Last year at this time, the conventional wisdom was that Kansas State’s utter collapse down the stretch in 2020 indicated that the Wildcats would have a weak secondary. In this space, we told you “Not so fast, my friend.”
We were right.
The most telling statistic of 2021 for the Wildcat secondary was that they only allowed 42 plays of 20-plus yards all season. K-State only gave up 212 yards per game through the air, 44th in the nation and fourth in the Big 12.
The bad news is that safeties Jahron McPherson, Russ Yeast, Reggie Stubblefield, and Ross Elder are all gone. That’s not good no matter how you look at it.
The good news? It’s really good. Both starting cornerbacks — preseason All-Big 12 selection Julius Brents and Ekow Boye-Dow, who was one of the reason we argued a year ago this unit would be okay last season — will return, and TJ Smith, the guy who might lowkey have been the team’s best safety on an effectiveness-per-play basis last year, will also be back.
So the corners are set, with a huge battle in camp to determine the backups. freshman Jacob Parrish and JUCO transfer Jordan Wright appear to have the inside edge, but JUCO transfer Justice Clemons and freshmen Colby McCalister and Omar Daniels have also been mentioned by the staff has having excellent camps. Daniels, specifically, was mentioned last year as someone who could have gotten into the rotation, but the utter lack of need for it allowed the staff to preserve his redshirt; he nabbed a spot on the depth chart heading into the season opener. There’s also Vaughn Malone, whose dad happens to be the cornerbacks coach/assistant head coach, and who had a couple of moments in the Texas Bowl last year.
At safety... phew. That’s not to imply a disaster in the making, but a complete loss as to who’s going to end up playing. Per reports, the battle in camp has been epic — so epic that even TJ Smith failed to nab a starting spot. The chief reason for this surfeit of talent: the transfer portal.
The starting spots to open the season will fall to Josh Hayes, Kobe Savage, and either Drake Cheatum or Cincere Mason.
Hayes is a super-beneficiary of the COVID eligibility rule, as he actually played every single game in his four seasons at North Dakota State before only playing three games for Virginia last year. For those who are adept at calendaring, yes. This means Hayes has already played two full seasons for Chris Kleiman and Joe Klanderman so they know him very, very well.
Savage had 70 tackles and six picks for Tyler JC last year, where he and Clemons were teammates. That sets up a possible familiarity synergy the staff can exploit. Savage was, apparently, the first player to emerge from the pack and claim a starting gig.
Cheatum, meanwhile, comes to Manhattan with a first-team All-SWAC honor under his belt, racking up 86 tackles and five interceptions last year for the Panthers. Stubblefield also excelled in Manhattan after coming up from Prairie View, so expect good things from Cheatum this year.
Mason is the only returning player listed as a possible starter. He got a lot of action last season, and along with Smith provides some unit continuity. Smith, along with freshman VJ Payne and senior Hunter Henry, will be the primary backups; those already familiar with K-State’s safety usage will note this means all three will still get significant playing time.
Some freshman names to watch for: Jet Dineen, younger brother of fullback Jax, continues the Lawrence Free State legacy in Manhattan. Joe Hall III is the son of former Wildcat running back Joe Hall.