Another year, another winning record and bowl game for the Kansas State Wildcats. Despite lacking the resources to land blue-chip recruits, Kansas State has been a model of consistency under head coach Bill Snyder. The 77-year-old continues to defy the odds, and last season guided the Wildcats to a 9-4 record, including six wins over the final seven games of the season. K-State capped off another successful run with a 33-28 victory over Texas A&M in the Texas Bowl – its seventh consecutive postseason appearance. The Wildcats have finished with a winning record in six of the past seven seasons.
Quarterback Jesse Ertz is one of eight starters returning on offense, and defensive end Reggie Walker and defensive back D.J. Reed headline six returning starters from a unit that was the best in the Big 12 last season. With Snyder at the helm, the momentum of a successful 2016 campaign and an experienced core, hopes are high that K-State can take the next step and contend for a Big 12 title in '17.
5 Storylines to Watch During Kansas State’s Spring Practice
1. High Expectations
Kansas State has a rich history of overachieving under head coach Bill Snyder, and the 2016 season was a great example. Picked by most preseason publications to finish in the bottom half of the Big 12 and struggle to make a bowl game, K-State finished 9-4 overall and 6-3 in conference play. Each of the four teams that beat the Wildcats won at least 10 games and finished in the top 20 of the final AP poll.
As a result, Kansas State enters this spring with unusually high expectations. Optimism is high in Manhattan because quarterback Jesse Ertz returns along with most of his top playmakers and a solid offensive line, and it’s likely the media will put K-State in the preseason Top 25. Expect many to peg the Wildcats as a dark horse candidate to win the Big 12.
While Snyder is one of the most respected head coaches in the game, his teams rarely enter a season with such high praise. Over the past eight years (since Snyder returned from retirement), the Wildcats have been ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 twice – neither time higher than No. 20. That’s likely to change in 2017. How will K-State respond?
2. Efficiency on Offense
Few would describe the 2016 Kansas State offense as explosive. The Wildcats ranked ninth in the Big 12 in total offense (388.8 ypg) and yards per play (5.74). The unit ranked dead last in the league in passing with just 157.0 yards per game – 83.4 fewer yards than the next closest team. However, the Wildcats ranked in the middle of the pack in scoring offense (32.2 ppg) in a conference that featured two of the top five scoring offenses in the nation, plus a third that ranked No. 17.
However, it’s fair to describe the 2016 Kansas State offense as efficient. According to Bill Connelly’s Success Rate efficiency metric, the Wildcats ranked 13th nationally. K-State also ranked No. 28 in the country with 4.91 points per trip inside the 40-yard line, and benefitted from field position on both offense (No. 23) and defense (No. 13), which set the team up to capitalize on its scoring chances.
With a team-leading 1,012 rushing yards and 12 TDs, Ertz guided a strong running game that ranked fourth in the Big 12 with 231.8 rushing yards per contest, but was second in yards per carry (5.27). Top running back Charles Jones graduated, but junior Justin Silmon ran for 210 yards across the final two games of last season, sophomore Alex Barnes tallied back-to-back 100-yard games against Baylor and Kansas, and fullback Winston Dimel matched Ertz’s 12 scores on the ground. That group also will run behind what should be one of the Big 12’s best offensive lines in 2017.
Running the football well also allows the Wildcats to run the clock. K-State led the Big 12 in time of possession (32:35), and while it may not be the sexiest stat in college football these days, this is a big reason why the Wildcats were able to dictate the pace of most of their games. By regulating the tempo, K-State was able to keep things close, especially against more talented teams. As several teams found out during the season, it’s dangerous to let the Wildcats hang around all game.
3. Rebuilding the Linebacker Corps
The offense is in great shape heading into spring practice (though offseason shoulder surgery is likely to limit Ertz), but there are more questions on the defensive side of the football. The linebacker corps, in particular, is the biggest question mark heading into 2017.
