup offensive lineman Breontae Matthews, who like Heath and Dimel, planned to pursue a graduate transfer to play elsewhere in 2018. The defense, which lost five senior starters, also must replace starting cornerback D.J. Reed, another early draft entrant.
Kansas State has often dipped into the junior college ranks for reinforcements, and the 2018 recruiting class includes three incoming defenders. In addition to York, the team added defensive backs Darreyl Patterson and Kevion McGee, who are already enrolled. The Wildcats also signed Luke Sowa, a three-star prospect ranked No. 1 among high school fullbacks by 247Sports, who is already enrolled and could help offset the loss of Dimel. At receiver, Isaiah Zuber, Dalton Schoen and Isaiah Harris are the most experienced returners. Zuber led K-State with 51 receptions last season and ranked second on the team with four touchdowns. Schoen averaged a 20.4 yards per catch and scored three TDs on 23 receptions.
4. Starting over on special teams
The losses of Pringle and Reed won’t only impact the K-State offense and defense, respectively. The pair also played a huge role in the return game as well. Reed averaged 14.9 yards on 17 punt returns, and scored on a 62-yard return against Central Arkansas. He added another touchdown on a kickoff return against Kansas, and averaged 34.2 yards on 17 such returns last season.
In addition to losing their top two return men, the Wildcats must replace Heath, who saw time as a punt returner and kick returner. Matthew McCrane connected on 21 of 26 field goals and 48 of 48 extra points as a senior last season, and his classmate Nick Walsh averaged 43.6 yards on 57 punts. Mitch Lochbihler, who punted twice, kicked off 19 times (McCraine kicked off on 63 occasions, resulting in 33 touchbacks) and served as the team’s holder, and long snapper Drew Scott graduated as well.
To put it another way — every specialist that played a large role for K-State in 2017 is gone. Only Nick McLellan, who made his only PAT attempt last season remains. Such turnover would be difficult to overcome for most teams, and Kansas State faces a particularly difficult task since the unit was so successful. In 2017, K-State ranked No. 2 nationally in Special Teams S&P+ (0.8), including top-10 finishes in field goal value (0.39), punt return success rate (71.4 percent) and kick return success rate (73.2 percent).
5. The annual Bill Snyder question
We’ve done this before. Frankly, we do it every year, but for good reason. Snyder is a coaching legend more than deserving of his place in the College Football Hall of Fame, as well as having his family name on the stadium in which the Wildcats play. Snyder is a seven-time conference coach of the year who has won national awards in three separate seasons, along with two Big 12 titles — an unheard of success story given the sad state of the program when he initially inherited it in 1989.
Snyder is 78 years old and has been on the sidelines in Manhattan for a total of 26 seasons, including the last nine following his return from a three-year retirement in 2005. He has battled cancer, and in January suffered the personal tragedy of the death of one of his grandsons — Matt Snyder, the son of associate head coach Sean Snyder. The assistant Snyder, who also oversees special teams for the Wildcats, has long been his father’s preferred successor. However, it seems unlikely the K-State administration would agree to such a plan when the time comes. So with every passing year the question remains: will this be the final season for Bill Snyder as head coach?
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.