The Kansas State Wildcats were on the wrong end of the first major upset of 2020, losing to Arkansas State 35-31. K-State bounced back in a big way with an upset of its own, beating Oklahoma 38-35 to open a four-game winning streak, but the Wildcats struggled down the stretch and lost five in a row in the second half of the season. The painful back end included alternating losses to West Virginia, Iowa State, and Texas by an average margin of nearly 37 points, and near-misses against Oklahoma State and Baylor by a combined three points.
Kansas State is set to begin spring practice soon, and despite the losing streak has plenty to be excited about. Here we take a look at five of the topics worth watching about the Wildcats this spring.
5 Storylines to Watch During Kansas State’s Spring Practices
1. The health of Skylar Thompson
The Wildcats’ quarterback was incredible in the victory over Oklahoma (the second time he’s done so against the Sooners), throwing for a career-high 334 yards while averaging 13.4 yards per pass attempt and accounting for four total touchdowns. Unfortunately, Thompson suffered a season-ending arm injury the following week against Texas Tech. A silver lining of the injury was the seven games of starting experience true freshman Will Howard received, and with the extra season of eligibility awarded every player from 2020, Thompson will return as a “super senior.” We won’t see much of Thompson in his new No. 7 jersey this spring (he only started throwing about a month ago), but his health is key to the Wildcats’ hopes.
2. Finding offensive playmakers
Running back Deuce Vaughn was one of the most productive true freshmen in the country last season. Vaughn led the Wildcats with 642 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 123 carries, surpassing 100 yards on the ground three times including the final two games of the season. He also led the team with 25 receptions and 434 receiving yards (129 against Oklahoma) and caught a pair of touchdown passes.
Vaughn is one of the most exciting playmakers in the Big 12, and he’ll benefit from the return of Thompson and all five starters on the offensive line, but who else will step up for the Wildcats? Tight end Briley Moore is off to the NFL, Chabastin Taylor will miss spring practice due to injury, Malik Knowles took a step back in production as a third-year sophomore, and All-Big 12 punt returner Phillip Brooks hasn’t been much of a factor on offense.
3. Replacing Wyatt Hubert
Kansas State allowed 32.2 points per game last season, which ranked No. 84 nationally and marked an increase of more than 10 points per contest compared to 2019. The Wildcats surrendered 6.11 yards per play, which ranked 90th on the FBS leaderboard and ranked 57th in success rate allowed (39.6 percent) and 101st in Expected Points Added per play defensively (0.096), according to cfb-graphs.com. K-State also is set to lose four players to the NFL draft: junior edge rusher Wyatt Hubert, sixth-year linebackers Elijah Sullivan and Justin Hughes, and senior cornerback AJ Parker.
On paper, Hubert is the most difficult to replace. He posted 19.5 sacks and 33.5 tackles for a loss in three seasons with the Wildcats, earning first-team All-Big 12 honors in 2019 and 2020 following a Freshman All-American campaign. However, K-State returns five players with double-digit total pressures, led by Khalid Duke, who had 37 as a sophomore including a team-high 30 quarterback hurries, according to PFF. Duke and super senior Bronson Massie (28 total pressures) have the potential to be one of the top pass-rushing duos in the conference.
4. New-look linebacker corps
Hughes ranked second to returning super senior defensive back Jahron McPherson with 45 total tackles last season, and Sullivan ranked fifth with 40 total stops. Because Hughes and Sullivan each missed two games, the Wildcats were able to give sophomore Daniel Green, who was credited with 39 tackles, a pair of starts, and Cody Fletcher, a senior taking advantage of the extra year after making 44 stops in 10 games in 2020, started the final three games. However, depth is an issue entering the spring, as no other returning linebacker posted more than five tackles last season, with Nick Allen (tremendous name but limited resume) and Austin Moore playing a combined 46 defensive snaps last season.
5. New strength coach Trumain Carroll
Former Kansas State strength coach Chris Dawson left for UCF last month, but head coach Chris Klieman wasted no time replacing the long-tenured Dawson, whom Bill Snyder hired in 2010. Klieman hired Carroll from USF just three days after the news of Dawson’s departure. Prior to his stint under Jeff Scott with the Bulls, Carroll was the head strength and conditioning coach at Arkansas and SMU and also played and coached at Big 12 rival Oklahoma State. The timing isn’t ideal as offseason workouts began under Dawson in January, and Carroll hasn’t had much time to reshape the K-State strength program before spring football begins. But as the most hands-on member of the staff, he will play a vital role in preparing the Wildcats for the 2021 season throughout the spring and summer months.