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College Football Preview 2023: 16. Kansas State Wildcats

Will Howard, Kansas State

16. Kansas State Wildcats

Reminder: It was K-State, not TCU, that took the Big 12 last fall and Chris Kleiman's group will be a tough out again

2022 Review
Kansas State got off to a fast start in 2022, which included a 40-12 dismantling of former Big 12 foe Missouri, but a September loss to Tulane looked to be a momentum killer at the time. Of course, that same Tulane team would go on to win the Cotton Bowl, but it looked like it could be a sign of worrying things to come for the Wildcats. It wasn't, as Kansas State rebounded by going on the road and beating then-No. 6 Oklahoma, and winning six of their next eight games. Their two losses were to TCU and Texas, and the Wildcats got vengeance in the Big 12 Championship Game by overcoming the Horned Frogs in overtime, 31-28. The victory not only got K-State to the ten-win plateau, but was their first solo Big 12 Title since 2003. The good vibes from that win weren't erased despite a 45-20 loss to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. On the contrary, K-State feels like they have a shot to be a power player in the new-look Big 12, which doesn't seem crazy given the consistency of the program under fifth-year head man Chris Kleiman. 

2023 Outlook
Offense: Deuce Vaughn was the heart-and-soul of the Kansas State offense a season ago, totaling nearly 2,000 all-purpose yards and 12 total touchdowns. He leaves Manhattan as No. 2 on the Wildcat all-time rushing list, coming in behind only Darren Sproles. His decision to leave a year early wasn't altogether surprising, but leaves a major void on the offensive side of the ball.

Fortunately, the cupboard is not bare offensively, including in the backfield. Sophomore D.J. Giddens quietly ran for 518 yards as Vaughn's backup in 2022 and seems capable of handling a feature role. K-State also brought in veteran Treshaun Ward from Florida State who ran for 626 yards for the Seminoles last fall, averaging over six yards per carry. Between the two of them, they should be able to get close to replicating Vaughn's numbers, if not outright match them.

There's also the chance of improvement at quarterback, after the Wildcats were forced to play musical chairs with the position last fall. Nebraska transfer Adrian Martinez began the year but dealt with injuries throughout and was lost for the season in the Baylor win. That forced the Wildcats to burn the redshirt on Will Howard, who is now the clear top dog entering 2023.

Howard has seen a fair amount of snaps as a backup due to injuries in front of him, and he seemed to turn a corner late last season. Although accuracy remains an issue, Howard showed a willingness to take shots down the field and open up this offense in a way it typically hasn't under Kleiman. If he can build on 2022, there's a chance he could be one of the best the Big 12 has to offer.

If there is an area of concern on this side of the ball, it's probably at receiver. Receivers Malik Knowles and Kade Warner both depart, as does tight end Sammy Wheeler. Returning longtime wide out Phillip Brooks has proven he can be the lead option, but finding a quality No. 2 will be the goal for K-State throughout fall camp and into the season. Sophomore R.J. Garcia is a viable breakout candidate, but my bet is on Iowa transfer Keagan Johnson. The talented Johnson was held back by the anemic passing attack run by the Hawkeyes, but could flourish in this type of system.

Tight end Ben Sinnott was actually the team's top tight end in 2022, not Wheeler, and should be among the best in the conference. However, the Wildcats do typically run two tight end sets and it's not obvious where they will go with the second spot, with sophomore Will Swanson the most likely candidate.

Strong offensive line play is a typical cornerstone of Kleiman-coached teams, and that appears to be the case once again in 2023. All five starters return to a group that was impressive last fall, led by All-American guard Cooper Bebee. Senior left tackle K.T. Leveston and senior center Hayden Gillium also received Honorable Mention All-Big 12 last season and add in plenty of depth behind them, this has the chance to be one of the best offensive lines in the country and is a serious Joe Moore Award contender.

As much as losing Vaughn hurts, Kansas State's offense is in as good of shape as you could ask for considering the circumstances. Howard offers a proven, veteran quarterback, they should be able to replicate Vaughn's production and the O-Line will be superb. That doesn't mean this offense will be dropping 40 per game this fall, considering how Kleiman operates, but it has a chance to be among the best in the Big 12.

Defense: Kansas State rarely boasts superstars on the defensive side of the ball, but this has been one of the most consistently strong units in the conference for some time now. Longtime defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman has built an impressive culture here, one that shows up each and every week.

Although this defense isn't typically known for its star power, it will be losing a big name in end Felix Anudike-Uzomah, a reigning All-American who went in the first round of the NFL Draft. However, the defensive line still has a chance to be stout, with edge rushers Brendan Mott and Khalid Duke back in the fold. Duke has a chance to step up and be the fearsome rusher that Anudike-Uzomah was, and Mississippi State transfer Jevon Banks could slide into a starting spot immediately at nose guard.

