Thanks to injuries and inconsistency at key positions, the Kansas State Wildcats were one of the streakiest teams in college football in 2015.
Kansas State swept its three-game non-conference slate to open the schedule, then dropped six games in a row to open Big 12 play, including heartbreakers to ranked Oklahoma State, TCU and Baylor squads, and a humiliating 55-0 loss to eventual conference champion Oklahoma. As Bill Snyder-coached teams often do, the Wildcats responded. Kansas State beat Iowa State and Kansas as expected, before edging West Virginia 24-23 in the regular season finale to earn a spot in the Liberty Bowl.
The Liberty Bowl did not go the Wildcats’ way, as they lost 45-23 to Arkansas, to finish the season at 6-7. Now the focus shifts to 2016 as Kansas State opens spring practice in preparation for what the Wildcats hope will eventually result in a seventh consecutive bowl appearance.
5 Storylines to Watch During Kansas State’s Spring Practice
1. Quarterback Competition
The topic on everyone’s mind heading into Kansas State spring practice is the quarterback competition. Jesse Ertz won the starting job last year but suffered a season-ending injury in the opener. Many expected Alex Delton to ascend to the top of the depth chart at some point last season as a true freshman, but a knee injury held him back.
As a result, Joe Hubener was on the receiving end of the majority of the offensive snaps for the Wildcats last season. He had his struggles as a passer, completing just 47.6 percent of his attempts for 1,837 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Hubener did carry the football a team-high 180 times for 613 yards (second only to Charles Jones’ 696) and scored 13 touchdowns on the ground, which was more than twice as many as any other player on the team.
Hubener, a senior that started 11 regular season games last year, certainly has the edge in experience, but his inconsistency led to the coaching staff to rely on former receiver Kody Cook down the stretch. Simply put, it’s a wide-open race as both Delton and Ertz are quite capable of beating Hubener out this spring or fall. The Wildcats will also take a long look at incoming true freshman Skylar Thompson, a four-star recruit and early enrollee that may be the most talented of them all.
2. Rebuilding the Offensive Line
Regardless of who wins the QB job, he’ll be operating behind the least experienced offensive line in the Big 12. Kansas State returns just two players that have combined to make 17 total starts on the offensive line. By contrast, every other team in the league returns at least 25 career starts.
Rising sophomore center Dalton Risner, who made 13 starts as a redshirt freshman last season, and Manhattan, Kan., native Terrale Johnson, who made four starts last year, are the only returning offensive linemen with any starting experience. Johnson played left guard primarily and has the inside track for a starting position heading into the spring, while fellow 2015 backups Will Ash and Bryce Fitzner are also likely to figure into the starting lineup.
Expect A.J. Allen and Jason Lierz to also state their case for a spot on the first team this spring, alongside fellow challengers Ajanhe Brager, Alec Ruth and a host of redshirt freshmen and newcomers.
3. Finding Offensive Playmakers
As if questions surrounding the quarterback position and offensive line weren’t enough, the coaching staff will be looking for a few playmakers to step up this spring as well. Tyler Lockett and Curry Sexton combined for 2,574 receiving yards in 2014 (each with more than 79 catches and 1,000 yards) but Deante Burton led the Wildcats with 38 receptions, 510 receiving yards and four touchdowns as a junior last season. Burton has good size (6-2, 205) and has been a key contributor on special teams, but he needs to step up to become an all-conference-level weapon like Lockett and Sexton.
Burton, whose 77-yard touchdown catch helped spark the team’s comeback in the 24-23 victory over West Virginia in the regular season finale, will team with receivers Winston Dimel (8 rec., 261 yds., 2 TDs), Dominique Heath (28-313-3), and Zach Reuter (6-47-0) to give the Wildcats a solid, but thin receiving corps.
The running back position is deeper, but has yet to live up to expectations. Charles Jones averaged 4.9 yards per carry, but gained just 696 rushing yards with five touchdowns, while backup Justin Silmon added 355 rushing yards and scored twice on 78 carries as a freshman. Kansas State likes to run its quarterback, which helped the Wildcats avoid an embarrassingly low rushing total, but the Wildcats still gained only 157.7 yards on the ground per game last year, which ranked an uncharacteristic eighth in the conference and 86th in the nation.
4. Replacing Key Contributors on Defense
There are fewer question marks regarding the defensive personnel than there are on offense heading into 2016. For instance, Will Geary has All-Big 12 potential at defensive tackle and cornerback Duke Shelley also could push for a spot on the all-conference team. Jordan Willis ranked second in the conference a year ago with 9.5 sacks, while Elijah Lee leads a linebacker corps that could make a strong case as the best in the Big 12.
But, Kansas State must replace a few key contributors on a defense that finished in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 with an average of 452.2 total yards allowed per game last season. Marquel Bryant and Travis Britz, who combined for 9.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for a loss last season, must be replaced on the defensive line, as well as safety Morgan Burns, who recorded one of the unit’s five interceptions in 2015.
The defense should receive a boost from the return of safety Dante Barnett, who suffered a season-ending injury in the 2015 opener and missed the rest of the year. Barnett, a senior defensive back with 29 career starts under his belt, received an extra year of eligibility as the result of a medical redshirt.
5. Will 2016 Be the Last Hurrah for Bill Snyder?
Snyder is one of the true legends in college football. It’s rare for active coaches to pace the sidelines in a stadium that already bears his name, but Snyder certainly deserves the honor after leading a monumental turnaround in Manhattan and winning 193 games across 25 years as the head coach of the Wildcats. Of course, Snyder is 76 years old and has already retired once – a decade ago. It shouldn’t shock anyone if he steps away at some point in 2016.
Pre-Spring Kansas State Outlook in the Big 12
Though Kansas State isn’t nearly as talented as Big 12 rivals Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas and TCU, it shouldn’t be a surprise if this team challenges for a Big 12 title in 2016. After all, the Wildcats have been surprising us for a quarter century under Snyder by relying on underrated recruits, junior college transfers and walk-ons.
However, the schedule is tougher, especially the season opener on the road against Stanford, which represents a significant upgrade in non-conference competition. Also, the Wildcats open Big 12 play at West Virginia, and will face the Sooners, Bears and Horned Frogs on the road.
A seventh straight bowl game is a worthy and achievable goal, and while a conference title isn’t expected, the Wildcats are never far away – especially if a quarterback emerges.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work can also be found on SaturdayDownSouth.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.