Two key questions, two key players and two key matchups for Kansas State football in 2021
MANHATTAN — The 2020 football season was an emotional rollercoaster for the Kansas State Wildcats, accentuated by a four-game winning streak that included a stunning upset victory at No. 3-ranked Oklahoma, but ending with five straight losses.
The fact that two of those losses came by scores of 45-0 at Iowa State and 69-31 at home against Texas left a bitter taste.
While nearly every team in the country suffered the wrath of the COVID-19 pandemic, none was hit harder than the Wildcats. With a team already short on depth, they held their collective breath each week, worrying if they would have enough healthy players. The fact that they did was small consolation in the end.
Third-year head coach Chris Klieman called it the most challenging year of his coaching career.
"I think all of us learned so much last year," he said. "How do you game plan when four or five of your starters are out on Friday?"
The short answer is, you can't.
And it wasn't just the regular season. The Wildcats faced a major rebuilding job with five new starters on the offensive line, and had no spring practice to break them in. New defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman also lost valuable install time.
That was the bad news. The good news is that this offseason, not to mention preseason camp, was much smoother, even if the COVID threat lingers to some degree.
"The fact that we've had everybody here for the winter, summer and start of fall, we're in much better shape in that respect," Klieman said. "We're better because we have more bodies.
"We're better because when you go out there and watch those guys in the last three weeks of July, summer conditioning, we look bigger, we look stronger (and) we look more athletic."
We will learn more when they open their season against Stanford on Sept. 4 in Arlington, Texas. In the meantime, here are two key questions, players and matchups for this year's Wildcats:
1. Is this the year that the Wildcats' much-maligned receiving corps realizes its potential and allows Courtney Messingham to unwrap his entire offense?
With quarterback Skylar Thompson sidelined for the last seven games, throwing true freshman Will Howard into the fire behind an entirely new offensive line, the Wildcats became all too predictable by season's end. Freshman Deuce Vaughn was a breakout star at running back and led the team in receiving, followed by graduate transfer tight end Briley Moore.
The wide receivers? Chabastin Taylor had 19 catches for 293 yards, Phillip Brooks 15 for 155, Malik Knowles 13 for 204, and the three combined for all of six touchdowns.
"(They need) just to continually show that they can make plays," said Messingham, now in his third year as offensive coordinator. "We have to be a threat down the field and a threat to make big plays."
Knowles, a junior who battled nagging injuries all last season, is the most likely deep threat with 50 career catches for 701 yards and eight touchdowns. Thompson, who decided to return for a super-senior season at quarterback, said he likes what he's seen from Knowles.
"Malik has had a great fall camp," Thompson said. "He's taking command of that receiver room. He's bringing it every single day, working hard, and that entire receivers group has been tremendous."
Senior Landry Weber, sophomore Keenan Garber and sure-handed Hutchinson Community College transfer Tyrone Howell add depth at receiver, and graduate transfer Daniel Imatorbhebhe could be a difference-maker at tight end.
2. After taking a big step backward in 2020, can the Wildcats' defense return to form?
"We need to," head coach Chris Klieman said. "What it all comes down to is explosive plays, and if you can eliminate explosive plays by making open-field tackles and not get beat over the top.
"Ours was more of an issue of missing tackles. We've really emphasized it a bunch in spring and fall (and) I know we have better personnel than we did last year across the board."
Injuries and COVID-19 had a devastating effect last year on a defense lacking in depth to begin with. First-year defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman was constantly plugging holes, often with inexperienced backups, which made for a difficult situation all around.
"Joe is one of the most intelligent football guys I've ever been around, and I'm excited for him because I think your first year you learn so much about yourself, more than you do about being a defensive coordinator and calling things," Klieman said of Klanderman, who also was on his staff at North Dakota State. "I know he'll have a good year."
Gone are standouts Wyatt Hubert at defensive end, Drew Wiley at defensive tackle and linebackers Justin Hughes and Elijah Sullivan, but the Wildcats added tackle Timmy Horne and cornerback Julius Brents, among others through the transfer portal.
