Kansas State’s football team started preseason practice Friday. Less than one month remains until the opener against Stanford, set for Sept. 4 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
With that in mind, here are a few storylines to watch — that have nothing to do with the future of the Big 12 or conference realignment — as the Wildcats go through camp.
Handling of the team’s quarterbacks
There’s not much mystery at this position, per se. Skylar Thompson is the starter. Will Howard is the backup. (Though during Big 12 media days last month, head coach Chris Klieman repeatedly said he viewed it as having “two starting quarterbacks.”) Sophomore Jaren Lewis and freshman Jake Rubley will fight for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart.
So what’s worth watching here?
Two things: First, how will Thompson look coming off his season-ending injury last year?
During the spring, he was permitted to take part only in 7-on-7 drills. Klieman said last month that Thompson is “cut loose” and is cleared for contact once more. It will take some time for Thompson to get used to getting hit again. If nothing else, perhaps fans will get a glimpse of the sixth-year senior tossing the ball around Saturday, when the last 45 minutes of practice are open.
The other question centers around Howard: Based on everything Klieman and offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham have said since the beginning of the year, the Pennsylvania native will have a role this season, regardless of Thompson’s health. Klieman said Howard arguably is the team’s most improved player since the end of last season. Messingham said there may be some formations and plays they use tailored specifically for Howard.
What will that entail?
There are multiple options.
One would be using Howard only on short yardage or goal-line situations, as the Wildcats are trying to monitor the wear and tear on “super senior” Thompson. Another possibility could see Howard and Thompson on the field at the same time, with one lining up as the quarterback and another splitting out wide. (Think of the trick play potential here, folks!) The last — and most unlikely scenario — would be subbing Howard in for entire possessions throughout games. (Recall that K-State employed this approach at times during Bill Snyder’s final season as coach in 2018, when Thompson and Alex Delton were in a QB carousel of sorts. It ... could have gone better.)
Regardless of which way they go, expect to see Howard on the field this season — even if he’s never in the starting lineup.
Running back depth chart
Much like the quarterback position, there’s no ambiguity about the starter. Deuce Vaughn, who made his mark as the Wildcats’ best and most consistent player last season, unquestionably is RB1.
All eyes, then, are on who gets the lion’s share of the carries behind him.
There are two players viewed as the odds-on favorites to earn that status: Joe Ervin and Jacardia Wright.
Both were part of the Wildcats’ 2019 recruiting class.
Neither saw the field much last season, though — and in Ervin’s case, he never suited up. That’s because he opted out last season amid the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.
During the 2019 season, however, he showed flashes of brilliance in his four games of action before he was shut down to preserve his redshirt.
With Keyon Mozee no longer with the program, Ervin might be K-State’s most explosive running back in terms of big-play capability.
Wright gives the Wildcats a different look than Vaughn or Ervin; Vaughn is listed at 5-foot-6 and 173 pounds, while Ervin is 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds.
Then take a gander at Wright: 6 feet and 220 pounds of chiseled muscle.
If the Wildcats are looking for a bruiser in the backfield, Wright’s the man for the job.
While Ervin and Wright are 2 and 2A entering camp, we’d be remiss not to mention other running backs on the roster, who easily could work their way into the rotation with stellar preseason play.
Those include sophomore Clyde Price (another 2019 signee) and freshman Devrin Weathers, a first-team all-state selection by the Missouri Football Coaches Association as both a junior and senior.
How will secondary shake out?
During his time at media days, Klieman said the back end of the defense is his biggest concern entering the 2021 campaign.
“We lost some guys. We’re moving some guys around,” he said. “We had some new guys come into the program who we haven’t had a chance to (see).”
The players they lost — to graduation or the transfer portal — in the past year include AJ Parker, Kiondre Thomas, Lance Robinson, Will Jones II, Jonathan Alexander (note he opted out last season and elected to transfer instead of returning to K-State) and Malachi Mitchell, who made a name for himself in April during the Wildcats’ open spring practice with a highlight-reel tackle.
Despite those losses, K-State is encouraged by what they saw this spring from transfers Julius Brents and Russ Yeast. Reggie Stubblefield, another transfer, joined late but is another player expected to find his way on the field thanks to his experience at Prairie View A&M.
The same goes for Cincere Mason, who began his college career at Kennesaw State, an FCS school in Georgia.
Hunter Henry, who formerly played at Rice, enrolled at K-State last year and walked on to the football team. Klieman has brought up Henry, unprompted, multiple times since the spring. View that as a sign Henry will compete for a spot in the two deep.
The Wildcats also boast talented returnees expected to take on larger roles this fall.
TJ Smith. Aamaris Brown. Tee Denson.
Throw in K-State’s four 2021 signees (Omar Daniels, Darell Jones, Marvin Martin and Desmond Purnell) at defensive back, and it’s clear there are options.
It’s equally clear the Wildcats must use the preseason to find more clarity for the secondary’s depth chart.