My optimism for the 2019 season has waxed and waned, but I’m running out of time and I find myself being drawn to the light like a moth to the 6 or 7 win flame.
The more I think about the current Kansas State roster, the more optimistic I become in the Klieman transition in Manhattan. Unlike most first year coaches taking over a non bowl team, Klieman inherited a junior and senior laden roster with winning experience. Most of the players starting on this team have a 9 win season on their resume. You won’t find that on many teams who just replaced a coach.
In fact, looking back, last season was better than I remembered. When you’re in the middle of a tough season, it’s easy to forget that the 2018 could have been a 7 or 8 win team with a little luck. “Could have” is worth exactly nothing in sports, but the roster, although lacking in certain areas, was only overwhelmed by 3 teams: 8-5 Mississippi State (with the 2nd best scoring defense in the NCAA), 8-4 West Virginia (with the 10th best scoring offense in the NCAA) and 12-2 Oklahoma (with the best scoring offense in the NCAA). The other 4 losses on the schedule were all a play or two away from being wins (or blowouts the other way, but this is about optimism).
The 2018 team was frustrating but they weren’t bad.
The 2019 team doesn’t have a Big 12 Championship roster, but I think the floor is higher than most people outside of Manhattan (and most people are outside of Manhattan) think.
I expect the offense to be improved in 2019. They might even be good.
Offensive Line Experience
LT: Scott Frantz - Sr - 38 Starts
C: Adam Holtorf - Sr - 25 Starts
RG: Tyler Mitchell - Sr - 30 Starts
The offensive line gives me a reason to think a bowl game isn’t out of reach. Show me a team with a bad offensive line, and I’ll show you a bad team. The Wildcats were solid, if not good, on the line last year. Granted, replacing a stud like Dalton Risner is tough, but the three returning veterans on the line should make it an easier proposition.
I expect Nick Kaltmayer to take over at right tackle, and while he doesn’t have much starting experience, he’s been in the program for three years and has shown the ability to come in and play when needed. Even if left guard is a bit of a question — potentially answered by JuCo surprise Noah Johnson or RS-Sophomore Josh Rivas (who saw action in all 12 games last year with two starts) — there are enough answers on the line that it doesn’t worry me. Kansas State will be able to find a capable left guard.
Offensive line is the hardest position to improve in the short term. There just aren’t many quality offensive linemen available via grad transfer or JuCo, and the ones that are available tend to get snapped up by the blue bloods as soon as they hit the market. Coach Klieman and company didn’t have to worry about scrambling for offensive linemen. That’s a huge advantage for a new coaching staff. The last staff’s best attribute (in my opinion) was the ability to evaluate and develop offensive linemen. The cupboard isn’t full by any means, and depth could be an issue, but things could be much, much worse for the new staff on the line.
Quarterback is the single most important position in team sports and Kansas State has a good one in Skylar Thompson. Strangely enough, quarterback is one of the easier positions to fill these days with 4 and 5 star players jumping ship if they don’t start, but having a talented and experienced quarterback that fits the new offensive system is a huge bonus for the new staff.
Thompson’s combination of athleticism and passing acumen behind a veteran line should allow the new staff to run as much of their offense as the skill positions can handle. Working around wide receivers and running backs limitation on offense is easy compared to having to work around offensive line and quarterback limitations.
Just ask Willie Taggart and Florida State.
The skill positions (I’m lumping RB’s and WR’s together) are fun, and can turn a good team into a great team, but they’re also the easiest to find. Coach Klieman was able to bring in two capable grad transfer running backs — he would have been hard pressed to find a capable left tackle on the transfer market. Losing Barnes early hurt, and the Wildcats would be better with him in the backfield, but it’s something they can work around.
Losing Isaiah Zuber (and to a lesser extent Hunter Rison) at wide receiver was tough, but wide receiver is a place where you can be creative with personnel. Ideally you have a squad of veteran, well rounded receivers, but much like running back, it’s easier to work around a young receiver group than a young offensive line or a young quarterback. If you’re going to be inexperienced, you want to be inexperienced at wide receiver.
This 2019 K-State team has experience where you need experience and youth where you can afford youth. Add in the fact that there is no longer a power struggle between the head coach and the offensive coordinator and the Wildcats could be looking at a vastly improved offense. Throw in an experienced defense (which I’ll get to soon) and this team could surprise in the Big 12.