It’s Thanksgiving, and this isn’t a eulogy for the Kansas State senior class. There are 24 seniors that will wear the helmet Saturday in one final home game. Twenty-four seniors that have never gone without a bowl game. Twenty-four seniors that, with three games left to go, have endured ups and downs, and have helped the Wildcats to a 29-20 record entering the Sunflower Showdown against Kansas at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
“You have a great deal of respect for young guys in this day in age who are willing to stick with something,” K-State head coach Bill Snyder said earlier this week. “They’ve been very meaningful.”
No, this is no eulogy, but rather a changing of the guard on the gridiron.
K-State, 6-4 overall and 4-3 in the Big 12 Conference, faces Kansas, 2-9 and 1-7, in Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff. Then the Wildcats finish out their regular season at TCU, possibly with a fourth-place finish in the league standings on the line, before waiting on their seventh consecutive bowl appearance.
Six seniors have started in every game this season. There’s defensive end Jordan Willis and strong safety Dante Barnett, both team co-captains and preseason All-Big 12 selections, along with linebacker Charmeachealle Moore, nickel back Donnie Starks, wide receiver Deante Burton and right guard Terrale Johnson. Running back Charles Jones has started in nine games, left guard Will Ash in two, and linebacker Will Davis in one.
The senior class has produced a 1,000-yard career rusher and 1,000-yard receiver, one of the top all-time sack leaders and one of the top 15 leaders in interceptions. Teammates suggest the senior class has also collectively culled those intangibles, providing some of those leadership things that nobody outside of the Vanier Football Complex fully knows about.
But under cool November skies arrives a budding realization that come spring, the Wildcats, who harbor an unprecedented rate of youth, could plant themselves as one of the league’s more talented teams, carrying an abundance of up-and-comers and entrenched in discussion for bigger things over the next several campaigns.
“We’re going hopefully 8-4 and 9-4 after we win the bowl game with a team full of freshmen and sophomores, and some with four years left,” said sophomore right tackle Dalton Risner, a team co-captain. “That’s awesome. That’s when you need in a program. That’s when you know that a program is doing well. It’s really good for our football team. We have a lot of hope for the coming future.”
Overall, the 10 seniors that have started a game at K-State will combine to finish their careers with at most 226 starts. Fifteen players left last season after combining for 293. At most, seniors on offense could leave with 83 career starts (players left with 181 career starts in 2015) and seniors on defense could leave with 143 starts (players left with 112 a year ago).
“I really gelled with this senior class,” said junior linebacker Elijah Lee, who has a team-high 82 tackles. “They’ve meant a lot. They went from winning a bowl game to barely surviving to making a bowl game and now we have this opportunity to finish out strong.”
A curious finding from the K-State sports information department clearly defines what’s been suspected: K-State has a combined 107 starts from freshmen or sophomores this season. That’s the most in Snyder’s 25-year career. The previous high was 101 during Snyder’s first season in 1989.
Nine sophomores have combined for 75 starts this season. That includes Risner (10 starts), tight end Dayton Valentine (10), fullback Winston Dimel (10), wide receiver Byron Pringle (10), left guard Abdul Beecham (five) and running back Justin Silmon (one) on offense, and cornerbacks Duke Shelley (10) and D.J. Reed (nine) along with free safety Kendall Adams (10) on defense.
Four redshirt freshmen have combined for 32 starts. That includes left tackle Scott Frantz (10) and left guard Tyler Mitchell (three) on offense, and defensive end Reggie Walker (10) and defensive tackle Trey Dishon (nine) on defense.
“It goes without saying I’m pleased with young guys who put themselves into a position to play at a young age,” Snyder said. “All of those positions weren’t defaults. They were young guys who competed heavily against somebody that was ahead of them on the depth chart and just won the battles. It’s always been my feeling that you want your players to understand that there’s always going to be fairness in the program, so age doesn’t have an impact on who plays and who doesn’t. It’s just a matter of who prepares himself and who does the best and those are the young guys that are going to be on the field.
“It just happens to be some of the younger players that we have.”
There are two glaring absences from the list. Sophomore wide receiver Dominique Heath hasn’t been on the field with the offense for the unit’s first snap this season, so he isn’t listed among the starters. He leads the team with 41 catches for 413 yards and three touchdowns. Running back Alex Barnes, a redshirt freshman, hasn’t yet started in a game, either. Perhaps foreshadowing a sign of things to come, the 6-foot-1, 221-pounder from Pittsburg spent a majority of the second half at Baylor running behind blocks from a sophomore linemen (Risner) and two redshirt freshmen linemen (Frantz and Mitchell), and with two other sophomores (Dimel at fullback and Valentine at tight end) often aiding with blocks as well.
Barnes rushed 19 times for 129 yards (both career highs) against Baylor while his four rushing touchdowns tied for the third most in a game at K-State and the most ever by a freshman in the history of K-State football. With 46 carries for 339 yards and five touchdowns this season, Barnes needs just 17 more yards to pass Silmon for the second-most rushing yards by a freshman in K-State history. Leon Patton had 609 rushing yards in 2006.
Try as he might to shy away from admitting to being among the flag toters for up-and-comers — “We have a lot of younger guys, even younger than me, that have been starting all season,” Barnes insists — the soft-spoken ground-gainer in averaging 7.4 yards per attempt is on pace to become the first player since Darren Sproles in 2003 to average at least 6.5 yards per attempt while carrying the ball a minimum of 50 times in a season.
Snyder indicated at his weekly news conference that Barnes could make his first-career start against Kansas.
“He’ll start kind of depending upon what we do,” Snyder said, “but we’ll still utilize our backs interchangeably.”
