SB Nation 2009 Big 12 Preview: K-State

Sorry this is really late from BOTC.  I was out of town all last week and wasn't checking my email, so this got ignored.  Anyway, CBS Sports and SB Nation's Colorado blog, The Ralphie Report, are this official conference preview.  Here is BOTC's "outsider's" conference preview, intended to be a lot like something you'd find in a magazine.

Offense (Six Returning Starters)

Everything begins at the quarterback position, and K-State has a big hole to fill there after Josh Freeman left to become a first-round NFL draft pick.  The favorite to replace him is junior Carson Coffman, and if you've followed Big 12 football recently, yes, he is the brother of former Missouri tight end Chase Coffman.  Coffman was the starting QB for the first-team squad in the spring game, and played very well in completing 25 of 36 passes for 334 yards and three touchdowns.  Of course, that was against the second-string defense, but it was a much more impressive performance than we had seen in prior spring games.  All signs still point to Coffman being the starter in the first game against UMass, as it doesn't appear Grant Gregory, Collin Klein, or Joseph Kassanavoid have done anything to unseat the frontrunner.

Running back is a mystery position for the Cats this season, as it was one of many areas on the roster about which former coach Ron Prince apparently had no understanding when it came to roster management.  Last year's leading rusher, Lamark Brown, is moving to wide receiver.  Logan Dold, the second-leading rusher among running backs, moved to safety.  The next running back, Keithen Valentine, has had two good spring games in a row, and almost nothing to show for it during the regular season.  Last season, Valentine rushed for 129 yards total.

Snyder announced that heralded recruit Daniel Thomas will likely start the season at running back, which probably makes him the favorite to be the starter against UMass.  Thomas is a dynamic athlete who also has the size -- 6'2", 227 lbs. -- to be among the biggest running backs we've had in a while.

Whatever production K-State is going to get from its wide receivers, it had better get it this season.  The squad's best receivers are almost all seniors, which will leave a big hole in 2010.  However, this group looks like one of the team's strengths, led by 2008's Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year, Brandon Banks.  Banks is the undersized receiver with blazing speed, and the best home-run threat K-State has had since Darren Sproles started at running back.

Along with Banks, senior Attrail Snipes and junior Lamark Brown could add some depth and firepower at this position.  Snipes didn't get much of a chance to play wide receiver last year, but he was a highly touted junior college recruit who could make an impact.  As already mentioned, Brown has moved back to wide receiver after playing running back last season.  He's another gifted athlete who could give opposing defenses headaches if he picks up the position quickly.

Tight end should be a position at which K-State is fairly solid this season.  Senior Jeron Mastrud returns after a 2008 season in which he caught 38 passes for 435 yards and two touchdowns.  Solid numbers for a tight end, and he's that reliable target you want a new quarterback to have.  The backups at tight end are a bit of a question mark, with newcomers Prizell Brown (junior college transfer) and Travis Tannahill (freshman) being the most likely candidates to spell Mastrud.

One thing you can say about K-State's offensive line is that it has a lot of players with returning starts.  Given that Prince liked to rotate players around, nobody can be absolutely sure who will start where and whether the prior experience will be much help, but at least this unit isn't trying to break in a bunch of true freshman and transfers.  Nick Stringer anchors the line at left tackle, bringing 23 starts into 2009.  Completing Coffman's blind-side protection on the left side will probably be Zach Kendall, who has five starts to his credit.

Wade Weibert and Trevor Viers will vie for the starting spot at center.  Viers has seven starts to his credit, but Weibert was a top-50 junior college recruit who started with the first team during the spring game.

On the right side, Clyde Aufner probably gets the nod at right tackle, and Colten Freeze probably starts at guard.  Aufner saw action in three games last year as a redshirt freshman, while Freeze had three starts last season as a redshirt freshman.  Expect to see a lot of competition for these positions, with sophomore Kaleb Drinkgern and junior Kenny Mayfield pushing for playing time.

Defense (Eight Returning Starters)

To say that K-State's 2008 defense was putrid would be kind.  Out of 119 FBS teams, K-State ranked 117 in total defense.  So yeah, things are bad.  But with a strong new coaching staff and several talented players returning, improvement is likely on this side of the ball in 2009.  The real question is how much improvement will be made, and whether it will be enough to have a significant effect on the season.

