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2017 Kansas State football positional preview: defensive backs

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You’re going to be confused, because we say nice things.

We were mean last year. We’re sorry.
We were mean last year. We’re sorry.
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

For the past several years, Tom Hayes has been one of our favorite whipping boys. Frustration at the defense, especially in third-down situations, and concern about the secondary in particular, have led to some unsightly rampages around these parts.

So Hayes, if he reads this, will probably react with no small measure of amusement to the idea that his secondary may be the second-best unit on the entire squad — and that we’re calling that a good thing.

The Wildcats were 111th in passing yards allowed per game in 2016, but take that with a grain of salt. At 269.6 yards per game, K-State was basically as close to 12th-ranked Buffalo’s 181.9 as they were to the 357.4 yards per allowed by 128th (and last) Arizona State. (Remember, kids, rankings only matter in context.)

To put this in perspective, K-State was 62nd in Passing S&P, which if anything illustrates both how empty many of those yards were and the fact that a whole bunch of them came in just two games.

It’s also important to realize that it’s hard to play good pass defense in the Big 12, for obvious reasons. But as the season wore on, the Wildcats showed marked improvement. Part of that can be chalked up to the schedule, but given the youth of the squad it’s hard to suggest that experience didn’t play a role.

Gone are Dante Barnett and Donnie Starks. Losing Barnett is a blow because he’s an NFL talent, but his actual production last season wasn’t to the level K-State fans had become accustomed. Starks, meanwhile, graduated from “steady guy who’ll hold his own” to “sudden star” in the final four games of the season.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this is a bad sign heading into 2017, but you’re wrong.

Cornerback

K-State returns both guys who started the season on the corner. D.J. Reed — who, along with Hayes, was the victim of quite a few early-season screeds from this quarter -- developed into maybe being the best corner in the conference, and one of the better ones in the nation. Across the way, Duke Shelley struggled in his sophomore campaign, but let’s remember that he was phenomenal as a freshman and now has two years of live game action under his belt. The starters are solid.

The question here is what’s behind the two big guns. In the fall open practice, it appeared that the backups were a pair of redshirt freshmen, A.J. Parker and Walter Neil. Senior Cre Moore will likely be the starting nickel, which means he’s probably also the true First Man In at corner should anything happen to Reed or Shelley.

Behind those guys, it’s anyone’s guess. None of the other corners on the roster have done much of anything in game situations, and the fact that the primary backups appear to be freshmen pretty much tells the tale.

(Edit: Johnathan Durham will most likely be the backup at nickel, and therefore the first option to move up if anyone gets hurt. Apologies for the omission.)

Safety

In the middle of the secondary, there’s more experience. Kendall Adams, who ably stepped in when Barnett was injured in 2015 and held down the free safety slot alongside Barnett last year, will return and solidly hold down one spot. His experience and talent make him a relatively decent pick for Big 12 honors at season’s end.

Replacing Barnett, on the other hand, is a task. But it’s one that young Denzel Goolsby seems up to handling. Goolsby, who was signed as a wide receiver, made the switch to defense soon after arriving on campus. He appears to have picked it up well, as the sophomore appears to have nailed down the starting job.

Sean Newlan, who has a ton of experience, and JUCO transfer Eli Walker will back up the Adams/Goolsby tandem. There are some other guys who’ve seen some action waiting in the wings as well, including Brogan Barry and Johnathan Durham.

Outlook

Three starters return, and the fourth is an exceptionally talented guy who was a Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year. It’s hard to think the secondary won’t be one of the best units wearing purple in 2017, and that’s an opinion multiple writers who cover the conference have shared. The question before the court isn’t with the four or five guys lining up back there, but whether they’ll get enough help in the middle to be effective.

Of course, that’s a question we’ll deal with in our next installment...