While the middle and back-end of the defensive units may have a bunch of questions, the defensive line for the Wildcats may be the most complete unit on the defensive side for 2022. This unit had the biggest changes in 2021 after the switch to the 3-3-5, and there were some growing pains, but by the middle of the season, and coupled with the emergence of Felix Anudike-Uzomah, the defensive front became a force. And a lot returns despite the graduation of regular starters/rotation guys defensive end Bronson Massie and nose guard Timmy Horne.
That starts in the middle with the return of Eli Huggins at nose guard. Huggins is using his extra year of eligibility given for the 2020 season to return for his 6th season at Kansas State. He started every game of 2021 after starting almost every game in 2020, and became a critical piece of the switch from the base 4-3 defense that Klieman brought to Manhattan to the new 3-3-5 that was implemented before last season. And that’s no easy switch for the defensive line, especially at the defensive tackle/nose guard spots. Huggins went from playing in a 4-man front with two big bodies in the middle to clog up the offensive line, to being in a 3-man front that requires the nose guard to be able to handle two or three offensive linemen by himself. But it’s a skill-set change that could serve him well should he decide to try his hand at the NFL after the end of this season.
Backing him up is fellow senior Robert Hentz II, and Dee has also seen regular playing time since his arrival from Northwest Mississippi CC for the 2020 season. Hentz was hampered a bit by injury in 2021, but still saw action in 12 of the available 13 games over the season. Also expected to contribute at some point this season is Uso Seumalo, a massive (6’3”, 340lbs) presence who spent the last two seasons in southwest Kansas at Garden City CC, but didn’t arrive in Manhattan until this summer so likely won’t start to crack the rotation until a bit later into the year. There are also a couple of redshirt freshmen that I’m sure the staff would love to be able to give some snaps to throughout the year.
Over at strong-side defensive end (the guy usually lined up over the right tackle) is the lone “new” starter for the Cats, but it’s not like Nate Matlack is a stranger to the line. Matlack, a “true” sophomore in his third season (thanks, covid), came on strong through the course of the 2021 season, and earned himself some votes from the Big 12 coaches for Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. He also started the final three games of the season, and finished with 3.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss on the season. Listed behind him on the depth chart is Jaylen Pickle, who actually came to K-State as a defensive tackle in 2018 from southwest Kansas. Pickle is a big body (6’5”, 310), but with enough speed and agility to be effective at end (heck, he managed to snag an interception in 2021). He’ll likely be called upon more often against run-heavy teams, but he started five games in 2021 while playing in all 13, so he’ll be expected to be a heavy contributor for the Cats. He may also slide in to defensive tackle on obvious passing situations to give the Wildcats a heavy rush presence.
Over on the weak or “rush” side (the guy who usually lines up over the left tackle) is the King himself, Felix Anudike-Uzomah. Despite the NCAA robbing him of the single-game sack record, Felix had a major break-out versus TCU where he recorded 6 sacks* including three on back-to-back-to-back plays. He finished with a K-State-record-tying 11.5 sacks on the season, and will look to break that elusive mark of 12 this season. And if he does that, or even comes close, it will likely be the junior’s last season in Manhattan.
Looking to earn some snaps when the King needs a breather are Brendan Mott, a redshirt junior, and Cody Stufflebean, a redshirt sophomore. Mott has been a long term walk-on since arriving from Iowa City, IA out of high school in 2019. He’s seen action in exactly two games: as a reserve versus Kansas in 2020 where he made his lone career tackle, and as a reserve versus LSU in the Texas Bowl to cap the 2021 season. Stufflebean is an interesting case, as the McPherson native came to K-State with strong accolades at defensive end in high school, but originally began his path at K-State at tight end (back when we wanted a 6th offensive lineman at the spot). He’s finally returned to his much more natural position on defense, and will likely push for more time over Mott as he continues to get more comfortable in a collegiate setting at the position. Interesting note: Stufflebean and Matlack are cousins, and would make a family sandwich if they are on the field together at end.
There are a couple of other young guys that may see action at end, but the real wildcard may actually be Khalid Duke, who is slotted in the depth chart at “Sam” linebacker, but was far more effective as a rush-end capable of dropping into coverage (think Nick Bosa). It’s possible we’ll see Duke along the line during the season, especially in obvious passing situations.
Overall, there’s a lot of talent and experience to work with across the board along the defensive line. And this unit’s performance will be key to how effective the middle and back of the defense can be. If there is a unit on the defense that shouldn’t see a hiccup from the end of last season, this is it.