What does Kansas State football look like without Bill Snyder? We're about to find out.
A new era is under way in Manhattan, and Chris Klieman is leading the charge. After an ultra-successful run at North Dakota State that featured four FCS championships in five seasons, he is now trying to replace a legend with the Wildcats.
So far, his coaching personality feels like a hit with K-State players and fans. His "win the dang day" mantra has been embraced by everyone associated with the program, and spring practice was filled with newfound levels of energy.
"He provided a really good spark for our football team right off the bat," K-State quarterback Skylar Thompson says. "Our whole team is already on board."
Klieman is similar to Snyder in some ways. They both demand a great deal from their players, value defense and like to run the ball. But he is also different. He lets players listen to music at practice, uses social media and tries to promote a fun atmosphere. He likes to tell all the recruits he signs that he will both challenge them and love them.
Time will tell what kind of success Klieman will have at K-State. But he seems to be off to a good start.
Previewing Kansas State's Offense for 2019
New offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham will try to breathe some life into a K-State offense that ranked last in the Big 12 a year ago in both scoring offense (22.5 ppg) and total offense (344.7 ypg). That won't be the easiest of tasks considering that the Wildcats lost their top four running backs, including Alex Barnes, who led the conference in rushing as a junior. But K-State does return Thompson at quarterback, the bulk of its offensive line and a solid, if not spectacular, group of receivers.
Coaches have marveled at the growth of Thompson in K-State's new system and believe they have game-changers at receiver. With Dalton Schoen and Malik Knowles returning, K-State should have an improved passing attack. The receiving corps did suffer a setback in May when Isaiah Zuber decided to transfer.
But who is going to carry the ball? That’s a huge question for an offense that figures to lean heavily on the run.
Messingham was Klieman's offensive coordinator at North Dakota State, where he mostly called running plays between the tackles and passed the ball just enough to keep defenses off balance. Ball State graduate transfer James Gilbert will likely start at running back after rushing for 2,806 yards with the Cardinals — including 1,332 with 12 touchdowns in 2016 — but Klieman likes to use multiple running backs. That means the Wildcats will also rely on true freshmen Thomas Grayson, Clyde Price and Joe Ervin. North Carolina graduate transfer Jordon Brown will also push for time in the fall.
Previewing Kansas State's Defense for 2019
Klieman is a defensive coach, and his fingerprints will be all over this side of the ball this season. Fans can expect the Wildcats to play more aggressively under their new head coach and defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton. That means that corners will play close to the line of scrimmage, and linebackers might blitz more often.
The Wildcats do have some nice returning talent on defense. Trey Dishon and Reggie Walker will lead the way up front. Both are three-year starters on the defensive line and seem poised for strong final seasons.
Linebacker is more or a question mark. The Wildcats have two proven players returning in DaQuan Patton and Elijah Sullivan, but they lost Justin Hughes to a torn ACL in spring practice. Hughes came on strong late last season and seemed to be emerging as the team’s top linebacker. His absence will hurt K-State in terms of talent and depth.
There could be some questions in the secondary, though. Denzel Goolsby and AJ Parker will try and lead a group that must replace Kendall Adams, Duke Shelley and Eli Walker. Walter Neil Jr. should give the unit a boost at nickel back.
K-State was good against the run last season, allowing 157.7 yards per game, but struggled at times against the pass, surrendering 245.8 per game.
Previewing Kansas State's Specialists for 2019
The Wildcats will take a different approach on special teams this season. Instead of dedicating one coordinator to that phase of the game, they will call on every assistant coach on staff to help the unit in some small way.
Blake Lynch is back at placekicker after making 14-of-16 field goals as a sophomore. Devin Anctil returns at punter after booming some nice kicks last season. With Zuber transferring, the Wildcats will go in a new direction with several skill players battling to step into the return roles.
Nobody has meant more to K-State football than Snyder, but he didn't leave Klieman with a roster that appears ready to contend for a Big 12 championship. It won’t be easy for the Wildcats to replace departing players such as Risner, Barnes and Shelley. Perhaps they have enough returning talent to top their 5–7 record from a year ago and become bowl eligible, but Klieman has already pointed out several freshmen who will be relied on to play immediately. Major holes at running back and in the secondary will make it hard for Klieman to win big right away.