A star-studded group if there ever was one at Kansas State, the defensive line will be looked at early and often thanks to returning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Mueller (who was unrighteously snubbed for the 2014 preseason nod). Joined by sleeping giant Travis Britz and several returning players with starts and lots of reps, Mueller looks to make the d-line the cornerstone of a young Wildcat defense.
The Wildcats started slowly in 2013 after replacing three full-time starters, including manimals Meshak Williams and Adam Davis. No one knew what to expect from the guys joining Travis Britz at the line: a senior backup, a former walk-on, and a RSSoph. And the first few games showed that lack of experience, giving up 215 rushing yards to a North Dakota State team determined to run right at the Wildcats, and 177 yards to Lousiana the next week. The promise showed though, as Mueller recorded his first sack of the season on the way to his record-tying 11.5 on the season. Britz showed up big in the Oklahoma State game, blocking a field goal that was eventually returned for a touchdown. And young guys like Marquel Bryant, Demonte Hood, and re-purposed LB Charmeachealle Moore showed growth throughout the season at both stopping the run and rushing the passer.
Mueller and Britz lead a group of players that saw lots of rotation due to attempts by the coaching staff to keep guys fresh on the field. Marquel Bryant started opposite Mueller to open the season, but got bumped to back-up status after Alanua Finau re-assstered himself. Jordan Willis saw reps in third-down passing situations as a rush end in package with Moore, Bryant/Finau, and Mueller. Demonte Hood saw reps in roation and relief of Britz throughout the year, even carding a sack against the Jayhawks. Veteran back-up Laton Dowling also returns for his fifth year, but after high hopes as a recruit, he has been largely recruited over.
The spring roster shows nine DE's (three walk-ons), three DT's, and five players listed as "DL" (I am assuming they are gifted/skilled enough to play anywhere on the line).
Statitics would indicate Mueller will regress towards the mean, so breaking or even hitting the sack record again will be a monumental task. While he may not actually earn as many stats as he did last year, expect Mueller to play an important part on the line, as both it's captain as well as the focus of many team's offensive line. Though who will be manning the other side of the line is a bit of a question mark. Bryant is the prohibitive favorite to lock up the spot, but he is being pushed hard by Willis. After the loser of that battle, the backups will be some combination of Dowling, Tanner Wood, and Taylor Godinet. Don't expect to see any true freshman playing, there is too much depth above them to see any time, or even need to worry about seeing time.
Travis Britz has one DT spot locked up, but the key will be who gets the starting nod next to him. Terrell Clinkscales seems the obvious choice, but he will have to come to campus ready to work hard in order to be the opening-day starter. Valentino Coleman will likely man the starting spot for the opener, based on age and experience (and Snyder's well-known predilection for starting upper-classmen), but he will be pushed hard by Clinkscales and much-heralded walk-on Will Geary. Also fighting for back-up spots will be Hood, and Matt Seiwert.
Expect the defensive line in 2014 to be more solid from the get-go than the 2013 group. With so much talent, effort, passion, and experience returning, these guys know how to play at a high level, and should have a much better understanding of how to maintain that across a full season. Surprises may be limited from this group, but that is an effect of raised expectations not diminished talent or performance. We are finally starting to see the return of the dominant d-line's that were so prevalent at the height of Snyder 1.0, and what's more is that this renaissance is being built largely from the high school ranks which should lead to long-term stability at the line.
Keep on the look-out for upcoming position previews as we count our way down towards the opening of football season on Aug. 30th!