The Kansas State Wildcats have a new head coach and several new faces at important positions heading into the 2019 spring practice period. Kansas State turned to former North Dakota State head coach Chris Klieman to take over following the retirement of Bill Snyder — a move that was celebrated among many in the college football media, but also was met with grumbles from a vocal minority of the Wildcats' fan base. Klieman, who has seven FCS national championship rings (three as an assistant and four as head coach), has the unenviable task of replacing a Hall of Fame coach and program legend while also attempting to turn around a team that won just five games last year — its lowest total since 2008.
The Kansas State program is similar in many respects to Klieman's previous one. First of all, the university is located far from the recruiting hotbeds of Florida, Georgia, and California. Even recruiting in Texas poses a logistical challenge despite the fact the Lone Star State is a large part of the Big 12 footprint. Yet Klieman successfully recruited Middle America for the Bison, having played a role in unearthing highly skilled players, such as Carson Wentz, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, and has a penchant for developing under-the-radar recruits into winners — similar to how Snyder relied heavily on junior college transfers and walk-ons with the Wildcats.
The Wildcats also have a rabid fan base. The Fargodome was the center of the college football landscape in North Dakota and, largely, the FCS level, during Klieman’s time at NDSU. Yet the facility holds just 19,000 on Saturdays, compared to the 50,000-plus that fill Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan on a weekly basis.
Many Kansas State fans have warmed up to Klieman as he and his coaching staff hit the recruiting trail over the winter. But what will they have to work with this spring? As the Wildcats prepare to hit the practice field, we explore five things to watch.
5 Storylines to Watch During Kansas State’s Spring Practice
1. New head coach Chris Klieman
Kansas State fans are in a peculiar situation. Bill Snyder is one of college football’s legendary coaches. His name is literally on the stadium in which the Wildcats play. Nevertheless, a growing number of fans believed it was time for Snyder to step down after seeing the Wildcats’ win total fall for three consecutive seasons. Of course, those fans also remember the last time Snyder retired. It didn’t go well.
Klieman also is in a peculiar situation. He has succeeded an elite head coach before, having taken over for multiple national title winner Craig Bohl at North Dakota State when Bohl left for Wyoming. Klieman, who was an assistant under Bohl before his promotion, is therefore used to continuing a well-established tradition. And it worked out very well, with Klieman keeping the Bison machine rolling, and posting a 69-6 overall record while also adding four FCS National Championship trophies to the program tally, including back-to-back titles in 2017 and '18.
But this time, Klieman inherits a program coming off a losing season. He also hasn’t worked at the FBS level since a one-year stint at Kansas in 1997 — and his lack of experience at college football’s highest levels was a commonly voiced concern among early critics of the hire. Furthermore, Snyder — unlike Bohl — didn’t move on to take a job in the Mountain West. All indications are Snyder will stay close to the program, so the long shadow he has created in Manhattan isn’t completely gone. Klieman has a proven winning track record, but the Kansas State job is a much different animal and includes a much different path to success compared to North Dakota State.
2. Turnover in the running game
Kansas State ranked dead last in the Big 12 and No. 111 nationally in scoring in 2018 (22.5 ppg), but the Wildcats nevertheless produced the top rusher in the conference. Alex Barnes ran for 1,355 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior, and then made the decision to enter the NFL draft. Barnes’ departure, as well as the transfer of quarterback Alex Delton and the graduation of backup running backs Dalvin Warmack and Justin Silmon, leaves quarterback Skylar Thompson and wide receiver Isaiah Zuber as the only returning Kansas State players who had a carry last year. Overall, Klieman inherited a roster that returned just 17.8 percent of its rushing production from 2018 — the lowest in the Big 12, the lowest among all Power 5 programs, and one of the five lowest among all FBS programs.
With those personnel losses, the projected running back depth chart looks much different. Ball State transfer James Gilbert will play his senior season with the Wildcats, and he should be the primary ball carrier. Gilbert ran for 2,806 yards and 27 touchdowns in four seasons (he played just three contests in 2017 and received a medical redshirt) with the Cardinals. He gained 659 yards on the ground and seven TDs in 11 games, missing one with an injury, last year. Similar to the Kansas State offense in 2018, Ball State largely struggled to score during Gilbert’s career there. However, like Barnes, Gilbert was largely able to produce solid rushing totals.
The group behind Gilbert is an unknown. Tyler Burns appeared in every game on special teams in 2017 but was not a member of the squad last season. Harry Trotter appeared in nine games at Louisville in 2017 before transferring and sitting out this past season. Fullback Luke Sowa was a highly regarded member of the 2018 recruiting class but didn’t see the field last year because of injury. The rest of the group consists of part-time punter Bernardo Rodriguez, inexperienced walk-ons, fullbacks (including returning starter Adam Harter) and freshmen — one of whom could push for a backup role immediately this fall, but none of whom are listed on the spring roster.
