It was a great spring day in Manhattan, Kansas on Saturday. But it wasn’t exactly an exciting day, at least if you were expecting to watch a “traditional” spring football game. It definitely wasn’t the “bold and daring” of the late 2000’s, nor was it even the “vanilla” of the Snyder era. It was practice, pure and simple.
But that didn’t mean that we didn’t learn anything. So lets recap the things we gleaned from the open practice and scrimmage.
It’s been abundantly clear since Chris Klieman took over the reigns of the Wildcat football program that Skylar Thompson is K-State’s starting QB. If it hasn’t been clear before, it was absolutely crystal during the practice sessions. Thompson looks comfortable and confident, commands the huddle, and looks like a Big 12 starting QB.
What hasn’t been clear is what the order is behind him. Sammy Wheeler, who won the Red Raider award this past season as the best scout team player, is now playing tight end (more on that later). RSFR John Holcombe looked like the clear number two guy, but still needs to make a lot of progress before seeing significant action. You can tell he’s still drinking from the proverbial firehose, but when he gets a clean pocket he can show off his cannon. Number three appears to be sophomore Nick Ast, with true freshman Jaren Lewis, and Mr-everything sophomore Ryan Henington fourth and fifth. Ast probably has a better command of the offense than Holcombe, but the Texan’s athletic abilities give him a leg up on the lanky southwest-Kansan.
Things still look murky at running back, even though James Gilbert seems to have locked in the primary role. Juniors Harry Trotter and Tyler Burns both rotated heavily with the ones as well, and while Gilbert was clearly leading the pack, none of the three looked like a game-changing running back right now. It looks likely that unless one of these guys really explodes over the summer, or one of the incoming freshman comes in on fire, that the Wildcats running game may take more than a couple steps back.
The fullbacks look like they will be more integrated with the tight end group, and none looked incredibly impressive during the practice sessions.
We’re still missing Isaiah Zuber at wide receiver, as the presumed starter is still recovering from off-season surgery, but there seems to be significant depth and talent out wide. Hunter Rison looks every bit the part of a legacy, flashing high levels of speed, route-running, and catching. Dalton Schoen continues to be the steady force, and Wykeen Gill and Malik Knowles are continuing their strong end to the fall. One surprise that I saw out of this group was walk-on RSFR Seth Porter. He may be a bit undersized, but the dude was quick, and was catching everything that was thrown his way. Thompson hit him three or four times in a row on some slant routes over the middle (oh, yeah, we’re gonna see slant routes).
The tight ends look like their still working on catching up (pun intended) to the role that the new staff wants for the TE’s. Yes, they will still be blocking, but they are now a significant part of the overall offensive gameplan, especially receiving; like Sammy Wheeler’s incredible grab to end the scrimmage. I mean, we all expected that, but to was nice to see in person.
With the lack of “program-ready” TE’s, it’s entirely possible that the staff may elect to go with more three, and possibly even four wide receiver sets instead of their more TE-heavy package that they used in Fargo.
The starting o-line is very very clearly (from left to right): Scott Frantz, Josh Rivas, Adam Holthorf, Tyler Mitchell, Nick Kaltmayer. Again, this was entirely expected, it was really just a matter of which side of center the two guards would end up on. It appears as though OL coach Conor Riley is going to run a bit more of a pro-style rotation, instead of the traditional depth chart at line. It appears as though there are just three primary backups for the line, with a “swing” tackle and guard, and a backup center. Those three are RSFR Christian Duffie (T), RSFR Aidan Mills (G), and senior Evan Curl (C). Things may change as the season approaches, but it’s an interesting twist for a loaded position group.
The largest learning curve is on this side of the ball. And injuries and roster shortages have created some interesting situations for the new staff. But some things are clear, besides just a couple position groups. We’re going to see a more diverse passing game, both from routes (like slants, and utilizing the middle of the field), as well as available targets. It’s not going to be a spread-pass or air raid offense by any means; it’s going to look a lot more “pro-style” than many college offenses. We’re going to see the QB under center a lot more. And we’ll still see some QB run game, just not as the primary options.
Three of the four line positions are set, with Reggie Walker and Wyatt Hubert controlling the end positions and Trey Dishon anchoring the center of the line. The bulk of the rotation at the other spot is basically unchanged from last season, with Joe Davies and Jordan Mittie still in stiff competition.
Presumed starter Justin Hughes is out for the season with an ACL injury (we’re even learning about injuries now...). Elijah Sullivan is still recovering a bit from injuries and surgeries related to last season, but looks every bit the linebacker we expected to see headed into last season with his speed intact, and his vision growing. Da’Quan Patton is the other starter. It appears that Sullivan and Patton are clearly ahead of the next set at the position, a group that includes Cody Fletcher, Eric Gallon, and Daniel Green. Like previous years, we’re going to see a lot of two-linebacker sets, but it’s going to be extremely rare anymore to see three-LB sets, even in obvious run downs.
We’re going to break up the defensive backs because of use. AJ Parker looks like he built off a strong 2018 campaign, and is the clear number one at CB. Walter Neil, Jr. played outside on Saturday, but his primary role will be nickle. Corner is probably the weakest area on the whole team at this very moment, as the unit is extremely depleted by injury.
It’s a hard choice between which unit might be better overall right now of the defense between safety and defensive end. The back-end unit looks stout right now, and they are going to be used in different ways. Denzel Goolsby is back, and he’s joined by JUCO transfer Jonathan Alexander, who appears to have dove in head-first and come up swimming strong, and RSFR Wayne Jones. Those three alone are going to be beasts, but this staff isn’t afraid to rotate guys around, both positionally and in sets. For example, during one defense set, Darreyl Patterson, who has been almost exclusively a corner to this point, was a deep free safety, while Alexander and Jones came up and flanked the linebackers. It looked like a run-stopping 4-4 set, but with two safeties instead of four linebackers. It was a beauty to behold.
The defense may have been more depleted by injuries than the offense during the spring, but there are still some very bright spots, and good things happening. Defensive Coordinator Scottie Hazleton is running an aggressive defense that’s “basically” a 4-2-5, but with tons of flavors being tossed around. The defensive kitchen is abuzz, and the product looks like it could be really tasty if the injuries can all get cleared up before fall camp.
For a football junkie, a person that wants to get a sense of their team and just what’s going on, the Spring Showcase was great. In many ways it was way better than the spring game in terms of seeing the makeup of the team, seeing young guys in action, and seeing some of the schemes that might actually be on the field in August.
For the casual fan, the person that just wants that game in April to tide them over until the fall, it was likely a snooze-fest; even moreso than the 4-hour slog of a traditional spring game. It’s no “fun” to watch practice, you don’t get to see big hits, 80-yard TD’s against the second string, or QB’s calling plays. And the off-field “fun stuff” that Athletics promoted seemed pretty tame and thrown together. I didn’t expect the literal carnival that accompanied Ron Prince’s first spring game, but I also expected a little more going on than the open beer terrace and a couple random games for kids above the north endzone.
I like the concept of the “showcase”, but there is definitely room for improvement. Athletics has a whole year to figure out what they want to do for the 2020 version, they better come up with some good stuff.