1. Super-senior quarterback Skylar Thompson
Thompson's decision to return as a super-senior after losing most of last year to injury instantly made the Wildcats' offense better. While Will Howard performed admirably in his place as a true freshman, Thompson brings a wealth of experience with 30 career starts, 5,021 career passing yards and 1,083 yards rushing.
Thompson also has been at his best in big games, engineering upset victories each of the last two years over Oklahoma teams ranked in the top five nationally. And just as important, he has showed no ill effects of last year's injury.
"I think the ball is jumping out of his hand, probably, as good as it ever has," said quarterbacks coach Collin Klein.
And there is no substitute for experience.
"The fact of being in a system now for going on your third year, there's confidence," Klieman said. "There's a comfort level, so we're really excited about the way he's playing right now and how that's going to impact our offense."
2. Junior linebacker Daniel Green
Green may not be the Wildcats' most impactful player with just two career starts to his credit, but there may not be one more important to their success.
With veteran starters Justin Hughes and Elijah Sullivan gone, Green and super-senior Cody Fletcher must fill the void and allow some of the younger talent to develop. With Hughes and Sullivan sidelined late in the season, Green had two of his most productive games, recording six tackles against Iowa State and 13 with 1.5 sacks and three tackles for loss against Baylor.
At 6-foot-3, 233 pounds, he can be a disruptive force both against the run and as a pass rusher. He finished the season with 39 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and two pass breakups.
"I think Deuce (Green) and Cody Fletcher have been outstanding," defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman said. "I think they're bringing a level of leadership that they have never brought before."
1. vs. Stanford (11 a.m. Sept. 4 at Arlington, Texas)
Stanford arguably is not even K-State's strongest nonconference opponent — Nevada received more votes in both national polls — but it is hard to argue that there is a more important game for the Wildcats.
With five straight losses to end last season, what better way to put that behind them and set the tone for 2021 than to beat a Power Five program on national television (FS1)?
And let's not forget that K-State traded a home game in exchange for the national exposure and a nice payday, though there also could be recruiting benefits playing in talent-rich Texas.
2. at Oklahoma State (Sept. 25)
If the Stanford game lays the groundwork, the Big 12 opener against an Oklahoma State team that is No. 22 in the USA Today preseason rankings and knocking on the door in the Associated Press poll, can send an even clearer message that the Wildcats are ready to make their mark in the conference.
OSU was 8-3 last year, finishing fourth in the Big 12 at 6-3 and beating Miami (Fla.) in the Cheez-It Bowl.
QB — Skylar Thompson, Will Howard
RB — Deuce Vaughn, Joe Ervin
FB — Mason Barta or Jax Dineen
TE — Daniel Imatorbhebhe, Sammy Wheeler
LT — Cooper Beebe, Carver Willis
LG —Josh Rivas, Hadley Panzer
C — Noah Johnson, Hayden Gillum
RG — Ben Adler, Kaitori Leveston
RT — Christian Duffie, Logan Long
WR — Malik Knowles, Chabastin Taylor
WR — Phillip Brooks, Landry Weber
DE — Bronson Massie, Felix Anudike
DT — Timmy Horne, Robert Hentz
DT — Eli Huggins, Jaylen Pickle
DE — Khalid Duke, Nate Matlack
LB — Cody Fletcher, Austin Moore
LB — Daniel Green, Nick Allen
NB — Reggie Stubblefield, Aamaris Brown
SS — Jahron McPherson, TJ Smith
FS — Russ Yeast, Ross Elder
CB — Julius Brents, Justin Gardner
CB — Ekow Boye-Doe, Tee Denson
K — Ty Zentner or Taiten Winkel
P — Ty Zentner or Jack Blumer
KR — Malik Knowles, Phillip Brooks
PR — Phillip Brooks, Deuce Vaughn