Just two days before Kansas State's first road test of the season, Coach Ron Prince on Monday officially announced what the depth chart already revealed as the Wildcats head to Louisville: The defense has incurred several changes in its starting lineup. At defensive line, linebackers and defensive secondary, no position group went untouched as K-State used its longer preparation week to solidify its top talent heading into Wednesday's nationally televised kickoff at Papa John's Stadium.
"We've accomplished some things in our practices, particularly on defense and in the kicking game," Prince said during his weekly news conference. "We've tried to focus on some of those things that have been giving us issues and made some changes not because anybody is playing poorly but because we feel like some guys have been competing for playing time and we want to promote that as best as we can."
Two-time first-team All-Big 12 defensive end Ian Campbell has moved from the left end spot to the right end position ahead of junior Eric Childs, while 6-foot-6, 264-pound true freshman Brandon Harold, a backup in the first two games, now occupies the left end spot.
Junior newcomer Hansen Sekona has taken over one inside linebacker spot opposite fellow junior newcomer and two-time starter Ulla Pomele, while senior Reggie Walker has moved from the inside to behind senior Antwon Moore at outside linebacker.
Two defensive backs will earn their first starts of the season as well. Junior Courtney Herndon, the National Defensive Player of the Week after his impressive performance during the Wildcats' 69-10 rout of Montana State on Sept. 6, has overtaken returning Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year Gary Chandler at strong safety.
Senior Ray Cheatham, who recorded the Wildcats' first interception of the season against the Bobcats, has moved ahead of junior newcomer Blair Irvin, who started the first two games and posted a team high-tying six tackles in the season opener against North Texas.
The bottom line? Simple.
"Coach is going to get his best 11 on the field and they're going to evaluate (personnel) and if the performance of some (players) isn't up to what they're asking for then they're going to make a change," Campbell said. "They have and they've done what they feel is best and our best 11 out there is going to get the job done. They've had reps with us so it isn't brand new."
Prince dedicated a portion of practice during the break to evaluate depth and performance at individual positions before the Wildcats, 2-0, began preparing in earnest to meet Louisville in Wednesday's 7 p.m. kickoff on ESPN2. The Cardinals are 1-1 after bouncing back from a 27-2 loss at home to Kentucky with a 51-10 victory against Tennessee Tech on Sept. 6.
Upon reviewing tape of the Wildcats and Cardinals through two games, Prince said, "They're still really good and we're not sure if we are."
K-State enters No. 6 nationally in total defense (198.0 yards), 10th in scoring defense (8.0) and third in pass defense (104.0 yards) and ranks first in the Big 12 in each of those categories. Prince believes the Wildcats, who rank 32nd against the run (94.0 yard), will face a stiff test against a Louisville rushing attack that enters 68th in averaging 143.5 yards.
Redshirt freshman Vic Anderson hasn't started in either contest, but leads Louisville with 24 carries for 145 yards (6.0 per carry) with one touchdown on the season. Senior quarterback Hunter Cantwell, who started in the Cardinals' 24-6 win at K-State in 2006, has completed 53.0 percent of his passes for 355 yards and two touchdowns and three interceptions for an offense that ranks 86th in averaging 328.0 yards per outing.
"(Anderson) isn't always listed as a starter, but he is very dynamic and is going to be a very challenging player," Prince said. "People tell me this quarterback is very highly regarded outside of the college football world and I can see why. He has an unbelievable release, strength of release and can put the ball down the field. If his release looks a little bit different, all people need to do is look at Philip Rivers. He reminds me of him.
"They're not only very accomplished and confirmed, but they're very set on how they want to attack you with their offense."
Meanwhile, Prince believes he has learned much about certain players through two games and during the break. He believes he will learn even more after the Louisville game, which is the Wildcats' first mid-week contest since 1994.
