The special teams unit was, at times, Kansas State's saving grace during a trying season. Morgan Burns in particular had a sensational year as a kick returner, but he's since moved on to a higher calling, and the success of this year's special teams unit may turn on Burns' replacement. A wealth of experience at kicker and punter won't hurt either.
Matthew McCrane began the 2015 season as a preseason all-conference pick, a Lou Groza Award watch list nominee, and the definite #1 at placekicker. A few games in, however, McCrane was a victim of the same injury bug that sidelined several other starters, and Jack Cantele had to take over.
When McCrane did play last season, he was as perfect as expected, connecting on all seven field goal tries and kicking 15 extra points over just four games. He also kicked three field goals against Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl, breaking his own school record in the process. For his efforts, he earned honorable mention on the All-Big 12 team. There’s every reason to believe McCrane can be just as good in 2016 as in 2014, when he was a first team freshman All-American.
Ian Patterson, who has the build and apparent placekicking skills of a linebacker, will be back to handle kickoff duties this year, although there is an outside chance he may be called on to kick a few extra points. Patterson played in every game last season, averaging 60.4 yards on 65 kickoffs with 15 touchbacks. He was also credited with a few tackles during kickoff coverage.
Punting duties should be ably handled by Nick Walsh in 2016. He’s already been named to the preseason Ray Guy watch list, and has a career punting average of 41.48 yards, good enough for sixth in school history. Like Patterson, Walsh started every game in 2015, and thanks to the vagaries of last season’s offense, he now has plenty of experience. He punted a career-high 11 times against West Virginia, but let’s hope he won’t have to punt quite so much in 2016.
The elephant in the locker room here is in the return game. Who will be this year’s Morgan Burns? Dominique Heath was the primary punt returner last year, averaging about 11 yards per return, while also perfecting the art of the quick change. This season, he’s a preseason all-Big 12 selection at punt returner.
And what about kickoff returns? It’s highly likely that Burns’ kick returner shoes will be filled by Denzel Gooslby. The Bishop Carroll product is expected to contribute in the return game while also learning the offensive playback.
Colborn Couchman deserve honorable mention here. He’s played more games (29) than anyone else on the unit, and he also leads the team in special teams tackles.
McCrane is the only placekicker with any experience on the roster, and his longterm health will be critical to the team, because after him, there’s the prospect of either Patterson or the untested Blake Lynch kicking field goals.
The team is slightly more solid at punter, with redshirt freshman Nick McLellan (also listed as a kicker) as a good fallback. There’s also Mitch Lochbihler, who has a big leg, but is described as “competing for playing time” on the roster despite being a junior. Take from that what you will.
D.J. Render, Dalvin Warmack, and even Winston Dimel could feature in the return game, if needed, although it’s unlikely any of these players will make us forget Burns’ theatrics last season.
For success in 2016, the special teams don’t need to be special. The unit just needs to be healthy and effective. There’s a bit of mystery in the return game right now, and kick/punt coverage left a lot to be desired in past season. Still, it could be a good year for the special teams, especially with a great kicker-punter tandem on the roster.
Maybe don’t fire Sean Snyder just yet.