As for the influx of contributions by younger players this season?
“It just means we’re going to develop more and get even better,” Barnes said. “We’re going to be a dangerous team in the years to come.”
There’s a sentiment that perhaps observers should’ve seen this coming all along when the Wildcats trotted out 11 starting underclassmen, including four redshirt freshmen, in the season opener at No. 8 Stanford. The Wildcats had no more than two freshmen starters in a season opener in any of the previous 18 years. All it required this season, as junior quarterback Jesse Ertz suggests, was some patience.
“Obviously, you look at the start of the season and everyone tried to panic and tried to make us panic because we lost the first game, or our first conference game against West Virginia, and as much as we want to win we have six or seven guys playing in their first season, or in their first game (against Stanford),” Ertz said. “We knew we were going to keep getting better. Not looking forward to next year, but we have the parts coming back that could make it really special. As long as we keep improving that way, it could be interesting.”
Burton admires the set up. Against Baylor, Burton became the 29th player in K-State history to reach 1,000 career receiving yards (he has 1,060). However, three of the team’s top four receivers — Heath, Pringle and redshirt freshman Isaiah Zuber — are either sophomores or redshirt freshmen. It’s a microcosm of what’s taken shape amongst much of the team-wide depth chart this season.
“As you can see, they’ve made the plays,” Burton said. “I fully support what we’re doing. This program is making a great push for the future and it’s going to be a great program in the Big 12 for years to come.”
Barnett recalls an exchange from a couple of weeks ago with his defensive secondary teammates, adding, “They’re in great hands.”
“We were talking two weeks ago and I was saying that three of five of us are sophomores,” Barnett said. “They were all standing together and I was amazed that Kendall, D.J. and Duke were all sophomores. I remembered when I was a sophomore and said, ‘You have a lot of time to play.’ They all know how good they can be in the future as long as they get better each and every year.”
Judging from players’ feedback regarding those players currently participating on the scout-team squad, and thus biding their time before starting their eligibility next fall, jobs are expected to remain competitive next season, as well.
“I don’t see the offensive scout squad, but defensively, A.J. Parker does a really good job at corner along with Walter Neal,” Ertz said. “Those guys have a lot of abilities and it’ll be interesting to see them the next couple of seasons. Then there’s (linebacker) Ian Rudzik and (defensive end) Bronson Massie. There are a bunch of guys. The list keeps going.”
Willis, as thoughtful and articulate a talent evaluator as one might find in breaking down opponents’ tendencies, cast a grin when asked to forecast those individuals that might catch the eye of purple-clad fans down the road.
“Bronson Massie is a young defensive end that I think will be a guy you’ll see,” Willis said. “Down the line, there’s a couple of guys, and I don’t know if you’ll see them next year, but they have a future here like (quarterback) Skylar Thompson. He’s a guy that can do some stuff. Obviously, we’re going to have Jesse next year, but he’s a guy that I know down the line is going to be a good football player. Dalton Schoen is a wide receiver you’ll see down the line that can make an impact. I can’t think of them all right now. Definitely Trey and Reggie are going to continue to improve. Those are guys that are going to be there for us. They’re going to make some strides for us.
“Mike McCoy, the running back, he is going to be a good one. I think he runs hard and is explosive. I don’t know what’s going to happen next year, but I can see him being a guy down the line.”
A slight — emphasis on slight — sense of cautious excitement emits from Snyder’s voice when asked about the Wildcats’ youth movement — and how that might bode for the solidarity and culture of this program in the future.
As many as 15 listed starters could return on offense and defense in 2017. And that list doesn’t even include Heath, Zuber or Barnes — or the up-and-comers that could make spots competitive over spring practice and fall camp.
“It’s always seemingly a positive thing when you have an ample number of returning players, starters, and guys that have been on the field a significant amount of time,” Snyder said. “But as I’ve said so many times, next year will be a new year, and the dynamics will be totally different. It’s not as though you can say, ‘Well, we’re a young football team. We’ll be better.’ You’d like to think that we would. When I start thinking about that, which I haven’t yet, it’s something that you’ll have to deal with. But once again, it’s the same thing, next year is next year and there’ll be another young guy who’ll be very competitive with a young guy who ended up being a starter this year. The good thing about it, the most positive thing, is if you’re a competitive person it creates a great deal of competitive spirit and that’s what you want to have out of your players.
“When you have guys that are challenging other guys everybody gets better in that respect. It doesn’t mean there won’t be positions where it isn’t competitive and therefore they’ll win it. That’s when you hope you can trust in the value system of a young guy that ‘It’s my job and now I have to do something to make myself better’ and not live in the past.”
It’s a formula that sets the Wildcats up for success, yes, and a realization that continues to whet the appetite of players such as Risner, who figures to head into next season as one of the team’s leaders in career starts and will have plenty of football left to go.
“I love it and it’s something we didn’t notice last year,” he said. “We had a lot of young guys starting last year and we have even more this year. That just lets us know we have three or four years now where it’s going to be big, veteran classes.”
For now, he’s hungry to attack some turkey and spend time with his teammates before going to battle against the Jayhawks for his 24 seniors and a legendary head coach on the cusp of 200 career victories.
“I’m extremely thankful, and I’m thankful for the guys that they are, and not so much about just the football team that’s coming back,” he said. “It’s a special thing that I have here, something that other kids can’t enjoy in college, being a part of a football team like this, where we work so hard together.
“While everyone else is home on Thanksgiving break, we’re here working together and being here on Thanksgiving, and going to each other’s houses. I’m just thankful for each of the guys in the room.”
The good news? With respect to this senior class, this season likely isn’t the main course.
Next year, or the year after, could have all the fixins.