Seeing former walk-ons evolve into top contributors is one of the things that makes college football so special. Such is the case with Austin Moore, a junior who will lead the linebacker corps. He led the team with 87 tackles last fall, along with 8.5 TFL. Daniel Green is back alongside him, another proven contributor, but the Wildcats will have to figure out the outside linebacker spots. Sophomore V.J. Payne showed flashes of brilliance a year ago and feels like a potential breakout candidate, but the lack of depth here could be a slight concern in this league.

The pairing of Julius Brents and Ekow Boye-Doe fueled a solid pass defense last fall, arguably the most under-appreciated combo in the country. Yet, both departed over the offseason, leaving the Wildcats scrambling to find replacements. Expect junior college transfer Will Lee to slide into a starting role, but there aren't a ton of proven options at the position. Sophomore Jacob Parrish played in all 14 contests last season and should also vie for a starting spot.

Getting a healthy Kobe Savage back at safety should work wonders for this secondary, as he missed the final four games of 2022 with injury. He's one of the Big 12's best and a real tone-setter for the entire defense.

There is turnover to be wary of on this Wildcat defense, but they retain a quality core that includes Duke, Moore, and Savage. If they can figure out the cornerback situation, this unit should remain among the best in the league and has potential to be Top 25 nationally.

Special Teams: Junior kicker Chris Tennant does return, but will hope to establish more consistency this season after some ups-and-downs a year ago. Tennant went 9-14 on field goals and 23-25 on extra points in 2022. Punter could be a problem, as Ty Zentner moves on, but senior Jack Blumer has been in the program for years and has experience to work off of.

Bottom Line
In all three of Kleiman's non-COVID seasons, Kansas State has won at least eight games, including ten last fall. That consistency is impressive in any league, but particularly in one as volatile as the Big 12. The Wildcats have the pieces to hit that eight-win mark once again, but they likely have their sights set on even loftier goals. Without a clear favorite in this conference, Kansas State has a real chance to repeat as Big 12 Champions and play themselves into a New Year's Six bowl game. In fact, because of their consistency, Kansas State feels like the safest bet in the league as Texas and Oklahoma prepare for their Big 12 swan song.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Chris Kleiman had the unenviable task of replacing a living legend in Bill Snyder, but has done an excellent job in Manhattan. He has a proven track record going back to his time at North Dakota State, where he won four National Titles, and has gone 30-20 with the Wildcats. At offensive coordinator there is former Heisman finalist Collin Klein, who put together one of the best seasons in Kansas State history over a decade ago now. Prior to taking over as OC, Klein coached the quarterbacks from 2018-2021. Defensively, Joe Klanderman followed Kleiman from NDSU and after a year coaching safeties, took as defensive coordinator. 

Recruiting Breakdown
Kleiman and staff hauled in the 39th rated recruiting class in the nation this offseason, headlined by quarterback Avery Johnson. Rated No. 85 overall nationally, Johnson is one of the highest rated recruits to ever sign with Kansas State and looks like the future of the position. There isn't another Top 100 player in the class, but there's quality talent throughout, including four-star edge rusher Jordan Allen and three-star wide receiver Tre Spivey. Spivey in particular was an impressive get for this staff, as they went into the state of Arizona and landed him ahead of both in-state schools. Athlete Asa Newsom is another player to watch, a 6'4", 205-pounder who could play multiple spots. Most see him as a linebacker at the collegiate level, but there's a chance he could play either safety or at one of the skill positions offensively.

2023 Schedule Analysis
An opener against FCS Southeast Missouri State should be a nice primer for Kansas State before they begin a schedule that has plenty of potential landmines. Troy is among the best Group of Five schools in the country and presents a stiff challenge for the Wildcats, although getting them in Manhattan is huge. A road trip to former Big 12 foe Missouri rounds out the non-conference slate before Kansas State collides with league newcomer UCF. After a bye, the schedule really kicks into high gear, as the Wildcats go on the road to both Oklahoma State and Texas Tech before welcoming TCU. In fact, the road schedule is actually quite precarious overall; Oklahoma State will be coming off a bye when Kansas State gets them, and the Wildcats must also travel to Texas and Kansas for the Sunflower Showdown.

2023 X-Factor: Jacob Parrish, CB
Losing both cornerbacks is always a challenge, but particularly so in a conference that still loves to throw the football around the field. Bringing in Will Lee from the junior college ranks helps, but the pressure is on sophomore Jacob Parrish, who could slide into the No. 1 cornerback role. Parrish is one of the few corners on the roster that have seen much game action at this level, as he played in all 14 games during his true freshman campaign. Is he ready to become a leader in this secondary? Having a healthy Kobe Savage back should be huge for the unit as a whole, but how quickly Parrish and the rest of this cornerback room get up to speed could determine whether K-State is able to repeat as conference champs or not.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 9-4 (6-3 Big 12, Lose Big 12 Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Will Howard
Defensive MVP: LB Austin Moore
Impact Freshman: WR Tre Spivey
Impact Transfer: RB Treshaun Ward
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Keagan Johnson

Five-Year Trend

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