Can a guy have a breakout year, take a step or two backwards, and then have another breakout year? That may be the question for Blake Slaughter, a talented senior linebacker who had as big a role as anyone on the defense in avoiding an embarrassing loss to UCF in 2010.
Other than a nice 10-tackle game against Texas that season, it's kind of been downhill for Slaughter since then. He fell completely off the map last year when he agreed to take a redshirt with a really good senior linebacker named Arthur Brown and some other solid guys named Jarell Childs and Justin Tuggle.
Those three are gone now, and Slaughter seems like as good of a candidate as any to help fill the gaping holes. Our own comments section likes his chances to explode back onto the scene this year, for what that's worth.
He does have a ton of experience and considerable athletic ability that earned him a rating as the No. 22 middle linebacker in the country coming out of Elkins High in Texas, according to Scout.com. However, that was all earned before an ACL tear in week two of his senior season, so it may not mean as much as it does for other players.
Before we get carried away here, let me stress that in no way, shape or form should he or anyone else on this team be expected to replace or even really come close to replacing Mr. Brown. The linebacking corps will likely need to form a strong bond to avoid becoming a weakness for this defense, but the coaches obviously saw something in Slaughter to want him to stick around another year.
At 5-10 he's a little short, so he'll need to use his explosiveness and an intelligent approach to make up the difference. On the bright side, he's a mechanical engineering major, so it's safe to assume this is within reach.
A starting role isn't guaranteed for Slaughter, but he should have the inside track if he can return to the form that saw him make 47 tackles in 2010. The arrival of Brown limited Slaughter to only two tackles in 2011, so we can only hope he's learned the intricacies of the defense and used that demotion motivation to become a stronger, hungrier player over the last two years.
I think the key to success for Slaughter will be knowing his role and using his strength to become a sure tackler, while leaving the more flashy plays to Tre Walker or some of the dynamic players in the K-State secondary. We've come to expect a lot from middle linebackers under Snyder, but Slaughter could be most effective when he's quietly taking care of business.
Perhaps the worst thing that could happen would be if Slaughter, or really any of the linebackers, are asked to do too much to cover for a somewhat questionable defensive front. If that happens - or really even if it doesn't -- at least Slaughter will be almost guaranteed to beat 47 tackles if he stays in the lineup and stays healthy, though I think he would agree that will only be an accomplishment to celebrate if it's part of a successful unit.
Previously in this series: