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Big 12 preview: Kansas State

The SportsXchange

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- The time seemed perfect for Bill Snyder to step down. With Kansas State coming off a Big 12 championship last season after being picked to finish sixth, the miracle worker could have gone out looking again like a genius.

Instead, the coach never seemed to even consider the notion and decided stay for a rebuilding job in 2013 that will find him turning 74. Despite the 11-2 run last season that ended with a loss to Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl, Snyder may yet have something to prove.

The only other conference championship the Wildcats captured with him at the helm did not include a successful follow-up. After claiming the Big 12 crown in 2003, the Wildcats posted losing records the next two seasons when they were last in the North Division. That did prompt a three-year hiatus by Snyder, who returned as coach in 2009.

When he was hired, he never put a timetable on his second stint and often repeated the need to "calm the waters." Instead, he stirred them up by turning the Wildcats into a national power again.

Still, the rebuild he faces this season is formidable. Kansas State lost all but 10 starters, including all but two on defense. Backups who gained situational experience last year will be asked to fill key roles, along with junior-college transfers and walk-ons Snyder has used to bolster depth and promote competition.

A quarterback battle between Daniel Sams, the backup last season, and Jake Waters, who engineered Iowa Western to a national juco title, carried their competition into the fall. Waters appears capable of incorporating more playmakers into the system because of the passing skills he brings, though Sams is a dangerous rusher who showed off his elusiveness during brief stints last year.

More questions must be resolved before victories accumulate. As much as the quarterback race will draw attention, the Kansas State defense looms as a primary concern. That unit lost nine starters. Ty Zimmerman returns as the leader of the secondary, where Randall Evans will also provide experience after manning the nickel back position last year. Tre Walker returns as an outside linebacker, though he missed half of last season with a knee injury.

"It is going to be tough," Zimmerman said of the rebuild. "Camaraderie is important on defense. It is all about trusting each other. Last year we had guys who had been there and had experience for a year or two. Knowing they are gone, it's hard."

The winner of the QB derby will get to play behind the most experienced grouping on the roster. All five starters return along the offensive line, including center B.J. Finney, a former walk-on who cracked the starting lineup as a freshman. Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson provide experience as receivers, though both are under-sized targets.

The most noteworthy returnee could be John Hubert, an underrated senior running back who narrowly missed out on 1,000-yard seasons each of the past two seasons

Any measure of toughness the Wildcats can summon is key to being successful again this season. No one really expects them to be near as good. Preseason disrespect was again prevalent when media in the Big 12 picked Kansas State sixth in this year's conference race.

"Every year the dynamics of any football program in the country are dramatically different," he said. "As coaches we all recognize that. When you go through and you have to make those selections, who's one, who's two, who's three, that's not an easy task. That's guesswork at best."

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: There will be a time when Kansas State loses to Texas, but the Wildcats carry a five-game win streak in the series entering the Sept. 21clash in Austin. The scheduling is somewhat odd. Kansas State crushed Texas to cap the regular season and clinch the Big 12 title last year. Now, the Wildcats and Longhorns open Big 12 play. First, Kansas State has tuneups against North Dakota State, Louisiana and Massachusetts. The first test, against the two-time defending FCS champion Bison, could be the toughest. That night, a Friday date on Aug. 30, Kansas State will unveil the new west-side addition at Snyder Family Stadium. More important to Bill Snyder himself will be the preparation of his team, which returns just 10 starters. This promises to be a difficult month, particularly since Texas is loaded with veterans and picked by some as the Big 12 favorite.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: First, it's about reloading on defense. The Wildcats lost all but two starters on that side of the ball, including influential LB Arthur Brown, who covered much ground and was exceptional covering up mistakes by teammates or simply offering assistance. Offensively, the Wildcats have two good candidates to take over at quarterback in Jake Waters and Daniel Sams. A dependable receiving threat also must be identified, though the offensive front is solid with five starters returning. Underrated RB John Hubert is small, but tough, and will try to exploit whatever holes his veteran line provides.

AREAS OF CONCERN: Again, defense, defense, defense. The Wildcats could have trouble adjusting, particularly in the Big 12, where opponents snap the football at the speed of light. Some good players exist to build that unit upon, namely SS Ty Zimmerman and LB Tre Walker, yet both were injured last season and missed games. Special teams are always vital to the Wildcats' success. Two outstanding return men, Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson, are back, but a new kicker and punter must break in. This will provide a keen examination of Sean Snyder, the special teams coach who is being groomed by his father to take over the program. Lockett, Thompson or both must step up and prove capable of becoming the go-to receiver. A quick bond with the new quarterback is essential.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.
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