Around the Big 12: Kansas State Wildcats
Kansas State surprised under first-year coach Chris Klieman, winning eight games and knocking off College Football Playoff participant Oklahoma along with wins over rivals Kansas and Iowa State.
What are the expectations for K-State in 2020, and who are the key players returning? K-StateOnline Managing Editor Matt Hall takes a look.
3 Prominent Storylines
1. What can Klieman do in year two?
Las Vegas had K-State's over/under win total set at 5.5 prior to the 2019 season, a number that, quite honestly, seemed fair considering what the Wildcats did in 2018 and had back on paper. That, and the fact the Wildcats were starting off with a new coaching staff led by Chris Klieman and a staff with a heavy North Dakota State influence, left some expecting plenty of growing pains last season.
That, for the most part, did not happen.
K-State blew out two over-matched opponents at home before winning at Mississippi State and earning Big 12 wins over Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa State, Texas Tech and TCU.
The Wildcats have questions to answer this year and plenty of holes to fill, but there's plenty of interest in finding out what Klieman can do as a follow up to a solid debut season.
2. Joe Klanderman is K-State's new defensive coordinator
Scottie Hazelton accepted an offer to become the new defensive coordinator at Michigan State, and the Wildcats stayed in-house to (quickly) replace Hazelton with safeties coach Joe Klanderman.
Klieman has long praised Klanderman for his unique intelligence and has always expressed a great deal of trust and appreciation for Klanderman. When the position opened up, we immediately shared an overwhelming belief Klanderman would be the one promoted.
That's ultimately happened, and now we'll see how the first time Power Five defensive coordinator handles the added responsibility.
3. Can K-State's recruiting momentum continue?
There are certainly outside factors impacting college football recruiting, but Klieman and company have to be excited about the start they are off to for the Class of 2021.
K-State already has landed the commitments of three of the top four players in the state of Kansas - including the No. 1 recruit in the state - as well as a pledge from four-star rated quarterback Jake Rubley, who had an LSU offer, among countless others.
It's extremely early, but as of the start of the Mar. 22 week the Wildcats ranked No. 17 in the nation in Rivals recruiting rankings. This should be a smallish (20 or so) class, but it still has the chance to be the best in years for the Wildcats.
3 Biggest Departures
1. All five starting offensive linemen
K-State's offense is built on running the football, and that certainly starts up front.
I was honest in my belief K-State was average, at times, up front last year, but any way you slice it the Wildcats are going to have to replace all five starters up front.
Junior Josh Rivas was essentially a sixth stater last season and will slide into a guard spot, and there is young talent available to fill in the gaps. Redshirt freshman Cooper Beebe, for example, has drawn rave reviews and will likely be a starter at one of the tackle spots.
I'm not sure K-State will be significantly less talented up front in 2020, but there's no doubt there's significantly less experience to work with.
2. Running backs James Gilbert & Jordon Brown
You could copy and paste much of what I wrote for the offensive line into this spot.
That said, K-State is probably in better shape at running back, as there are options galore at running back. And, some of those young options - most specifically Joe Ervin and Jacardia Wright - got extensive playing experience as true freshman a year ago while also hanging onto their redshirts.
Gilbert and Brown were valuable pieces of Klieman's program in year one, but I do think this group can be better, overall, if the offensive line is good enough to pave the way.
3. Safety Denzel Goolsby
Senior-to-be Jonathan Alexander has elite size and good athleticism for the safety position and got loads of experience last season - plus fellow starter Wayne Jones returns - but Denzel Goolsby has been an absolute fixture in this defense for quite some time.
Goolsby also struck me as a player Klieman leaned on, heavily, for leadership and example setting on the defensive side of the football.
I think the production can ultimately be replaced, but there is much, much more Goolsby added to the program K-State will have to find elsewhere.
3 Key Returners
1. Quarterback Skylar Thompson
This one is pretty obvious, as there's extreme value in returning a starting quarterback.
The real value, though, is perhaps in getting Skylar Thompson back not only with a full year in Courtney Messingham's offense system, but also a second straight off-season where he's the unquestioned leader of the offense and starter at quarterback.
Bluntly, Thompson struggled in the bowl game loss to Navy and had some uneven moments through the season. He also, however, was very sharp in many of the Wildcats wins, and it's not crazy to think Thompson could take a relatively big jump thanks to his experience, a second-year in this system and ever increasing confidence in his role.
2. Defensive end Wyatt Hubert
Bluntly, I think Wyatt Hubert is K-State's best player, and it's not particularly close.
I don't know what kind of sack numbers he's going to put up (he had seven last season), but Hubert absolutely earned the first-team All-Big 12 honors he got from the coaches and media a year ago. There are very few tackles in the league, if any, who should be asked to handle Hubert one-on-one.
If K-State is going to exceed expectations in 2020 a big part of that puzzle could be a monster, All-America type season from Hubert.
3. Wide receiver Malik Knowles
Malik Knowles did battle injury throughout the season, but he's too explosive as a wide receiver and return man to leave off this list.
The sophomore had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to spark K-State's win at Mississippi State, and the 6-foot-2 wide receiver has flashed plenty of ability in the passing game each of the last two seasons in his true and redshirt freshman seasons.
If Knowles is able to stay healthy and play a significant chunk of K-State's snaps, I think he could be the best receiver in Manhattan since Tyler Lockett.
3 Biggest Additions
1. OFFENSIVE GUARD TALOR WARNER
I don't know that Warner will have a major impact as a true freshman. But, currently at an very well-built 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, Warner has no bad weight and should come in relatively physically prepared to compete against athletes at this level. I think he has the highest ceiling of any signee in this class, even if he's not the biggest star of the group next season.
2. CORNERBACK TEE DENSON
K-State desperately wanted Denson, and teams always need more depth and help at cornerback. Nothing is guaranteed, but I don't think Denson was pursued so aggressively by the Wildcats with the plan being for him to spend the entire 2020 season on the sidelines.
3. TIGHT END WILL SWANSON
Swanson will have every opportunity in the world to earn snaps at tight end with No. 2 tight end Blaise Gammon graduated and No. 3 tight end Logan Long now playing offensive tackle. Nick Lenners will be the starter, but Swanson is going to have a real chance to play behind him along with redshirt freshman tight end Konner Fox.
Expectations for 2020
The schedule starts somewhat kind, with five of the first six games at home. The only road trip is to West Virginia, a team who did beat K-State last season in Manhattan but finished behind the Wildcats in the Big 12 standings. That game with WVU, plus a visit from Texas the next week, will go a long ways in determining what kind of season this will be for the Wildcats.
There has been a good amount of roster turnover - particularly along the offensive and defensive lines - that does leave me somewhat cautious expecting the Wildcats to even match last year's record. I think a reasonable expectation would hover at right around 7.5 wins, with that number moving either way depending on K-State's running game and how well the defense produces under Klanderman's leadership.