Since we already broke down the spring and the spring game when we profiled the offense, I won’t bore you with repeated details. It’s the spring game, it’s going to be fun.
Except, it hasn’t always been fun for the defense, at least the second-team. Since Bill Snyder always runs ones versus twos in the spring game — even those times he teases us saying he’ll change things up — the second-team defense is always stuck trying to stop the first-team offense running Bill Snyder’s offense. And guys on the second team are usually there because they are young and still learning assignments, and Snyder’s offense is built on exploiting defenses that don’t play assignment-sound football. And in some cases, like 2012, you are going up against a future Heisman finalist QB that knew the playbook so well, and had the trust of the staff so fully, he’s now back coaching the quarterbacks at K-State.
The spring game is almost always a lose-lose for the defense. You can’t sack the QB, you don’t want to lay a punishing hit on a teammate (well, the K-State defense doesn’t anyway...), and either you look good and make the offense look bad, or you look bad and then fans worry how bad the defense is going to be. Yep, lose-lose.
But for as much as the starting offense for next season is nearly chiseled in stone at this point, there are some big question marks around the defense. And it’s not really that there aren’t good players on the roster there, it’s just that they have some extremely big shoes to fill.
So lets take a look at what to watch for this Saturday on the defense.
Jordan Willis is gone to the draft, likely to be a first or second round selection. Senior Will Geary has missed all of spring practice due to undisclosed reasons, but the expectation from coaches is that he will be back for the fall. Losing one First Team All-Big 12 player is bad enough, but losing two at once could really be trouble. Hopefully Geary gets things worked out and gets back this summer.
Two spots on the d-line aren’t question marks. Sophomore end Reggie Walker is poised to quickly move out of Willis’ big shadow after a stellar freshman campaign. Likewise, sophomore Trey Dishon is back to man the other interior spot next to (hopefully) Geary. In Geary’s absence we will get to see what the depth looks like on the inside, but expect Ray Price to pick up that spot on the first-team. There are several promising underclassmen that should see some time in rotation as well, as freshmen Kalein Key and Eli Huggins will both be looking for some good experience against the first-team offense.
On the outside is where the real competition will happen. Senior Tanner Wood has played significant minutes at end on regular downs and inside during rush packages. He’s got the experience and size to be an adequate replacement for Willis. But sophomore Kyle Ball will look to capitalize on a surprising 2016 campaign that saw him, among solid minutes against big competition, record a sack on his first official tackle. Also to watch for in the rotation for the first team will be senior Davis Clark, who actually started for the first-team in the 2016 spring game and was the most disruptive of the linemen in that game, and junior C.J. Reese who has played in spot minutes and rush packages in the last few seasons. On the second-team, watch for freshmen Bronson (Boom) Massie and Wyatt Hubert. Massie made some noise on the scout team last year, and Hubert, an early-enrollee this year, was K-State’s top-rated 2017 recruit according to several services.
Talk about a depleted unit. Gone are starters Charmeachealle Moore (graduation) and Elijah Lee (NFL Draft), as well as Will Davis who started much of the 2015 season was 3rd LB in true 4-3 sets in 2016. And while it’s great to have a player like Lee in position to realize his dreams and get drafted into the NFL, as fans (also true for the coaches) it sucks to see a start player go and lose someone who was expected to lead the entire defense in 2017. But now all we can do is wish Elijah good luck (he’s earned it!) and move on.
This is the battle of the spring. Seriously. Every spot is open for grabs and there are several guys who have the talent and system experience to earn themselves a starting role. Senior Trent Tanking is the odds-on favorite for the ILB role, as he has played well in reserve and on special teams the last few years, including nearly the whole game last season against TCU where he recorded the game-ending interception. Juniors Jayd Kirby and Sam Sizelove have both earned praise from Bill Snyder out of spring game, which is big by itself, and like Tanking played well on special teams and in spot duty the last couple seasons.
Newcomers in JUCO transfer Da’Quan Patton and Baylor transfer Xavier Phillips both have college experience, and Patton has drawn extremely high praise from both Bill Snyder as well as Sean Snyder for his performance so far. The key for Patton will be learning the defensive assignments, because a missed assignment on Snyder’s defense is almost worse than a missed tackle.
The Tucker, Ga duo of sophomores Justin Hughes and Elijah Sullivan have generated some hype just based on what they were a part of with recruiting. Hughes was the first to come from Tucker as a greyshirt was back in 2014, then convinced Duke Shelley to join him 2015, who then alerted the staff to the situation with Sullivan and Auburn that same year (Auburn turned his full-ride into a greyshirt offer at the last minute), and so we end up with three young men from Tucker, GA on defense. Sullivan and Hughes both have the potential to earn one of the starting roles.
There’s also “local” guys in sophomore Chase Johnston (from Carl Junction, MO), who moved from FB to LB last season at the start of fall camp, and freshman Ian Rudzik who was a well-rated recruit out of Uylesses, KS a couple years ago.
Back to some semblance of order. Juniors Duke Shelley and D.J. Reed will man the outside corner slots. The tandem has the potential to be one of the best duos in the Big 12 next year — Shelley has speed to burn, and Reed is an elite ball-hawk, and both showed significant improvement last season when healthy. On the back-end, Kendall Adams returns at FS and also had a solid 2016 campaign.
There will be some competition for the “Wildcat” safety spot replacing graduated Donnie Starks, the nickle-back in the K-State modified 4-2-5 alignment most commonly used in Big 12 play, but senior Cre Moore played well there when filling in due to injuries late last season. With a full off-season in that role, there’s no reason not to expect him to seize it full-time. On the back-end there is a much bigger question mark. Dante Barnett is graduated, but the one who really stood out in that role in 2015 when Barnett was injured was Adams, and the other guy who should be back there left the team in January of 2016. Senior Sean Newlan a bit on an edge because he was one of the early options in 2015 in the replace-Barnett carousel, and has seen plenty of duty since in reserve roles. Senior Brogan Barry has a lot of experience on special teams and could also make a strong case for that role. The real surprise star here would be sophomore Denzel Goolsby. Goolsby was highly touted as an offensive player coming in to K-State, but switched to defense before the start of fall camp last year. He played some on special teams last year, but with a full season to learn the assigments and now a full spring camp, he has the athletic tools to really become a standout at safety.
Senior Matthew McCrane is a known commodity at kicker, so we’ll want to see how the two freshmen on the roster fare. Same with punting and seniors Nick Walsh and Mitch Lochbihler (who will likely handle starting kickoff duties after his performance to end the 2016 season in that role), we will be looking at how well the two sophomores in that position fare.
Spring game returners are always a mixed bag. Plenty of guys will get the opportunity to return kicks, but the season starters there are likely to be Byron Pringle and Dominque Heath. You just don’t mess with a winning formula like that.
There are plenty of question marks on defense this season, but they aren’t ones to dread. There is a lot of talent on the roster, a lot of depth that has gotten real playing time in real games thanks to the injury-plagued 2015 season, as well as near the end of the 2016 season. It will be fun to see how the linebacker battle sorts out, “new” LB coach Blake Seiler has plenty of options to choose from, and none seem like a “settling” option.