While the safety unit for Kansas State has the most overall question marks due to the need to find three new starters, the linebacker corps isn’t far behind in the question department for 2022.
Daniel “Deuce” Green is back in the middle, and is one of the best linebackers in the conference. He’s been a mainstay in the middle of the K-State defense since he saw action in all 13 games during his redshirt-freshman season of 2019, became a regular starter in 2020, and earned Honorable Mention All-Big 12 honors for his work during the 2021 season after leading the team in tackles (89) and tackles for loss (16) — something you love to see from your starting middle linebacker. He kicks off the 2022 season on the Preseason All-Big 12 list, and is the unquestioned “quarterback” of the K-State defense. He’ll be backed up by fellow senior Nick Allen, who will likely see several snaps a game as defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman likes to rotate a lot to keep guys fresh. Having two seniors with lots of experience at K-State at a critical spot is rather incredible, and may cause issues next year... but that’s 2023’s problem.
But beyond that is the great unknown. Headed into the 2021 season the Cats had Cody Fletcher slotted in alongside Green at the “Will” position. He played well over the course of the season, earning honorable mention honors alongside Green. But his eligibility expired, and now the Wildcats must move on to younger options. Earning the starting nod for the season opener is Austin Moore, the one-time walk-on who earned his spot as a standout on special teams before breaking out as a regular rotational linebacker in 2021, including earning a starting spot versus KU. Moore, a junior, is a great steadying force at linebacker, but it is expected that one of the two guys behind him on the depth chart — true-freshman Jake Clifton or JUCO transfer (but a true sophomore) Gavin Forsha — will supplant Moore atop the depth chart before too deep into the season. Forsha may also end up seeing time at the “Sam” linebacker spot thanks to elite speed for the linebacker position.
Speaking of the “Sam” spot, it was kind of a mess in 2021. Khalid Duke was expected to man the role, primarily as a pass rusher in K-State’s 3-3-5 defense. When he went down in game three versus Nevada with a knee injury, Klanderman and linebackers coach Steve Stannard had to scramble. They went through several options, including starting Ryan Henington (now graduated) and playing Wayne Jones (transferred), before “discovering” Reggie “The Sauce Boss” Stubblefield hanging out as a reserve at nickleback and safety. Stubblefield changed the game for the K-State defense, becoming both an adept run-stopper as well as a solid pass-covering option that turned the K-State defense into more of a 3-2-1-5. But alas, Reggie graduated, and the “Sam” role is once again a big question mark.
Khalid Duke has returned, but apparently is still at the tail-end of his recovery (which makes sense, as his injury occurred less than a year ago) and won’t start the season opener and will likely only see limited reps. But Missouri graduate transfer Shawn Robinson may just be the next Reggie, as the QB-turned-safety-turned-linebacker is an elite athlete, and has the size to be good in run support and the speed and skills to be good in pass coverage. His name is atop the depth chart headed into game one, and it may be a spot he hangs on to for the rest of the season.
Notably absent from the day-one depth chart but still expected to contribute this season is Will Honas, the grad-transfer from Nebraska. Honas has had a long history with injuries that have limited him throughout his career, beginning in high school, but when healthy he’s capable of playing at an elite level.
There are several young guys that may also see some action this season, including redshirt freshmen Desmond Purnell and Krew Jackson, who are likely both looking for time at the “Sam” role. And don’t discount true freshmen Tobi Osunsanmi and Gavin Meyers, who will likely push to get their four games of action in during the course of the season.
If this unit can gel like they did to end 2021, it could be a special group. And having a guy like Daniel Green in the middle, presuming he can keep his head up while tackling and avoid targeting calls (warranted or not), makes that process a lot easier. If the linebackers are good, it could be a very good season for the K-State defense.