Spring football is drawing to a close throughout the Big 12, and teams have started gaining more clarity as to what their 2021 squads are going to look like. As they head into summer workouts, we’ll get into some tentative impressions of all the teams, providing a projection of offensive and defensive starters for the upcoming season (returning starters in bold) as well as some post-spring observations.
The Wildcats wrapped up practices in early April, and will be looking to move forward after a 4-6 performance a year ago. Entering his third season at the helm, head coach Chris Klienman likely wants to focus on getting the Wildcats into the win column more often than not. Kansas State used the transfer portal to make a few additions, and they look ready to be an above-.500 team again, but only time will tell if the Wildcats can put it all together to become serious Big 12 title contenders. Below are some takeaways and questions following Kansas State’s 2021 spring practices.
|PROJECTED 2021 STARTERS|
|LT||Christian Duffie (Jr.)||DE||Bronson Massie (Sr.)|
|LG||Josh Rivas (Sr.)||DT||Timmy Horne (Sr.)|
|C||Noah Johnson (Sr.)||DT||Eli Huggins (Sr.)|
|RG||Ben Adler (Sr.)||DE||Khalid Duke (Jr.)|
|RT||Cooper Beebe (So.)||MLB||Daniel Green (Jr.)|
|TE||Daniel Imatorbhebhe (Sr.)||WLB||Cody Fletcher (Sr.)|
|QB||Skylar Thompson (Jr.)||NB||T.J. Smith (Fr.)|
|FB||Jax Dineen (Jr.)||CB||Justin Gardner (Sr.)|
|RB||Deuce Vaughn (So.)||SS||Jahron McPherson (Sr.)|
|WR||Chabastin Taylor (Sr.)||FS||Russ Yeast (Sr.)|
|WR||Malik Knowles (Jr.)||CB||Ekow Boye-Doe (Jr.)|
Can The Wildcats Improve Their Passing Game?
It’ll be critical for Kansas State to have Thompson healthy this season, especially for a unit that needs to improve on 185 passing yards per game in 2020. The Wildcats’ offense took a noticeable dip when their senior signal caller suffered an upper-body injury halfway through last year’s campaign. The good news is that Skylar Thompson’s recovery this spring has been progressing faster than anticipated, to the point where he was able to throw the ball around. Also, pass protection should improve next year, given the loads of experience Kansas State returns along the offensive line.
Returning starters Chabastin Taylor, Malik Knowles, and Phillip Brooks out wide bodes well for the offense. Of course, utilizing a tight end who can catch passes was an asset for both Thompson and his backup Will Howard last year, and a couple of names emerged for the Wildcats there during camp. Daniel Imatorbhebhe, who transferred in from USC and Illinois, could be the answer to replace the departed Briley Moore. The measurables are there for Imatorbhebhe, but he’ll have to live up to that potential in the fall.
Transfers Should Boost The Defense
Defensively, the Wildcats were below-average in multiple categories last season, and continued development will be key this offseason. If nothing else, transfers could add some instant depth to a defense that lost six starters and had an up-and-down season last year with both injuries and COVID issues. Safety Russ Yeast and cornerback Julius Brents both transferred in during the offseason, and they had strong performances this spring. Pencil in Yeast as a starter at safety, but don’t be surprised to see Brents as a part of the first string in 2021 as well. Timmy Horne from Charlotte will provide bulk at tackle, something the Wildcats will need as they look to operate with more three man fronts next season.
The only area not impacted much by transfers is linebacker, where Cody Fletcher and Daniel Green are looking to step into starting roles after having logged substantial playing time in Manhattan. There is some depth behind them, but it’s unclear now whether there’s an All-Big 12 defender waiting to shine at the position, something that may not reveal itself until actual games are played.
Who Will Be The Standouts Next Season?
In order to compete in the top tier of the Big 12 consistently, the Wildcats will have to show that they can field all-conference type players on both sides of the ball. Deuce Vaughn is that type of talent at running back, but the growth of his surrounding cast will determine how much the offense improves in 2021. Kansas State also needs to definitively show that they’ve developed their back seven on defense so that Big 12 offenses can’t take advantage of any weak spots there. Defensive ends Khalid Duke and Bronson Massie should be set up for a strong year, but Kansas State needs one – or both – of them to breakout.