The linebackers in 2017 displayed flashes of brilliance in the midst of a mostly workman-like—and often underwhelming—season. Nevertheless, seniors Trent Tanking and Jayd Kirby ended up with All-Big 12 honorable mentions. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they’re both gone now, and leave the linebacking corps with some sizable shoes to fill.
Newly minted defensive coordinator Blake Seiler, described by Tanking as someone who “really does bleed purple,” will look to build on his work as linebackers coach last season. Under his guidance, the unit was ranked 10th in the nation in rushing defense. The only hurdle might be the relative lack of collective experience for this season’s linebackers.
Flash, smarts, and question marks
This much is certain. Although neither player has been a major contributor on defense yet, Elijah Sullivan and Da’Quan Patton will almost certainly be part of the starting rotation for the Wildcats this year. Sullivan, now a junior, has been excellent on special teams the last two seasons, and also started two games at linebacker in 2017, against Vanderbilt and UCLA. He tallied 28 tackles on the season, with six coming in Kansas State’s bowl victory. Sullivan has the right mix of physical ability and athletic talent to fill the void created by the departure of Tanking and Kirby, but the gap in leadership may be the bigger hill to climb, a fact Sullivan acknowledged while emphasizing his desire “to get everything perfect to a tee.”
In Patton’s case, the transfer from Trinity Valley Community College showed obvious promise as soon as he arrived on campus, inviting comparison to 90s great Percell Gaskins. But it took him a while to learn the ropes of Kansas State’s defensive schemes, and he had to take a redshirt year and bide his time. But Patton is now ready for a starting role, where he promises to be “bigger, faster, stronger.”
The real intrigue for the linebacking corps comes in the third spot. Ordinarily, Sam Sizelove, with an entire season as a starter under his belt would be the obvious choice to fill this spot. But Sizelove’s production fell off sharply in 2017, when he totaled just three tackles all season, and it’s hard to see him in a starting role in 2018. But he’s a fifth-year senior, and a hard work, experience and wisdom being qualities that both Seiler and Bill Snyder emphasize. Sizelove may well be the leader the unit needs this season.
Still, it’s entirely possible that Sizelove will be beaten out for a starting spot, and the most likely candidate is Justin Hughes, a redshirt junior and went to high school in Tucker, Georgia with fellow linebacker Sullivan and defensive back Duke Shelley. Hughes saw action in six games in 2017, including in the bowl game, as a reserve linebacker and on special teams, and his athleticism should put him firmly in the rotation in 2018.
Depth might be a problem
While the linebackers are athletic and determined, the unit is also a bit thin. Behind the starters, there’s hardly any experience, and what little there is comes with significant questions marks. Eric Gallon II, Blake Richmeier, and Ian Rudzik could all be in the mix, along with Sizelove and possibly much-hyped recruit Daniel Green.
Gallon is a familiar name thanks to his father, Eric Sr., a running back for the Wildcats from 1989 to 1992. He came to Kansas State after spending two years at Virginia where he saw some limited action as a true freshman. In Manhattan, he’s had a decent spring game, starting for the White team, and registering four tackles.
Daniel Green is the one linebacker who might not see action this season. His road to Manhattan hit a couple of academic roadblocks, but in February, he finally became academically eligible. He was expected to contribute as a true freshman on the strength of his talent alone, but thanks to his late arrival on the scene, he’s likely to take a redshirt for 2018 and bring his skills to the field in 2019 instead.
Although the linebackers lack significant experience and may experience some leadership gaps this season, the unit also has significant upside. Sullivan and Patton are both major upgrades over their predecessors, and others like Hughes and Gallon bring athleticism and energy to the table, while Sizelove’s experience and command of the schemes should not be discounted. Overall, the linebacking corps for 2018 shows great promise, and could well be the strongest unit on Kansas State’s defense.