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2019 K-State Football Preview: Defensive Backs

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For those who don’t follow closely, there are some surprises in store.

O Captain, Our Captain.
O Captain, Our Captain.
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

He came to Kansas State as a running back, the reigning USA Today Kansas Offensive Player of the Year.

Five years later, Denzel Goolsby is the captain of the back five in K-State’s defense — a unit which has a lot to prove, holes to fill, and a daunting task given the offensive profile of the Big 12.

Goolsby is also undertaking a position change, moving to the free safety slot vacated by the graduated Kendall Adams. The senior is hoping for a full season after an arm injury against Mississippi State interrupted his 2018 campaign and limited him to seven starts and a mere 36 tackles. But his 2017 ended with the Cactus Bowl Defensive MVP trophy after a season in which he recorded 78 tackles, two interceptions, and a forced fumble. The Wildcats shouldn’t have anything to worry about here as long as Goolsby remains healthy.

If not, sophomore Ross Elder has earned the backup slot after pretty much only playing on special teams in 2018.

While free safety is old meme, strong safety is new blood. Redshirt freshman Wayne Jones has locked down the starting job after getting a couple of games in on special teams last season. Jones was rated as the third-best safety in Oklahoma as a senior in 2017, and he helped the Owasso Rams claim the Oklahoma Class 6A-I championship.

Jones has long been expected to claim the starting role. His backup will be junior JUCO transfer Jonathan Alexander, who lost out on the starting spot at nickel back. Alexander turned a few heads in camp while competing for that job, so it’s likely any drop-off from Jones won’t be huge.

The winner of that job is Jahron McPherson, supplanting Walter Neil Jr. (about whom we’ll talk in a moment). The junior JUCO transfer got into 10 games last season and earned the start against Kansas; against West Virginia, he had an interception. Senior Johnathan Durham will spell McPherson after having started six games at cornerback last season. Durham also had a pick against the Mountaineers last year.

Durham got those starts due to injuries suffered by Duke Shelley. Duke’s gone now, but rather than Durham holding onto the job the coaching staff has decided to slide last year’s starting nickle back outside. Walter Neil Jr. has done a decent job clogging up the middle of the field for two years, and now he’s decisively earned the chance to play cover man. Neil had an excellent camp, and quickly ended any discussion of who the starting corners would be. He’s not tall, and he’s slight, but the junior from Lawton put those concerns to rest with his physicality over the last month.

With all these moves reshuffling things, it’s comforting to know one thing will stay exactly the same. AJ Parker has started 14 games at corner for the Wildcats, including all 12 last season. Parker, like seemingly every other defensive back on the roster, had a pick against West Virginia last season; he had another against Texas Tech. Still only a junior, Parker is a known commodity and a solid cover corner who impressed as a sophomore. K-State has nothing to worry about here.

Redshirt freshman Lance Robinson has the honor of maybe being the backup to both starters, as he’s grabbed half of the “or” line on both sides of the field. Robinson got into the maximum four games last year to avoid losing his redshirt, and even started against the Jayhawks and Red Raiders. He’s also a known commodity, and while he may not be the first option should Neil or Parker need a blow, he’ll see a lot of snaps.

The other backups at corner are seniors who’ve spent their entire college careers together, coming to K-State from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M in 2018. Darreyl Patterson is slotted as Parker’s primary backup after getting into five games last season, while Kevion McGee will spell Neil. McGee, who did not pick off the Mountaineers last season (he decided to pick off two passes against Iowa State instead), earned one start last year against Oklahoma and broke up four passes in relief during the season opener against South Dakota.

Ultimately, the Wildcat two-deep in the defensive backfield is long on competence. K-State fans can expect that they won’t see terrible performance. The question is going to be whether this unit can actually excel. The talent is there, and in three spots one can expect that standard improvement year-to-year will pay off. More interesting with the unit, however, is the experience and talent waiting on the sideline.

That talent includes some folks we haven’t even discussed, such as junior wide receiver D.J. Render, who is no longer a junior wide receiver; junior special teams beast Brock Monty, who’s seen plenty of snaps in a relief role the past few years; and a veritable host of freshmen led by Logan Wilson, who’s also earned some buzz and will likely see at least four games worth of solid action before the final buzzer this year.

Simply put, the corners should be solid no matter who’s on the field. It’s going to be the safeties who determine whether K-State’s secondary is a solid unit or a flawed one.