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Kansas State Top Five: Tight Ends. Also, Heartland and Empire 8 previews

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Picking the top five tight ends: not an easy task for our staff.

Our victor, in a close contest...
Our victor, in a close contest...
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

The Lead

Picking the top five Wildcat tight ends was a struggle, y'all. Nine different players received votes from our staff, and a tenth -- Glenn Gronkowski -- earned a mention based solely on the idea that he got All-Conference votes there.

The four other guys who didn't make the cut were Brian Casey, a Mackey Award finalist in 2004 and part of the 2003 title team; the just-departed Zack Trujillo, who was an underrated part of the offense the last few years but rightly didn't quite make the top five; Russ Campbell, one of the players Bill Snyder actually inherited when he arrived in Manhattan and a 7th-round pick by the Steelers in 1992; and the most agonizing exclusion of all, Pro Bowler Henry Childs, once of Vince Gibson's boys who went on to an 11-year NFL career and is a member of the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame.

5. Jeron Mastrud

Mastrud got the edge over Childs for one main reason: he's K-State's all-time leader in career receptions by a tight ehd, and until last year he was actually in the top ten period. He spent four years actually playing in the NFL after initially being signed as an undrafted free agent by Tampa Bay, spending three of those years as Miami's backup tight end.

4. Paul Coffman

Coffman made this list because your Benevolent Despot ranked him #1. He often gets forgotten, despite the fact that his son was Collin Klein's predecessor at quarterback. But Coffman was a standout in his own right, being signed by the Green Bay Packers as an undrafted free agent and becoming one of the favorite targets for another K-State legend, Lynn Dickey. The Dickey-to-Coffman connection led to three straight Pro Bowl appearances for Coffman from 1982-84 (and he was joined on that team by Dickey in 1983). Coffman is a member of the Packers' Hall of Fame.

3. Travis Tannahill

Tannahill signed with Cleveland as an undrafted free agent after graduating in 2013. I'm not trying to downgrade him when I say this, but this is recency bias spiced up by Tannahill's important contributions during the Collin Klein years. You may argue with me below.

2. Shad Meier

Meier is sometimes better known as Dylan's older brother, but he was a stud during the two years following K-State's aborted national title run in 1998. He ended up being drafted in the third round by Tennessee, but his NFL career never really took off.

1. Justin Swift

Swift was one of Michael Bishop's favorite targets, and a key part of the meteoric rise of Wildcat football from 1996-98. Taken in the seventh round by Denver after graduating in 1999, Swift bounced around for a bit before sticking in San Francisco for three years.

Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference Preview

2014 Standings and Info
SCHOOL LOCATION HCAC OVERALL
rv Franklin College Grizzlies Franklin IN 8-0 8-3
Mount Saint Joseph University Lions Cincinnati OH 7-1 8-2
Bluffton University Beavers Bluffton OH 6-2 6-4
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology Engineers Terre Haute IN 5-3 7-3
Manchester University Spartans North Manchester IN 3-5 4-6
Defiance College Yellow Jackets Defiance OH 3-5 3-7
Anderson University Ravens Anderson IN 2-6 2-8
Hanover College Panthers Hanover IN 2-6 2-8
Earlham College Quakers Richmond IN 0-8 0-10

The Heartland, whose roots go all the way back to the start of the 20th Century and the Indiana Collegiate Conference, has been on lockdown for most of the last dozen years. Will the hegemony finally be broken in 2015?

Franklin used to be a sad-sack program. It's hard to believe that, since they've lost a total of four HCAC games since 2006, and have a string of five straight NCAA playoff appearances. The Grizzlies are doing something new and interesting this year: they're not losing a September game to Mount Union or Whitewater. Franklin just got done wrapping their home-and-home series with both Division III giants last year.

The Grizzlies will lose the talents of QB Grant Welp, the HCAC Offensive Player of the Year, as well as RB Joey Pasquale, WRs Jonny Hession and Zach Cole, OL Quinton Terrell, and DB Jameson Brock. OL Austin Carlton, DL Nate Bryan, twin brother LBs Lucas and Jeremiah Windell, DB/KR Taylor Christensen, and K Stephen Colligan return. It's a pretty standard turnover for the Grizzlies, and they'll still be the favorites in 2015. But it's getting tougher.

Mount Saint Joseph is the only other team in the conference to win a title the last decade, having gotten past Franklin in 2006 and 2009. They missed their chance to continue the pattern in 2012 by having a down cycle, but they just happen to be riding toward the top of one now. The Lions return QB Greg Simpson, the HCAC Freshman of the Year last year, along with RB Denzel Norvell, DL Jonathan Campbell, DB Marvin Draper, and K Shane Kelly. Their losses are a little more severe, as WRs Leonard Riston and John Peters, OL Brandon Keller, and LBs Brent McCleerey and Anthony Berry have graduated. But if Simpson has quality receivers stepping into the breach, he's only going to get better. The Lions will push Franklin, although they have the disadvantage of contesting that boss fight on the road this year.