Though often lacking as a passer, Thompson is a proven commodity in the running game. Top recruit Chris Herron, categorized as an athlete expected to get a shot to play quarterback for the Wildcats, also could play a role once he arrives this fall.
3. Replacing Dalton Risner
Gilbert, Thompson, and whoever else winds up carrying the football for the Wildcats in 2019 will run behind an offensive line that returns three full-time starters — rising seniors Scott Frantz, Adam Holtorf and Tyler Mitchell. Together, the trio has combined to start 93 games for the Wildcats. Those three along with Josh Rivas and Nick Kaltmayer give Kansas State five guys up front who have started a total of 96 games.
Since 2010, the average FBS program has returned an average of 65.3 starts along the offensive line — so the Wildcats aren’t lacking for experience. However, there also is no direct correlation between returning experience among offensive linemen and winning. The talent of the players either coming or going is much more important, and Kansas State lost one of the most talented offensive linemen in college football.
Risner was a three-time All-Big 12 performer, who also earned All-American recognition from a host of media outlets, and was named the 2019 Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year by the coaches. He was a mainstay on national award watch lists for both his performance on the field, as well as good works off it. Risner was a 50-game starter and three-year captain who began his career at center in 2015 before moving to right tackle, and his graduation leaves a big hole on the Wildcats' offensive line.
Mitchell spent some time at right tackle in 2018, and Kaltmayer started at that spot in the Cactus Bowl in '17. One could be the full-time answer in 2019.
4. Building blocks on the defensive line
While the new coaching staff must deal with the loss of one of the greatest offensive linemen in the history of the program, it will have the benefit of a defensive line that returns all four starters and every major contributor from 2018. Rising senior Reggie Walker has proved himself to be one of the most productive defensive ends in the Big 12. Walker was named Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2016, and he was named Second Team All-Big 12 in '17. Last year, he recorded 7.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss in 12 games.
On the other side of the defensive line, Kyle Ball earned Honorable Mention All-Big 12 recognition from the coaches in the conference, which also is what defensive tackle Trey Dishon received in 2017. Jordan Mittie, an Honorable Mention All-Sun Belt Conference performer at Texas State in 2017, emerged as a starter after his transfer to Kansas State and has impressed. Fellow linemen Wyatt Hubert and Joe Davies also have spent time atop the defensive line depth chart for the Wildcats and provide quality depth.
The Wildcats' defensive line was far from perfect and the lack of a pass rush (last in the Big 12 with 18 sacks last year) played a role in the team’s losing record. But two returnees have been recognized among the best in the conference, another was so chosen in another FBS conference, and the rest of the unit has playing experience as well on which to build in 2019.
5. New starters in the secondary
Texas Tech, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State all ranked among the top 10 teams nationally in passing offense in 2018. Despite the fact that half of those programs have changed head coaches and the other two must replace starting quarterbacks (West Virginia must do both), it’s highly likely all four will continue to find success through the air next season. Baylor and Texas, who ranked No. 19 and No. 35, respectively, are very capable of climbing the national leaderboard in this category. In other words, defending the pass is vital in the Big 12.
Kansas State had some success keeping opponents in check in the passing game, ranking fourth in the league in pass defense (245.8 ypg) and third in yards allowed per attempt (7.0). But three of the players responsible for that success — defensive backs Eli Walker, Kendall Adams and Duke Shelley — have exhausted their eligibility. All three ranked among the top 10 on the team in tackles in 2018 with Walker posting 68 total stops, just two behind linebacker Da’Quan Patton for the team lead. Shelley led the way with three interceptions (earning second-team All-Big 12 honors as a result) and Adams added another.
Klieman and his coaching staff have some building blocks to work with, including starting cornerback A.J. Parker and Denzel Goolsby, both of whom have flashed all-conference potential. Johnathan Durham started each of the last four games at corner and has a good chance to nail down the spot opposite Parker. Walter Neil Jr. was a part-time starter and has a chance to claim one of the spots atop the depth chart as well.
Nevertheless, there will be a great deal of competition in the secondary this spring. Jahron McPherson, Kevion McGee, Lance Robinson, and Darreyl Patterson have all earned playing time in the past, and all but Patterson have made at least one start. Another name to note for the future is New Mexico transfer Marcus Hayes, who led the Lobos with two interceptions in 2018 (one of which he returned for a touchdown), and led the nation in punt return average (21.2 ypr). Hayes, a safety, is expected to have to sit out the 2019 season, but the Freshman All-American is sure to push his teammates in the defensive backfield in practice and should strengthen the unit as a whole.
(Top photo courtesy of www.kstatesports.com)