At the outset of the 2020 season, the offensive line was probably the biggest question mark on the entire Kansas State football team. Conor Riley’s group had lost 90% of the starting snaps from 2019, and there were big holes at offensive tackle. The shutdown of spring and summer practices thanks to COVID also threw a big wrench into the unit’s ability to get work in together - something critical for a group of 5 that must work as one. The unit did struggle at times in 2020, especially when starting center Noah Johnson got hurt early in the first game of the season, but eventually the unit became one of the strengths of the team, even with lots of rotation due to injuries and COVID.
Now, heading in to 2021, the unit could be one of the best on the field for the Wildcats. Not only did all of the different starts an rotations from last year create a group with lots of experience across the board and deep into the depth chart, but the unit got their full offseason work back, and the roster holes that existed when Chris Klieman’s staff first arrived in Manhattan are basically gone.
The Wildcats got a big boost headed into the offseason with the announcement that Noah Johnson decided to use his extra year of eligibility to re-join the Wildcats for one more campaign. Veteran leadership is never a bad thing on the football field, especially with a group like the o-line, and Johnson is not only a leader of the line, but a team captain. Having him at center makes the whole unit, and the whole offense, better overall.
Outside of him are Ben Adler and Josh Rivas, or basically the other two most-experienced guys on the line. Rivas received the other 10% of the starts way back in 2019, and Adler has seen action since that time as well, including being a full-time starter in 2020. Taylor Poitier was poised to unseat one of those two this season before he suffered a season-ending injury during fall camp. Also, fun note, the interior trio for the Wildcats all hail from central/south-central Kansas, with Johnson and Adler both from Wichita, and Rivas from Hutchinson. That’s a lot of DUDE from the middle of the state.
The starting tackles for the Wildcats are Cooper Beebe and Christian Duffie. Beebe is most naturally a guard, but is quite possibly the most talented guy on the line roster right now, and so he is playing out at left tackle. At this level, if you don’t have an elite tackle you put your best lineman out at LT to protect your QB. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than watching Skylar Thompson get picked up off the turf more often than not. Duffie, the lone non-Kansan on the line, played very well last year at tackle, including starting five games on the left side last year. The big Texan is probably also more of a natural fit at guard, but is long and skilled enough to be a critical asset at tackle for the Wildcats.
The Second Line
During a fall camp press conference, line coach Conor Riley raved about his unit, including that his unit might be a true 2-deep across the board. Chris Klieman tried to walk back some of that optimism a week or two later, but it’s pretty clear looking at the roster why Riley is so excited about his unit.
KT (Kaitori) Leveston saw five starts last season and appeared in every game, and will be the primary backup at the guard spots. He pushed hard in camp for a starting spot, and should one of the starting guards go down, Leveston will be right there to prevent the line from skipping a beat. Right behind him is Dawson Delforge, who started against Baylor last season, and saw action in eight games. The lone guy without experience from 2020 in the two-deep is Hadley Panzer, who graduated high school in 2020, but greyshirted the 2020 season and enters the 2021 campagin as a true freshman.
The backups at tackle also saw significant game time in 2020, with true freshman Carver Willis bursting on to the scene to play well in spot duty, and the veteran Logan Long seeing action as a reserve and in field goal protection after an offseason transition from tight end to line. Willis is likely the future at left tackle for the Wildcats, and once some of the seniors in the interior of the line graduate (allowing Cooper Beebe to move back inside), expect Willis to eventually take over the start on the outside.
Hayden Gillum also saw action last season, and is officially listed as Noah Johnson’s backup at center. Now, that’s not to say he’ll see immediate action should Johnson go down, as the staff has a “best five” approach that could see Adler slide in to center and Leveston come in at guard, but Gillum will be the center when the second unit comes in during blowouts.
We’re Not Done
That’s actually 11 guys we’ve talked about now, but there’s more guys available that could make some noise in 2021 and beyond.
We haven’t yet talked about star 2021 recruit Andrew Leingang, the North Dakota native who chose the Wildcats over a strong push from Stanford. Leingang made a lot of noise in fall camp, and is expected to see some action in a least a few games this season (score permitting) without burning his redshirt.
Kingsley Ugwu was a late addition to the roster after completing his season for national champion Hutch CC, and the big tackle will have the option to redshirt the 2021 season and still have two seasons of eligibility in Manhattan. Witt Mitchum is still a bit undersized, and needs another season in the weight program, but the Tennessee native could also have a bright future at tackle.
There’s also Wildcat legacies Trevor Stange and Austin Weiner. Stange is listed on the roster as a sophomore, but still has four seasons of eligibility, and will look to start breaking into the rotation at guard next season when the interior opens up a bit. Weiner is going to need a season or two to bulk up after spending his high school career at tight end, but if he can replicate his father’s success in Manhattan, I think we’ll all be very happy with the wait.
Last but not least (that we’ll get to today, because there’s still more guys on the roster), we’ve got 2020 recruit Sam Shields and veteran reserve Marshall Kellner, with both being part of the loaded depth at guard. Shields arrived on campus in 2020, but did not see any action and will look to keep growing and move up in the depth chart. Kellner saw reserve action against KU last season, and will likely be a guy that continues to see action as a reserve and on field goal protection.
It’s really hard not to share Conor Riley’s excitement looking across the roster at offensive line, both for the 2021 and beyond. And it’s a position that Riley also continues to recruit well, so it should continue to be a strength for the Wildcats as long as Riley is in Manhattan.