Ty Zimmerman was a mainstay in the defensive backfield for the Wildcats. A rare four-year starter, Ty was the noted QB of the defense, was vital in run support, and his knack for finding the ball led to many important interceptions. So obviously the biggest question for most K-State fans is who will be replacing such an important person? Well never fear Cat fans, there is a lot there.
The 2013 Wildcats put a veteran secondary on the field that included Zimmerman, as well as fellow seniors Dorrian Roberts and Kip Daily, and junior nickle-back Randall Evans. Dante Barnett joined the group as a full-time starter at safety after being thrown to the wolves at the end of 2012 as injured-Zimm's stand-in.
Now, veteran does not mean experienced. Zimmerman was the only returning "true" starter, though Evans (not recognized as such thanks to the Wildcats base 4-3 defense) played as a defacto starter in the 4-2-5 the Cats ran most often. Roberts was a former walk-on, and Daily had redshirtted after coming in the same recruiting class as fellow JUCO signees (and departed starters) Nigel Malone and Allen Chapman.
The Wildcat secondary started the season slowly, and lack of experience contributed to the early season losses. But as the season wore on, the men tasked with defending deep started to improve. By the end of the season the Wildcat secondary had gelled into a solid unit, recording 318 combined total tackles among the starters and 15 INT's on the season. In the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl victory, Dante Barnett was named Defensive MVP after recording eight tackles and returning his INT for over 50 yards and a near-TD.
As with 2013, only two starters return to the secondary for the Wildcats, Evans and Barnett. Also returning is stand-in Schellenburg, who looked shaky when he first came in for the injured Zimmerman, but improved in his next games. Several backups and redshirts return to the secondary too, led by Juniors Travis Green and Morgan Burns.
The secondary will likely look shaky again to begin the 2014 season. Though they will have to shape up fast, as the Wildcats travel to Ames in week two to face what could be a dangerous Iowa State team that finally has a competent offensive coordinator, and then host an Auburn team with weapons all over the field.
Coach Tom Hayes has a lot to work with though. Evans and Barnett have their spots locked up at nickle-back and free safety, respectively. While Evans has an important role at nickle, there is a strong possibility that he may be moved to an outside slot due to his experience and skill set. Incoming JUCO corners Danzel McDaniel and Jesse Mack will both be vying for starting spots, and will be competing with returners Burns, Junior Nate Jackson, and RS-freshman Cre Moore.
Schellenburg is the presumptive starter at strong safety, but expect Green to push hard for playing time along with RS-freshman Sean Newlan. Incoming-freshman Kaleb Prewett has apparently been impressing at camp, but barring some kind of complete collapse of the upperclassmen above him, a redshirt is expected this season.
While D-1 FBS experience may be lacking among this group, there is a very large and deep talent pool in the secondary. Speed and size appear to be abundant for the first time since the Wildcat's first Big 12 Championship, with the shortest likely-contributor to be the 5'11" Burns (who may be the fastest DB on the roster). On paper there is a solid three-deep at nearly every position in the secondary, it's only a question now of whether or not the coaches can get them playing as a cohesive unit quickly enough for the big games early on the schedule.
As with 2013, how the secondary turns out will again be the key for how well the defense functions in 2014. We can only hope they get it figured out fast.