The early off-season was nothing but bad news for K-State’s receiving corps. Byron Pringle declared for the draft. Dominique Heath decided to transfer to Appalachian State, joining former Wildcat Corey Sutton. Dalton Schoen, the team’s second-leading receiver by yards per game, ended up the third-leading receiver by total yards because he missed the end of the season after breaking his collarbone. Carlos Strickland, a big body four-star transfer from California Golden Bears who was expected to be a factor, also transferred, ending up at Wayland Baptist in Texas. Yeah, an NAIA school.
The result of all that: nobody seems to think K-State’s passing game is going to be worth a warm bucket of spit this year.
They’re probably over-reacting.
The two guys who will bear most of the load — Isaiah Zuber and Schoen — were both vastly more productive as receivers than the departed Heath. Zuber is the team’s returning leader in total yards, receptions, and touchdowns; Schoen is the team’s returning leader in yards per game.
Zuber, who enters 2018 as the team’s primary target, hasn’t proven to be much of a deep threat; that’s part of the reason for the negative prognostications. But Zuber is an excellent possession receiver whose presence is reminiscent of former Wildcat Curry Sexton, and you’ll recall he was one of the staff favorites here during his time running alongside Tyler Lockett. It’s also important to note that with Pringle on the field, Pringle was always going to be the primary deep threat anyway. Zuber does have speed, so what needs to be determined is whether he can use it to graduate from possession receiver to stretching the field.
If he can’t, our position is that it’s not that critical. Schoen burst onto our radar in the 2017 spring game, then proved that wasn’t a fluke by racing 70 yards for a touchdown on his very first reception in an actual game. He topped that later in the year with an 82-yard score against Texas (followed by another touchdown half a quarter later which staked the Cats to a 10-point lead they’d eventually surrender). Schoen has breakaway speed, and the ability to get away from coverage and get open. He’s not a liability.
The third starter is expected to be senior Zach Reuter, who was every bit Dorial Green-Beckham’s equal in Columbia high school football lore. Reuter’s career in Manhattan has been underwhelming, unable to push his way into the starting lineup for the most part, but in Schoen’s absence late last year he proved capable. In the game-winning drive against Iowa State, two key catches by Reuter helped keep the game alive.
Depth will be a concern. Heading into opening week, the second-string consists of Chabastin Taylor, Isaiah Harris, and Landry Weber. Taylor, a redshirt freshman, has received a great deal of praise during camp and back in the spring, and is a serious threat to push his way into the starting lineup before the season’s very old. Harris has shown flashes of promise, including a 118-yard performance in last year’s season opener But Harris struggled with injuries — indeed, he earned a medical redshirt and is again officially a sophomore this year — and also made some notable errors last season. If healthy and focused, Harris is also a credible threat. Weber, a redshirt freshman who’s the son of Wildcat color man and former quarterback Stan Weber, has clearly been doing something right in camp to end up in the two-deep to start his career.
D.J. Render is the only other receiver on the roster with any actual experience playing for the Wildcats. Sophomore Wykeen Gill has made some noise in practice. Beyond that, a host of true freshmen will be competing for playing time in 2019 and beyond, but don’t expect to see much of them this year. Also missing from the field in 2018 will be Michigan State Spartans transfer Hunter Rison, son of Andre, who’ll have to sit the year out.
As for the tight ends, who are so very rarely part of the passing game for K-State these days, sophomore Nick Lenners has come away from camp with the starting job. He beat out junior Blaise Gammon and senior Matt Jones. None of them have a single career reception, but does that really matter in this offense? They’ll see most of their action as blockers, with Lenners also having the ability to perform more of an H-back role.
Ultimately, the identity of 2018 K-State football seems destined to be that of a running team. But if this unit can’t step up and perform more productively than most observers expect, that rushing game isn’t going to get off the ground either. We think the receivers are up to the task, so long as depth doesn’t become a real issue.