In 2017, the special teams unit was expected to be a strength for a team and did not disappoint. Matthew McCrane kicked his way to becoming a Lou Groza semifinalist, making just over 80 percent of his field goals and nailing every single extra point. Punter Nick Walsh, a two-time Ray Guy candidate, had the Big 12’s second-best yard average, while D.J. Reed and Byron Pringle continued a long tradition of excellent returners in Manhattan. Reed led the conference in return yards on his way to Walter Camp All-America status, while Pringle was an All-Big 12 honorable mention.
In 2018, things look very different. McCrane, Pringle, and Reed are fighting to make the 53-main roster of their NFL teams, while Walsh is pursuing stardom of a different kind in the world of country music.
Holder Colby Moore is one of only two three-time letter winners on special teams this season, and he’s also the honorary team captain.
If the spring game is anything to go on, this may not be a good year at place kicker for Kansas State. During the game, there was little to separate Blake Lynch, Nick McLellan, Jake Roark, and Andrew Hicks. Lynch was the only one to connect on all his extra point attempts as well as make a field goal. It’s not surprising then than he made it right to the top of the 2018 depth chart, with McLellan and true freshman Maxwell Poduska as his backups.
Lynch will be handling both placekicking and kickoff duties. It’s not clear if he’ll be able to match McCrane in accuracy, but what he lacks in experience, he makes up for in effort and enthusiasm. He’s a small guy (5’5”) with a big leg who wears #10, much like one Martin Gramatica. Also, there’s this from Bill Snyder himself:
He is fun to watch, because the players love him. He will jump up in the air and they will catch him and they will throw him up.
Hicks (whose father played football at Kansas) may not have cracked the depth chart at kicker, but will take on primary punting duties for the Wildcats this year. He’s the only freshman tabbed as a starter in 2018. He redshirted last year, but in high school, he had a long of 64 yards, and put the ball inside the 20 five times. His relative lack of experience may be a liability in real live game action, but for now, the job is Hicks’ to lose.
He’ll be backed up by Devin Anctil, a transfer from Coffeyville Community College, where he was first-team all-conference, or by Bernardo Rodriguez, who punted 38 times without allowing a return yard as a high school senior.
That Duke Shelley and Isaiah Zuber will be returning kicks and punts is not especially surprising. Kansas State has a long history of defensive backs and wide receivers putting their speed to good use on special teams. That neither has been a factor in the return game before should give us some pause, however.
Zuber returned kicks and punts in high school, totaling over 1000 yards and nine touchdowns as a kick returner. Shelley, the only other three-time letter winner on special teams besides Moore, also was a return man in high school, scoring three touchdowns.
Query whether it’s worth having your most experienced wide receiver and most experienced defensive back playing special teams and possibly getting hurt in the process.
Unlike in years past, the special teams unit in 2018 is high on potential and almost alarmingly low on experience. For the first time in years, special teams may not provide the Wildcats the necessary cushion. On the other hand, this is still a Bill Snyder-coached team and Kansas State still takes special teams more seriously than almost any other program.
After all, punting is winning.