College football experts like to say there is nothing more dangerous than a winning team that returns both its head coach and its starting quarterback.
This season, Kansas State is out to prove that it can win big with a different type of experienced duo.
Skylar Thompson is gone at quarterback, but head coach Chris Klieman is back, and so is star running back Deuce Vaughn. That alone should be enough for K-State fans to feel cautiously optimistic about the Wildcats' ability to build on their 8–5 season from a year ago, which ended with a dominant victory over LSU in the Texas Bowl.
Vaughn is one of the most versatile weapons in the Big 12, if not the nation. The junior running back is coming off a season in which he amassed 1,872 yards from scrimmage and scored 22 touchdowns. So long as new quarterback Adrian Martinez can continue getting Vaughn the ball, K-State shouldn't have problems moving the chains in 2022.
There is stability in Manhattan, like when a team returns its starting quarterback. If K-State can fix a few holes on defense, this could be Klieman's best season yet with the Wildcats.
Previewing Kansas State's Offense for 2022
Vaughn returns as the focal point of the offense. The 5'6" running back has been such a dynamo for the Wildcats that he can lead the team in both rushing yards and receptions on any given Saturday. But that doesn't mean K-State will be a one-man show on this side of the ball. Collin Klein, a former star quarterback in Manhattan, has been promoted to offensive coordinator, and he wants to bring a more aggressive, up-tempo attack to Bill Snyder Family Stadium. That will be a big change from the methodical approach of his predecessors. But players raved about the new system during spring practice.
Martinez, who spent the past four seasons starting for Nebraska, seems like an ideal fit to run the new-look offense as a graduate transfer. He is best known as a dual-threat passer, and his running ability will keep defenses off-balance by using misdirection plays that feature Vaughn. And he should have no problem connecting with veteran receivers like Malik Knowles, Phillip Brooks and Chabastin Taylor.
Underappreciated by Nebraska fans, Martinez piled up an impressive stat profile during his time in Lincoln, passing for 8,491 yards and 45 touchdowns and rushing for 2,301 yards and 35 scores.
Kansas State did lose some quality offensive linemen and a talented tight end from last year's roster. Those holes may not be simple to fill. But there are more than enough pieces returning for Klein to mold the offense into a unit that is capable of winning the Big 12 shootouts that pop up frequently.
Previewing Kansas State's Defense for 2022
The Wildcats should be ready to roll near the line of scrimmage, but there are questions for defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman to answer in the secondary. Kansas State coaches were overjoyed when key contributors like Eli Huggins (defensive tackle) and Daniel Green (linebacker) opted to return for another year with the Wildcats. With star pass rusher Felix Anudike-Uzomah returning along with Nate Matlack at defensive end, and Khalid Duke coming back from injury in a linebacker/defensive end hybrid role, the Wildcats are very confident in their defensive front.
They will be good to go in that area as long as they can identify a quality linebacker to pair with Green. Keep an eye on transfer Will Honas there.
Much less is certain in the secondary. Kansas State needs to replace several starters after losing Reggie Stubblefield, Russ Yeast, Ross Elder and Jahron McPherson at safety. The Wildcats will most likely turn to some combination of Josh Hayes, Kobe Savage, Cincere Mason and Shawn Robinson to fill those voids. The good news is that Julius Brents and Ekow Boye-Doe are both back as expected starters at cornerback.
Related: Big 12 Football Predictions for 2022
Previewing Kansas State's Specialists for 2022
Opposing teams might need to get creative whenever they kick to the Wildcats. Knowles returned a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns last season. Brooks has returned multiple punts for touchdowns in his career.
The kicking specialists are solid as well. Chris Tennant is back to handle field goals after taking over those duties in the last half of the season. Jack Blumer will handle most punts. Ty Zentner, with a career average of 42.5 yards on 68 punts, is also back as a "super senior" to help in myriad ways with the kicking game.
Klieman, who went 69–6 in five seasons as head coach at North Dakota State, has led Kansas State to a pair of eight-win seasons and two bowl games since he took over in 2019, but the Wildcats haven't contended for a conference championship under his guidance.
Perhaps that will change this year. If Martinez can hit the ground running at quarterback and K-State can fill a few holes on defense, this has the makings of his best team yet.
But Kansas State will play a tricky nonconference game against Missouri, and the Big 12 is never easy. The Wildcats' final record will probably come down to how they perform in toss-up games. This season may reveal a lot about Klieman's coaching acumen.
National Ranking: 41
Podcast: Complete Breakdown of the Big 12 for 2022 + Predictions and Rankings