An observer of the Kansas State secondary late in the 2020 campaign could be forgiven for expecting the unit to be a weak link going into 2021, especially with the departure of AJ Parker — who appears set to start at nickel as an undrafted free agent for the Detroit Lions.
But as with many things in the wake of last year’s COVID-induced nightmare, that may be a wildly inaccurate projection. The secondary faltered late in the year because at times there was literally nobody left on the bench to relieve the completely gassed and sometimes only marginally healthy players that were still available by season’s end. In addition, K-State’s coaching staff attacked the transfer portal with vigor to bring in talent; it looks as though they did better than just plug holes. The talent lined up for 2021 may be the best secondary Chris Klieman has had in Manhattan.
One reason for real optimism is that two members of the 2020 secondary were moved to linebacker, and that likely would not have happened without solid depth in the back five. Ryan Henington and Wayne Jones have bulked up and moved forward; Jones was starting at safety last year until an injury got in the way and Henington played a ton of downs deep.
Jahron McPherson, second-year team captain, returns for one more rodeo at strong safety. There are no questions about McPherson, an honorable mention All-Big 12 selection last year and Lott Trophy watch list target this fall. McPherson did possibly more than anyone to secure K-State’s win against Oklahoma last season, forcing a fumble and picking off a pass late in the game. Ross Elder, an experienced senior option who was serviceable early in the season, will be McPherson’s main backup as the season starts. Later in the year, expect Kennesaw State transfer Cincere Mason to take over that role with Elder moved into the rotation at nickel. Mason’s been very impressive in camp, but arrived late and is still working on getting schemes down.
Alongside McPherson, Louisville transfer Russ Yeast slides into the free safety slot. Yeast spent the last two seasons starting almost every game for the Cardinal, and was impressive right from the jump when he arrived in Manhattan. TJ Smith, who made several remarkable plays last season before suffering an injury, will be Yeast’s primary competition.
Ekow Boye-Doe returns at corner after a season where he was all-world early in the year and like must of the exhausted secondary was a disaster in the second half. It’s reasonable to assume he’ll be back at a high level with a fully-stocked secondary alongside him. If not, Tee Denson waits in the wings. Denson got playing time late last season, and had a couple of solid highlights.
The other corner is occupied by another transfer. Iowa transfer Julius Brents has claimed the starting gig, with Justin Gardner — who last year also had an interception in the Oklahoma game, a pick-six against Kansas, and four pass break-ups against TCU — ready to step in. Honestly, that Brents beat Gardner out for the starting gig should alleviate any concern whatsoever about whether Brents is up to the task. Brents is also one of the tallest corners K-State has had in awhile, so look for him to be making some plays.
K-State does not list nickel on the depth chart, but it’s expected that Aamaris Brown, Prairie View transfer Reggie Stubblefield, and Elder will rotate in that role. Brown and Stubblefield have earned a lot of positive commentary from the staff. It’s also possible, with Jones and Henington moving to linebacker, that some packages might see one of those two lining up as linebackers but performing more of a nickel function post-snap.
There are also 12 underclassmen listed as defensive backs on the roster to help fill in holes if emergencies arise. Of those, freshman Marvin Martin has impressed Klanderman so much that he suggests Martin will be starting by October; he’s also called out Omar Daniels and Darell Jones as guys who should see some significant action before it’s all said and done, although he seems equally inclined to let them bulk up for a year.
There’s a lot to like about this secondary, especially if one is inclined to give them a deserved pass for collapsing late in 2020. Of all K-State’s units during the final quarter of the season, it was the secondary whose very presence was the most heroic; several starters were suffering enough injury that they may well have been inactive if the unit was at full strength. With three solid new additions off the portal and some impressive freshman talent, what was the downfall for a promising 2020 season may be the team’s strength in 2021.