Bluffton has returned to average football after a putrid stretch from 2007-09 where the Beavers only won two games. Although they lose RB Eric Fox, WR Jack Tomlinson, DL Ryan Leopold, and LB Brad Swavel to graduation, DL Ryan Aelker returns. That's important, because he was last year's HCAC Defensive Player of the Year. Also returning: OL Austin Spiece and DB Tyrone White. Not much will change in Bluffton this year, but there are worse fates.

Rose-Hulman hasn't won more than last year's seven games this century. On the other hand, they also haven't had a losing season since 2004. Expect a potential run this year. The Engineers lose TE Zac Erba, OLs Eric Taylor and Nick Buchta, and DL Josh Sonneberger. But QB Austin Swenson will be back, as will WRs Alec Fisher and Aaron Abbott, OL T.J. Demos, and DBs Chris Sander and Kevin Nowak. That eight with threshold is in danger.

Manchester won six games in 2012, their only winning campaign this century. The Spartans immediately regressed, but the pieces are in place for a rebound. DLs Stephen Coble and Jon Scribner are gone, but that's it. Coming back for another go are QB Logan Haston, WR/KR and HCAC Special Teams Player of the Year Dakota Nelson, OLs D'Ante Dorsey and Eric Weitholter, and DB Taylor Anglemyer. RB Hunter Hardee received HCAC honorable mention as a freshman last year as well, so the Spartan offense will be in pretty good shape.

Defiance has been in a rut since a 6-4 finish in 2010. OL Tanner Engle, LB Eric Strickland, and DB Josh Slayton move on. RB Daniel Collins, DL Kyle Wilson, and DBs Andrew Feldhaus and Angello Proulx return; Proulx was a freshman last year. On balance, the Yellowjackets look to be better next year, but they're not going to challenge.

Anderson (IN) snapped a 29-game losing streak last September 27 at Earlham, and then doubled down two weeks later with a two-point win over Hanover. The only honored player they'll have to do without this year is LB Nate Moser; WR Marc Jones and KR DeOntez Alexander return. John Sala, former head coach at North Carolina JUCO Louisburg College, takes over from Bobby Ladner, who resigned at season's end after only two seasons. The Ravens may do even better this year, but probably don't have the talent to crack the .500 barrier.

Hanover ended a run of four straight non-losing seasons last year in painful fashion; three of their losses were by a single score. Their losses are relatively heavy. RB Spencer Corrao, OL Ryan Hahn, and LBs Vince Peiffer and Justin Magaw have all graduated. WR Ricky Windell, DL Jake Stilwell, and P Josh Green return. Given that they were almost a .500 team last year, the Panthers should be around that level in 2015, but the losses may condemn them to another losing campaign.

Earlham is just bad. In the last five seasons, the Quakers have gone 3-47, 2-38 in conference. Other than a miracle two-point loss to Bluffton last year, the closest Earlham came to winning a game was a 15-point setback at Hanover. On the bright side, the only notable losses the Quakers sustain are P Ryan Acosta and head coach Neil Kazmierczak, who was let go following last season. Nick Johnson, the school's track coach and formerly the defensive coordinator prior to Kazmierczak's arrival, returns to football to try and right the ship. QB Brennan Laird, WR Jalen Kenner, OL Mike Alberts, and DL LaJay Kelly all return. That's not enough to predict a decent season. But it's definitely enough to project that the Quakers will manage to win a game or three.

Game of the year: The aforementioned Mount Saint Joseph visit to Franklin on October 17.

Empire 8 Preview

2014 Standings and Info
SCHOOL LOCATION E8 OVERALL
19 Saint John Fisher College Cardinals Pittsford NY 6-2 9-2
rv Ithaca College Bombers Ithaca NY 6-2 7-4
Buffalo State College Bengals Buffalo NY 5-3 8-3
rv Salisbury University Sea Gulls Salisbury MD 5-3 7-4
Utica College Pioneers Utica NY 5-3 7-4
Alfred University Saxons Alfred NY 3-5 5-5
SUNY at Brockport Golden Eagles Brockport NY 3-5 5-5
Frostburg State University Bobcats Frostburg MD 2-6 4-6
Hartwick College Hawks Oneonta NY 1-7 2-8

The Empire 8 will have a new look this year, essentially trading Salisbury and Frostburg State to the New Jersey Athletic Conference and getting the SUNY at Morrisville Mustangs and SUNY at Cortland Red Dragons in return. Competitively, it's a wash for the Empire 8; in every other respect it's a win, as the switch turns the league into a true Empire State league again.

