Kansas State was one of the nation's biggest surprises last season, going 10-3 after being picked to finish in the lower half of the Big 12.
K-State made a habit of living dangerously; the Wildcats were 8-1 in games decided by seven or fewer points, including 5-0 in games decided by four or fewer points. Their penchant for forcing turnovers (a plus-12 turnover margin) was a big factor in squeaking out win after win.
Last season was K-State's first with double-digit wins since 2003; reaching that plateau again could be tough.
Last season: 10-3 overall, 7-2 in Big 12 (2nd in league)
Coach: Bill Snyder (159-83-1, 21st season)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (5) – C B.J. Finney, WR Chris Harper, TB John Hubert, QB Collin Klein, G Nick Puetz. Defense (6) – LB Arthur Brown, E Adam Davis, T Vai Lutui, CB Nigel Malone, LB Tre Walker, SS Ty Zimmerman. Special teams (2) – K Anthony Cantale, P Ryan Doerr.
Fast fact: Last season was the eighth time the Wildcats had won at least 10 games under Bill Snyder. They had won 10 games once in their history before Snyder's arrival.
The Wildcats were extremely one-dimensional on offense last season, averaging 185.5 rushing yards per game (29th nationally) but just 151.5 passing yards (108th nationally).
Collin Klein, a senior this fall, ran for 1,141 yards and 27 TDs last season, making him the nation's third-leading rusher among quarterbacks behind Northern Illinois' Chandler Harnish and Michigan's Denard Robinson. Klein set an NCAA single-season record for most rushing TDs by a quarterback. While he is a tough runner, he has miles to go as a passer. He has a funky motion and threw for fewer than 175 yards 10 times. But he did ramp it up in shootouts against Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, and has a solid receiving corps.
The go-to receiver again will be physical senior Chris Harper, who began his career at Oregon. He had 40 receptions last season and needs to get into the low 50s this fall. Tramaine Thompson, who is just 5 feet 7 and also returns, had 21 receptions last fall. Sophomore WR Tyler Lockett is a burner who had almost as many touches as a kick returner (16) than as a receiver (18) before being injured in November. He needs the ball more. JC transfer Marquez Clark, a four-star recruit who was the No. 16 junior college prospect overall, enrolled early and went through spring practice.
TE Travis Tannahill has started 16 games in the past two seasons but has just 19 career catches.
Squatty John Hubert (5-7, but 191 pounds) returns as the starting tailback. He had three 100-yard games last season, but also five contests where he ran for 40 or fewer yards. He needs more consistency; the backups are untested and K-State again risks too much of the offensive burden falling on Klein.
There will be three new starting linemen. Sophomore C B.J. Finney had a good freshman season, and G Nick Puetz started 12 games last fall after sitting out following a transfer from Wyoming. The other spots are up for grabs. Redshirt freshmen Boston Stiverson (guard) and Cody Whitehair (tackle) could make up the new right side of the line.
The left tackle was supposed to be Manase Foketi, who missed last season with an Achilles injury after starting every game in 2010. Foketi has graduated and asked for a release to play elsewhere, but the school refused. He said last week he is willing to play Division II football rather than play for K-State. JC transfer Tavon Rooks could end up as a starting tackle; the same goes for juniors Ellwood Clement, another JC transfer, and Cornelius Lucas, who is 6 feet 9.
K-State's defensive numbers weren't that good – except for turnovers forced (27, including 18 interceptions). The Wildcats were 72nd in defense overall, 68th in scoring defense and 103rd in pass defense.
One issue is improving the pass rush. K-State gave up 26 TD passes and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 63 percent of their passes. But that's not all on the secondary, as K-State managed just 21 sacks. In a league as pass-happy as the Big 12, that's not going to cut it. E Meshak Williams had seven sacks, but he needs pass-rush help. He and Adam Davis should be a solid duo at end, and returning starter Val Lutui is stout against the run at tackle. The new starter at tackle likely will be either John Sua or Javonta Boyd; both are seniors.
While the secondary was quite porous at times, K-State did have those 18 picks. CB Nigel Malone, who had seven, returns, as does SS Ty Zimmerman. But the other two spots in the secondary are up for grabs. Senior Alan Chapman should get the other spot at corner, and the new free safety likely will be Thomas Ferguson. JC transfer Kent Gainous could be in the mix.
The Wildcats look good at linebacker. Senior Arthur Brown, a former five-star recruit who was the No. 2 player in the 2008 recruiting class, had a great season in 2011, his first with the Wildcats after beginning his career at Miami. Brown made 101 tackles and added 7.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. He consistently flashed the speed and instincts that made him such a coveted prospect. Running mate Tre Walker returns after finishing with 52 tackles.
The one new starter at linebacker likely will be senior Justin Tuggle, who, like Brown, also began his career at an ACC school. But Tuggle was a quarterback at Boston College before leaving for a junior college. Tuggle was also a quarterback as a JC player then moved to linebacker before the Cotton Bowl last season. He had a strong spring, which might not be as surprising as it sounds: His dad, Jessie, was a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker with the Atlanta Falcons in the 1990s.
K Anthony Cantale and P Ryan Doerr return. Cantale has a strong leg and nailed a 54-yarder last season. Doerr averaged 40.8 yards per punt but did have two blocked.
Lockett is an explosive kick returner; he had 16 attempts and returned two for touchdowns. Thompson is a dangerous punt returner, too.
K-State's kickoff coverage was good; its punt coverage needs work.
Four of the first five games are at home, and two of the three non-conference games should be gimmes (FCS member Missouri State and North Texas). But the other two September games are toughies: vs. Miami and at Oklahoma (the Sooners humiliated the Wildcats last season, winning 58-17).
K-State also has road trips to West Virginia, TCU and Baylor as well as home games against Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.
K-State fans have a lot of reasons to be excited about the 2012 season. Snyder is a masterful coach, Klein is a horse at quarterback and Brown heads what should be a solid defense.
The flipside: K-State had an inordinate amount of good fortune last season, and might not be as resilient. The defense did a great job forcing turnovers, but that facet of the game often ebbs and flows.
K-State's best chance for another 10-win season is for Klein to become a better passer and the rebuilt secondary to play much tougher against the pass.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 62nd nationally
The buzz: Snyder is well-known for signing junior college transfers and the Wildcats did sign eight in this class. But the program seems to be looking more toward its long-term future with high school prospects. For instance, three-star QB Tavarius Bender of Lincoln, Neb., looks to be the Wildcats’ heir apparent at the position. K-State did go the junior college route to fill holes along the defensive line, but did not use it as the only pool of talent. – Brian Perroni, Rivals.com
WR Tyler Lockett. Lockett's big-play ability should truly come to the fore this fall. He is a deep threat who isn't afraid to go across the middle; in those instances, he can turn a short pass into a long gain. The new kickoff rules might stifle his return abilities, so look for coaches to be imaginative this fall as they look for new ways to get him the ball.
For more on Kansas State throughout the season, check out GoPowerCat.com
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