"Guys like Courtney Herndon have improved enough to the point that their play on the field would dictate they have to be in the mix a little bit more. We've started to do that," Prince said. "We've got some players that are very close to being able to break into the lineup. They just have to be able to get some game snaps. This game will be a good indicator for guys like Brandon Harold, Hansen Sekona, Courtney Herndon and others to see where they're at exactly. We believe they're going to play well in the game and that's why we've made those moves.
"The good news is we have guys like Ray Cheatham who are competing and who have been here for a while, who are giving the guy in front of him (Irvin) a good run for it. As long as we have that kind of competition we'll be an improved team and we'll do well in the games and will continue to improve through the year, which is what we need to do. Going forward, it's just one of the things we're committed to doing and we need to have that kind of defensive depth at the end of the year."
Herndon, who returned a fumble 43 yards for a touchdown, blocked a punt that was recovered in the end zone for another score and intercepted a pass to set up another touchdown to go along with four tackles against Montana State, said his promotion was a cut-and-dry procedure.
"It feels good, I'm not going to lie, but I know Gary Chandler is working his butt off and watching film to get his spot back," Herndon said. "I'm trying to work to keep (the spot). It's just competition. Coach said I've made more plays than him and he hasn't made plays. That's what I'm going off of."
Prince believes Harold demonstrated he could be solid at defensive end regardless of alignment in the set.
"In the 3-4 or 4-3 you still have the same concerns about guys that can rush the passer and guys who can hold up against the combination blocks," Prince said. "You like to have a guy that, when he faces a single block, he can win. What we've seen so far is when Brandon gets that single block he can handle it."
Walker's move to add depth at outside linebacker gives the position another veteran pass rusher and a proven battler in run support. Prince indicated the shift wasn't entirely new as Walker saw time at one outside spot in certain packages as one of the defense's more versatile talents. Prince also said the move would be permanent "unless something dramatic happens."
"We're improving at the inside linebacker position," Prince said. "With the loss of Josh Berard (ACL injury and out for the season) and Chris Patterson (off team), this gives us another veteran player outside and another veteran player, particularly in this type of game, where the running game could be a pretty heavy emphasis. Plus, it helps us to keep some guys fresh and gives us a pretty solid rotation."
Walker, who has started in 18 games, said he has adapted to the change after initially meeting the proposition with some apprehension.
"At first I had some questions about it, but now after I've started playing it, I'm more of an outside linebacker, anyway," he said. "It's kind of easier and it fits me. I have responsibilities but I can just play my game amore and can rush the passer. I'm really happy about that."
Moore said he expected some personnel changes, but embraces the overall competitiveness he felt among the unit during preparation for the game.
"Things change through out the year," he said. "We have a lot of competition throughout the team. It's really hard for one person to keep a spot because the other person is just as good as you, if not better. That's why everybody has to play almost perfect in the game and practice just as hard."
Moore believes the defense's intensity could lead to positive results as the Wildcats seek their first non-conference victory on the road since 2005.
"I don't think I can explain how excited I am," Moore said. "I'm just ready to go down there and defeat Louisville and come back feeling good about it."
PRINCE SAYS VALENTINE SHOWING EXPERIENCE
A K-State rushing attack that ranks 45th nationally (171.0 yards) will get a big test against Louisville's No. 5-ranked rush defense (48.0 yards), which has allowed just 96 total yards and one touchdown on the ground.
Prince said junior newcomer Keithen Valentine, the 5-foot-8, 197-pounder who has 25 carries for 114 yards and one touchdown in two starts, remains ahead of true freshman Logan Dold and redshirt freshman Justin Woods entering Wednesday.
In fact, Valentine's dedication as a blocker could reap added playing time.
"Keithen is moving ahead of the others, which you'd expect for an older guy to do," Prince said. "Other than that, (the depth at the position is) pretty much the same. We'll go in and find out. His blocking and pass protection has been more consistent. Blocking against rushing people isn't exactly one of the top things they signed up for and he's handled that quite well and has taken a lot of pride in it and I've very pleased with his attitude toward things.
"Basically, we'll just see more of Valentine."