Saint John Fisher is in an interesting position, being the league's established power yet never having won an outright conference title. The Cardinals missed the playoffs last year for the fifth time in the last seven seasons, which feels stranger than it actually is based on history. The Cardinals lose the E8 Offensive Player of the Year, QB Tyler Fenti, as well as WR Nathan Nigolian, OLs Zach Shipley and C.J. Dominic, LB Mike Donitzen, and DBs Bryant Moore and Ryan Ballard. But a lot of interesting pieces return. Fisher had two freshmen running backs, James Chambers and Tony Fusco, both receive second-team honors; Chambers was also the second-team selection at return specialist. They'll both return, of course, joined by OLs Austin Coleman and Khari Demos and DL Jordan Andrews. The Cardinals aren't a lock to wrap up yet another co-championship, but they're in the mix.

Ithaca was once a national power, and have three Division III championship trophies to show for it; now they have to fight just to win what was until this season the toughest conference in the east. Third-team All-American TE Ben Cary is gone, as are DL Joe Ricotta and a trio of offensive linement: Andrew Benvenuto, Dylan Rampa, and Bobby Garone. DB Malik Morris, KR Josh Oliver, and K Max Rottenecker return, as does E8 Rookie of the Year LB Kenneth Bradley. This may be another slide year for the Rockets, as they just don't have that much top-flight talent returning and other teams are getting better.

Buffalo State had their best record of the century last year. Famed for an epic 7-6 win over Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2012 which led to "That One Season Whitewater Didn't Even Make the Playoffs", the Bengals have otherwise been pretty pedestrian. RB Rich Pete, WR Mike Doherty, and DB Sherman Nelson have graduated. But E8 Defensive Player of the Year and third-team All-American LB Marquis Artis returns along with WR Ryan Carney, OL Brandon Lathrop, DLs Dez Howard and Anthony Sanders, LB Shaq Frederick, DB Mitch Thomas, and K Marc Montana. That's a good chunk of talent, and the Bengals will probably make a run at the title this year. But it's a one-year window, as every single one of those returning stars is a senior this year.

Morrisville State enters the E8 on the heels of sharing last year's NJAC title. QB Lemar Johnson, the NJAC Offensive Player of the Year, has graduated along with his favorite target Josh Powell and OLs Ryan Mogensen and Adrian Cabrera. RB Cristian Pena and OL Fahraad Johnson return, and that's not much to work with. Morrisville will struggle to contend in the Empire 8.

Cortland State had their worst campaign since also finishing 5-5 in 2003. (This ignores their official 0-4 record in 2009, the result of seven vacated wins.) But they beat Ithaca, which is really all that matters in the Finger Lakes. DLs Joe DeLuca and Gabe Ostrow and S Andrew Tolosi are gone. But Cortland has enough talent returning to challenge for the title. QB John Grassi, WRs Jack Delahunty and Jon Mannix, TE Josh Riley, OL Vin Juliano, DL Jake Ceresna, LBs Matt Ambrose and Troy Beddoe, K Shane Cronin, and first-team All-American KR Dylan Peebles all return after earning All-NJAC accolades last year.

Utica had their best season ever in 2014 and only the third winning season in program history. The Pioneers lose WR Anthony Acevedo, TE Mike Russo, and P Dakota Peel; OL Zach Hunnewell, DL Nick Woodman, LB Juwan Wilson, and KR J'Von Evans return.

Alfred snapped a decade-long string of winning seasons by finishing .500 last year. QB Tyler Johnson, OL Kevin Lamarque, DL Zach Brinkley, and LB Corry Wallace all return while TE Isaiah Taylor was the only notable graduation loss. The Saxons should get back above water this year.

Brockport State was once a power as an independent, but ever since joining the Atlantic Central Football Conference in 2004 the Golden Eagles have struggled. They'll return RB Dan Andrews, DL Tarik Bennett, and LB Jake Brickler while losing DB Colby Morabito.

Hartwick occasionally rises up, but always seems to fall right back down again. Last year was yet another example, falling from a 6-4 finish in 2013. The Hawks' only All-E8 honoree, second-team DB Midnet Cantave, returns.

Game of the year: Always and forever, it's the Cortaca Jug. Cortland State visits Ithaca on November 14 in one of Division III's premier rivalry contests -- and now that the two schools are finally playing in the same conference and are early contenders for the title in 2015, the stakes will be even higher.

Tomorrow

K-State's top five wide receivers, and our penultimate Division III previews as we check in on the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference and the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin.