After years of championship football at North Dakota State, Chris Klieman proved his system could also produce victories in the Big 12 during his debut season at Kansas State. The Wildcats surpassed all expectations by winning eight games with Klieman as their new head coach last year.
Now it’s time for Klieman to prove he can sustain winning seasons at a Power 5 level. That might be a challenge considering all the key players K-State lost during the offseason. The Wildcats said goodbye to 28 seniors, 15 of whom were starters.
But K-State’s roster isn’t void of talent. The Wildcats will look to reload more than rebuild behind the leadership of senior quarterback Skylar Thompson and senior linebacker Justin Hughes.
External expectations will be mixed for K-State next season, but they will once again be high in Manhattan. They always are when Klieman is involved.
Previewing Kansas State's Offense for 2020
All eyes will be on Thompson as he closes out his college career as a four-year starter. It seems like just yesterday that injuries thrust Thompson into action as a freshman, when he led K-State to a bowl game. He has grown considerably on and off the field since then. His evolution was most noticeable last season, as he guided the Wildcats to eight victories and a trip to the Liberty Bowl by throwing for 2,315 yards, running for 405 yards and accounting for 23 total touchdowns. Klieman has praised him at every turn, saying he has what it takes to follow in the footsteps of Carson Wentz and Easton Stick, the coach’s two best signal callers at NDSU.
Thompson’s challenge this season will be learning to take a few more chances in the passing game and get young playmakers like Joshua Youngblood and Malik Knowles more involved. K-State might be able to utilize its tight ends in a more versatile way following the offseason acquisition of Briley Moore. The Northern Iowa graduate transfer topped 1,000 receiving yards with the Panthers and should provide an extra threat in the passing game that was missing last year.
At running back, Harry Trotter, Jacardia Wright and Joe Ervin will likely split carries.
There are several questions about who will block, though. K-State lost all five of its starters on the offensive line to graduation, meaning the Wildcats will look completely different up front. Offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham is hopeful that new faces like Josh Rivas, Cooper Beebe and Noah Johnson will rise to the occasion and continue to pave the way for his run-oriented attack.
If that’s the case, K-State may well improve on offense next season. But only Rivas has seen significant playing time on the offensive line. For now, it’s a question mark.
Previewing Kansas State's Defense for 2020
Hughes was supposed to be the heart and soul of K-State’s defense last season, but the versatile linebacker missed every game after suffering a torn ACL during spring practice. He will get another chance this year after receiving a medical redshirt.
That is excellent news for the Wildcats, as he was the team’s top overall defender near the end of 2018, finishing the season with 56 tackles.
Klieman loves what he has coming back at linebacker with Elijah Sullivan and Hughes, especially with capable tacklers Daniel Green and Cody Fletcher providing depth behind them.
But it’s not all perfect news for this side of the ball. K-State lost its defensive coordinator, Scottie Hazelton, to Michigan State. The Wildcats showed promise under him last season, ranking second in the Big 12 in points allowed per game (21.4) and fourth in yards allowed per game (368.4). Klieman decided to replace him by promoting defensive backs coach Joe Klanderman.
That will provide some continuity in the coaching box, especially after the secondary was the strength of K-State’s defense last season, allowing only 202.9 passing yards per game.
But the Wildcats will need to find some answers on the defensive line and in the secondary. Wyatt Hubert returns after a stellar sophomore season at defensive end, but the Wildcats will be without Reggie Walker, Trey Dishon and Jordan Mittie up front. Hubert will need help so he can avoid double teams as a pass rusher.
The Wildcats must also replace longtime starter Denzel Goolsby at free safety and Kevion McGee at cornerback.
Previewing Kansas State's Specialists for 2020
It will be interesting to see how often opposing teams are brave enough to kick the ball to Joshua Youngblood in return situations. Youngblood was electric as a returner during his freshman season at K-State, returning three kicks for touchdowns and emerging as the top home-run threat in the conference.
K-State will also be solid on field goals with Blake Lynch returning. He connected on 19-of-21 kicks last season. Punter will be a question mark. All signs point to Ty Zentner taking over for Devin Anctil, but Anctil was one of the top punters in the Big 12, if not the nation, last year.
K-State is blessed with a favorable schedule that will provide an opportunity to pile up early victories. Things will get more difficult as the season progresses, but a hot start with a veteran QB could build momentum and help the Cats keep winning as they contend for another top-three finish in the Big 12.
National Ranking: 46
(Top photo courtesy of K-State Athletics)