Before Brandon Harold's injury in preseason practice, the defensive line looked to be the strength of the team.  Harold was a freshman all-america last season, registering 45 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss last season, but we don't know how soon he'll return after he dinged up his knee in practice.  Jeffrey Fitzgerald is likely to start at defensive tackle, although an offseason arrest on suspicion of DUI may temporarily derail those plans.  Fitzgerald is a transfer from Virginia, and with the Cavaliers 137 tackles and 23.5 tackles for loss in 25 starts.

Other probable starters on the defensive line are Daniel Calvin at DT and Eric Childs at DE.  Childs was honorable mention all-conference last season as a junior while making 11 starts and recording 52 tackles.  Calvin is a big body in the middle at 6'3" and 310 lbs., but didn't have the type of season K-State was hoping for last season.  Look for newcomer Kadero Terrell, a hybrid defensive end/linebacker to see some time at DE this season, too, if the spring game was any indication.

Linebacker looks to be one of K-State's weaker units this season after losing three players who had multiple starts last season.  However, the defense is moving to a 4-2-5 alignment in an attempt to combat the Big 12's prolific spread offenses, so fewer linebackers will be required.  One of the positions will be occupied by sophomore Alex Hrebec, who registered 68 tackles in only six starts last season.  The other linebacker spot will be filled either by John Houlik or Ulla Pomele.  Pomele had the better season last year and would be the choice of most K-State fans at this position.

In the secondary, it begins with cornerback Joshua Moore.  In 2006, Moore was a freshman all-america before being injured late in the season.  He returned to action in 2008 after redshirting the 2007 season as a result of apparent academic issues.  Moore was one of the few bright spots on last season's atrocious defense, tallying 76 tackles, three interceptions and 12 passes broken up.  The starter at the other cornerback position is still uncertain.  Senior Billy McClellan is probably the leading candidate seeing action in 10 games last season.

The safeties will be expected to play a bigger role in Vic Koenning's and Chris Cosh's 4-2-5 scheme.  Courtney Herndon will likely start at one of the safety positions after starting 10 games and recording 61 tackles last season.  Chris Carney also had a solid season last year, with 53 tackles and five passes broken up in only four starts.

Defensive back will be a position to keep an eye on at K-State this season.  Two players who have switched position, Logan Dold and Tysyn Hartman, could see action at DB this season.  Also, newcomer Emmanuel Lamur is one of the more intriguing additions to the team.  Lamur is a big defensive back at 6'4" and 214 lbs., and the coaches seem to be pretty high on him.

Special Teams

One of the hallmarks of a Bill Snyder-coached team is solid special teams play.  Coincidentally, that was about the only thing Ron Prince's teams did consistently well.  This season, K-State's special teams should be solid again.  In all likelihood, Brandon Banks and Aubrey Quarles will continue to return kickoffs, and Banks averaged 27.7 yards per return in that duty last season.  It's not clear right now who will return punts for K-State after last year's punt returner, Deon Murphy, left the team.

One position where K-State should see significant improvement this season is punter.  Last season, with George Pierson and D.J. Fulhage splitting time, punting was a weakness, as the Cats finished 10th in the Big 12 in net punting.  Panjandrum attended the spring game and was very impressed with newcomer Ryan Doerr, who is the likely starter this season.

At kicker, junior Josh Cherry is the likely starter despite seeing very limited action behind Brooks Rossman last season.  Doerr is also listed as a kicker and was pretty solid at that position in high school, so it's possible Doerr could pull double duty.

Key Losses

Offense: Josh Freeman (QB), Deon Murphy (WR), Ernie Pierce (WR)

Defense: Ian Campbell (DE), Ray Cheatham (S), Reggie Walker (LB), Blair Irvin (S)

Special Teams: Brooks Rossman (K), Deon Murphy (PR)

Season Forecast

K-State's non-conference slate features two FCS teams, meaning the Wildcats will have to win seven games to reach bowl eligibility this season.  While that's not impossible given the upgrade at every position on the coaching staff, it could be a bridge too far for a team that's 10-14 the last two seasons.  In another interesting twist, K-State plays twelve games in twelve consecutive weeks, so it remains to be seen whether the lack of a bye week will hamper this team late in the season.