Starters Elijah Lee and Charmeachealle Moore combined for 22.8 percent of the Wildcats tackles from last season. Lee, who declared early for the NFL Draft, led the team by a large margin with 91 total tackles, and he also had 6.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, three pass breakups and a forced fumble. Moore, who graduated, ranked third on the team with 64.5 tackles, to go along with four TFLs, half a sack and two pass breakups. Will Davis and Colborn Couchman also are gone.
That leaves a group of relatively untested linebackers to compete this spring. Seniors Trent Tanking and Jayd Kirby, juniors Sam Sizelove and Da’Quan Patton (a well-regarded junior college transfer), sophomores Elijah Sullivan and Justin Hughes are all in the mix. Freshmen Daniel Green and Danny Walker will join the competition this summer.
Tanking, Kirby and Sizelove all saw action in every game last year, but combined for just 25.5 total tackles, one interception and zero sacks. With top pass rusher and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jordan Willis (team-high 11.5 sacks, 17.5 TFLs) also out of eligibility, there is concern surrounding a unit that ranked first in the Big 12 in total defense (387.7 ypg) last season.
4. Newcomers to Know
Kansas State has been one of the most consistently successful programs in the nation at tapping into junior colleges to find replacements for departed contributors. The aforementioned Patton has the talent to grab a starting spot in the linebacker corps this spring. Rangy edge rusher Xavier Davis – a 6-foot-6, 235-pound junior college transfer from Pima (Ariz.) Community College – won’t be taking part in spring practice, but he could push for early playing time this fall.
Another intriguing name to watch is wide receiver Carlos Strickland, who arrived in Manhattan as a transfer from Cal and sat out 2016. A 6-foot-4 former four-star recruit, Strickland should fit in nicely with a receiving corps that includes deep threat Byron Pringle (39 receptions, 631 yards, 4 TD) and dependable wideout Dominique Heath (45, 438, 3).
Also, though they aren’t technically newcomers, fans should have an opportunity to see the future of the quarterback position this spring. Alex Delton and Skylar Thompson should get the majority of the snaps this spring because Ertz is questionable to participate in live action as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. Delton saw limited action as a freshman in 2016. Thompson, a redshirt freshman, is one of the most highly regarded QB recruits Snyder has landed at K-State.
5. Will Bill Snyder's Health Impact 2017?
To say Snyder is a legend at Kansas State is a massive understatement. After all, the Wildcats play their games in Bill Snyder Family Stadium. Snyder took over a program with the worst overall record in Division I in the midst of a 27-game losing streak, and quietly turned it into a consistent winner. Now, K-State is a national brand with high expectations for the 2017 season.
Unfortunately, Snyder was diagnosed with throat cancer over the offseason. At age 77, Snyder has 25 years on the sidelines with the Wildcats, the last eight following his return from a first retirement. There’s been plenty of chatter in recent years that Snyder’s second tenure as head coach is winding down, and given the cancer diagnosis, it wouldn’t be surprising if the 2017 season were to be Snyder’s last at the helm.
Nevertheless, Snyder has made a Hall of Fame career out of proving prognosticators wrong. He’s not expected to skip a beat this spring, and hasn’t given any hint that he’s ready to retire again. Given the success of the program under his direction, including last year’s strong performance, there’s little reason to believe Snyder will let this limit him this year.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Kansas State in the Big 12
Following a strong end to last season, and the talent that returns, the Wildcats are likely to begin the season in the Top 25. There is legitimate optimism that Kansas State can earn a spot in the new Big 12 Championship Game – and for good reason.
The offense is already solid, and the running game should help the Wildcats control the pace of play again in 2017. With an experienced QB in Jesse Ertz, a talented and improved group of wide receivers, and a strong offensive line, the Wildcats have an opportunity to be more explosive in 2017. K-State must replace some key pieces on defense – especially in the front seven – but the Wildcats have been able to reload on a regular basis under Snyder, and this should be no different.
The schedule includes a tough midseason stretch, but Kansas State gets Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma and West Virginia at home. The Wildcats will travel to Stillwater to play Oklahoma State, but that game is in November, a part of the season when Bill Snyder-coached teams are often at their best. Another bowl game and winning season should be a lock, and there’s an opportunity to make 2017 a special season.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.