Chris Klieman's tenure as Kansas State's head football coach can be divided into two distinct parts. His first 18 games with the Wildcats were a big-time success that featured 12 victories, a bowl appearance and a contract extension. But the final five games of the 2020 season were all losses, including some shield-your-eyes beatdowns against West Virginia (37–10), Iowa State (45–0) and Texas (69–31) that sent the team tumbling from first to seventh in the Big 12 standings.
That late swoon makes it difficult to predict what will happen this season. Can Klieman guide the Wildcats back to where he had them in those first 18 games? Or will K-State's problems persist even after the challenges of playing during a pandemic fade?
Time will tell, but with key seniors returning and a handful of transfers ready to make an impact, there is reason to feel cautiously optimistic about a quick turnaround.
Previewing Kansas State's Offense for 2021
Skylar Thompson provided the biggest and most welcome news of the offseason when the senior quarterback announced his plans to return to Kansas State for a rare sixth season. The Wildcats were firing on all cylinders last year before he suffered a season-ending injury to his throwing shoulder in the third game against Texas Tech. His return means that K-State will have one of the nation's most experienced passers leading its offense next season, as Thompson has started 30 games in his career. He is one of only two quarterbacks in school history to eclipse 5,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards.
Deuce Vaughn also returns at running back after a sensational freshman season in which he amassed 1,221 all-purpose yards and earned all-conference honors. Both Thompson and Vaughn should benefit from a more experienced offensive line, led by senior center Noah Johnson, blocking in front of them.
Finding other playmakers could be a bit of a challenge, especially at receiver. Chabastin Taylor led the group with just 293 receiving yards last season, and he missed spring practice while recovering from an injury. K-State will likely lean on Malik Knowles as its top receiving threat, along with Phillip Brooks and Keenan Garber. Klieman is hoping Illinois transfer Daniel Imatorbhebhe can provide a versatile option at tight end; the player he is helping to replace, Briley Moore, caught 22 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns.
Joe Ervin and Jacardia Wright may also be asked to play larger roles within the offense behind Vaughn at running back.
Previewing Kansas State's Defense for 2021
Joe Klanderman's unit will look quite a bit different next season without Wyatt Hubert up front, Elijah Sullivan and Justin Hughes in the middle and AJ Parker on the perimeter. Hubert, a two-time All-Big 12 selection, will be particularly difficult to replace after leading the Wildcats with 8.5 sacks in 2020. But Kansas State won't lack for talent or experience on this side of the ball thanks to the addition of four potential impact transfers and the return of some key "super seniors."
The best transfer of the group appears to be Julius Brents, who will play cornerback for the Wildcats after beginning his college career at Iowa. His size and physicality should make him the team's top coverage man. But K-State will also rely on Louisville transfer Russ Yeast at safety, Utah State transfer Eric Munoz at linebacker and Charlotte transfer Timmy Horne at defensive tackle. They all hit the ground running in spring practice.
Jahron McPherson is back as the "quarterback of the defense" at safety, and so is Bronson Massie to help provide a pass rush at defensive end. Linebacker might be the biggest question mark for this unit. Daniel Green and Cody Fletcher played out of necessity at times last season, but they have never been starters before. Are they ready to take a big step forward? There is less uncertainty in the secondary, where Ekow Boye-Doe, Justin Gardner and TJ Smith all bring experience.
Previewing Kansas State's Specialists for 2021
The Wildcats are on the lookout for a new placekicker following the departure of Blake Lynch (12-of-17 on field goals last season). Senior Ty Zentner could take over those responsibilities, after handling both kickoffs and punts last season. But if that is too much work for one specialist, Jack Blumer or Owen Lawson could also see some action. Kansas State should be good to go on returns with Brooks back as a junior. He has three punt return touchdowns to his name already. Knowles, Yeast, Ervin and others could also be in the mix.
K-State has enough new talent and returning experience to climb back up the Big 12 standings this season. Nothing seems to trump veteran quarterbacks in college football, and the Wildcats have one in Thompson. But there are question marks elsewhere. We will find out quickly what K-State is made of. The Wildcats open the season against Stanford at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, although a couple of highly winnable games follow that one.
National Ranking: 53
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(Skylar Thompson photo courtesy of K-State Athletics)