The Wildcats open up with a home game against UMass, dubbed by the athletic department as the "K-State Family Reunion" because it's Bill Snyder's first game back.  Though Snyder's clubs are notoriously slow starters, the Wildcats should be able to handle an FCS team in the home opener.  The next week, in a strange twist of scheduling, K-State travels to Lafayette, La., to play the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns.  Last season, UL nearly upset the Cats in Manhattan.  The Cajuns lost their quarterback and running back to graduation, however, and as such probably won't have quite enough firepower for a K-State team that should be improved on defense under Koenning and Cosh.

On September 19th, Snyder will take his club to Pasadena, Calif., to meet up with an old nemesis from the Big 8 (and early Big 12) days in Rick Neuheisel.  Of course, Neuheisel coaches UCLA now, not Colorado, and last season's UCLA team was, well, pretty bad.  The combined record of the teams UCLA defeated was 12-37.  Despite that, the smart money would be to bet on UCLA in this game.  Snyder's teams usually do not play well in September, and that will probably be amplified this season because it's Snyder's first year on the job. 

After two weeks on the road, K-State then returns home for another FCS opponent, Tennessee Tech.  The Golden Eagles were 3-9 last season and shouldn't pose a threat to K-State, especially in Manhattan.

K-State opens Big 12 play with a neutral-site game against Iowa State at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium.  Iowa State is breaking in a new head coach, Paul Rhoads, after two atrocious seasons under Gene Chizik.  No game is a given for K-State this season, but last year's Wildcats defeated Iowa State in the last game of Prince's lame-duck tenure and, on a neutral field, should be able to topple the Cyclones again.  After that, the going gets significantly more difficult, as K-State travels to Lubbock, Texas, to take on Captain Leach.  Despite losing Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree, the Red Raiders are one of those programs that is more likely to reload than rebuild, and games in Lubbock are usually a nightmare for opposing teams.

A home date with Texas A&M awaits after K-State returns from the South Plains.  In Snyder's first tenure, matchups with A&M were usually nightmares, but these aren't your older cousin's Aggies.  Last season, K-State hammered A&M in College Station, and while the Aggies should be a little better this season, signs of significant improvement are absent.  With K-State still breaking in a new system, this game will probably be a little closer than last season's meeting, but Snyder & Co. should still be able to pick up the win.

Another home date follows as Colorado comes to town the next week.  The Buffs were one of the few programs -- Texas being the other -- that Prince's teams didn't completely suck against.  Ol' Prince went 2-1 against Dan Hawkins in three tries, with the lone defeat being a one-point decision in Boulder last year.  Colorado is the wildcard of the North, as most have expected them to be a lot better the last couple seasons than they actually were, and this is a game whose prediction could change based on how Colorado plays.  Given that it's later in the season and the fact that I now live in the "Show-Me" state, I'm going to wait on Colorado to prove itself and call this a narrow win for K-State.

So if you're keeping score at home, my prognostications now have the Cats at 6-2.  However, the schedule turns disastrous at this point, with the following games looming: @ Oklahoma, KU, Missouri, @ Nebraska.  Obviously, the Oklahoma game can be written off as a loss at this point.  Based on preseason pure roster talent, KU and Missouri are also likely losses for K-State, even at home.  Nebraska is also among the favorites to win the North, so a game in Lincoln does not bode well for K-State to close the season.  The season will turn on whether Snyder can find a win in this murderous finish.  On the bright side, Snyder's clubs typically play their best ball in November, going 25-4 in November home games since 1990 (H/T, Phil Steele).  If KU gets crushed by its South Division gauntlet and drops a surprise game against Colorado or Nebraska, the Cats may have a chance to pick up a win in a home rivalry game.  Similarly, if Mizzou ends up rebuilding rather than reloading, that's a game the Cats could win if things are going well.

Predicted Order of Finish

Big 12 North

Nebraska

KU

Missouri

K-State

Colorado

Iowa State

Big 12 South

Texas

Oklahoma

Oklahoma State

Texas Tech

Baylor

Texas A&M

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