Things could hardly have been worse.
K-State was forced to resort to playing a wide receiver at quarterback in 2015, and that was bad. The carnage in the secondary, though, was arguably far more devastating. The unit as a whole, as well as the corners and safeties specifically, had all been tabbed as probable top-ten units based largely on the presence of Danzel McDaniel, Morgan Burns, and Dante Barnett, and an expected breakout for Kaleb Prewett.
That did not work out as planned.
Barnett didn’t make it out of the opener. McDaniel went down early in conference play. Prewett was okay, but never did rise above, and he’s gone now after not being able to live the Snyder life. Only Burns lasted the entire season, but the absence of McDaniel and Barnett sort of forced him to carry too much pressure, and what weaknesses he had as a cover man were often exploited.
It was, in short, a disaster.
Which brings us to 2016, and a raft of changes. The most important thing, however, is that Barnett was granted another year of eligibility in the wake of his injury, and will once again try the whole “captaining the secondary in his final season” thing.
Barnett needs little introduction; only six players have been three-time captains in the history of the Wildcat football program, and Dante is one of them. A second-team all-conference pick in 2014, he was expected to get national award attention last year before going down in the first half against South Dakota. His presence for the entirety of 2016 would, in and of itself, vastly improve the secondary.
Opposite Barnett, expect Kendall Adams to get the nod. As a redshirt freshman last season, Adams worked his way into the starting lineup by season’s end, racking up 12 tackles against Iowa State in his season highlight. He played well, enough that he was generally deemed to be the answer this year by the end of last season. Sure enough, through the spring and fall, Adams hasn’t relinquished his grip on the job.
Duke Shelley, thrown into the fire as a true freshman due to all the injuries, was nothing short of special last year. Although he didn’t have any interceptions, he had seven pass breakups — the most for a Wildcat true freshman since 1998, when a Jerametrius Butler arrived in Manhattan. If Shelley turns into Butler, he’ll be doing alright for himself. Four of those were against West Virginia, the most by any freshman in the nation in a single game last year. At least one publication has Shelley as an all-conference selection.
Opposite Shelley, we have a competition between transfers in the race to replace Morgan Burns. D.J. Reed, a JUCO transfer from Cerritos College who began his college career with a redshirt year at Fresno State, appears to have the edge. Reed, who has three years of eligibility remaining, had 42 tackles and a couple of picks last year at Cerritos. Hot on his heels, however, is graduate transfer Cedric Dozier from Cal. Dozier started sixteen straight games for the Golden Bears before being relegated to backup duty last season; that presumably precipitated his decision to transfer.
Still, having two solid options at the second corner has to give the staff a sense of relief after last year’s debacle.
Returning for another year as the primary option at nickel is the dependable Donnie Starks. Starks isn’t flashy, but seldom gets badly abused and emerged early last season as a guy you’re noticing for doing good things. As often as K-State runs a five-DB set, this is itself a good thing.
So the key players are all in place. What about depth?
Either Reed or Dozier will be the primary backup at corner, obviously; senior Jesse Mack, who came in along with the disappointing 2013 JUCO crop that included McDaniel and D’Vonta Derricott, was acceptably decent in his playing time last year and will be the other main substitute. Junior Cre Moore should also be in the mix. Redshirt Johnathan Durham got some play in the spring game, incoming true freshman A.J. Parker might have the tools to get a look rather than redshirting, and Tevin Geddis, a graduate transfer from Washburn, might see action. The rest of the corps is the usual collection of walk-ons.
At safety, the Wildcats have solid backups behind the starters. Both Sean Newlan and Nate Guidry Jr. are redshirt juniors with very different career paths so far. Newlan has amassed a great deal of playing time, and last year even drew four starts in the “replace Barnett” lottery. He recorded 52 tackles last year, and while he wasn’t a standout he also didn’t really embarrass himself — although we imagine he’d rather forget the Liberty Bowl. He should be a solid plan behind Barnett and Adams. Guidry still hasn’t played a down, but appears to have the inside track on the other backup slot.
Unfortunately, there’s not much behind these guys at safety. If everyone stays healthy, depth isn’t an issue at all. If the injury bug attacks again, it’s a problem. And that brings us to the big surprise during the open fall practice: WR Denzel Goolsby playing safety with the second unit. If that works out, watch out; Goolsby is athletic enough to work his way into major rotation if he nails down the playbook.
The one relevant name we haven’t yet mentioned is the other Mack, Ryan. He’ll mostly be expected to be the second option at nickel behind Starks, after spending the bulk of his redshirt freshman season on special teams.
K-State enters the season with two clear stars in the secondary, two solid yet unproven contributors, and a pretty good nickel. That’s good news for a unit that was supposed to be lights-out last year but instead, due to injury, contributed to the season’s woes.
The bright side to last season’s debacle, however, is that many of the players who will be expected to step in if anything goes awry have already gained immensely valuable experience. There are four defensive backs on this roster who are not expected to start but who have started (somewhere) before, and that’s a huge benefit.
So even if there are casualties, the secondary should be better than it was last season, when they were still very good against bad teams. It’s the good teams that cause the problem, however. If the starters can stay healthy, that gap should be closed, and the Wildcats should have a very respectable backfield — not necessarily the best in the conference, but definitely in the conversation.