Defense reloads, showcases new talent

K-State defensive coordinator Bob Elliott said it won't be an easy ride for the Wildcats' revamped defense early on. The defense is trying to find a new identity after losing seven starters from last year's squad.

Despite receiving a No. 13 ranking in both major preseason polls and even breaking the top 10 in others this preseason, this is a Kansas State team that will look quite different from a year ago. The defensive unit that masterfully took apart Oklahoma in last season's Big 12 Championship game loses seven starters, including its top three tacklers—three of its four defensive linemen, two linebackers, and two defensive backs.

It's a depleted unit in terms of starting experience, but one thing K-State might have in its favor is that there are a lot of players with game experience returning.

However, K-State defensive coordinator Bob Elliott said last season's defense had problems; even with all the returning starters it had come back, so to expect anything short of a challenge this fall would be unwise.

 "I think our guys understand that they haven't earned anything yet," he said. "It's a new team. It's a team made up of guys that weren't new starters for us last year. I think our guys understand that they have to earn their spots on the defense. It means a great deal to them."

The only returning starters are top returning tackler in tackle Jermaine Berry, linebacker Ted Sims, free safety Jesse Tetuan, and cornerback Cedrick Williams.

A linebacker unit, minus Josh Buhl and Bryan Hickman, will call on juniors Matt Butler and Marvin Simmons to fill holes on the outside. Maurice Thurmond and Brandon Archer are also penciled at the two-deep on the outside positions.

"Anyone of those guys," said Elliott, as to who could emerge from the group of linebackers. "And I'm not just talking about those three guys we have lining up first right now. I'm talking about guys like Mo Thurmond, and Brandon Archer, who is ready to go now too, and Kyle Suttles who has waited for his time. There are a lot of guys in the group who could surprise you."

The middle will be shored by Sims, who stepped in last season as a sophomore. But while Sims recorded 79 tackles and four sacks last season, Elliott said he was playing in a kind of survival mode, but hopes those days are behind him now.

"He was an important part of last season's defense and we understand that," Elliott said. "But that was his first year playing too. He played in the survivor mode out there. And he had a couple brilliant moments. He was surrounded by a lot of good players and he was trying to play his role. Now, he needs to do more for us. He needs to lead more, make more plays, and be more aggressive. And we need to reestablish the middle linebacker position as a dominant position here. And we expect him to make a quantum leap and play better than last year."

The same can be said for senior defensive end Kevin Huntley, who quickly earned the nickname, "The Freak" for his sack-machine thrills in the early stages of last season. However, it didn't last long and his playing time and starting job was cut. It's a situation like Huntley's from last season that Elliott said needs to change, and thinks has.

"He is different," Elliott said of Huntley, who'll team-up with junior Scott Edmonds to replace Andrew Shull and Thomas Houchin on the ends. "He knows he has to be different. A year ago it was easy for him to back off on a play because he had Houchin and Shull there to pick us up. He only had to play 15, 20, 30 snaps. Now we're expecting him to take 60 or 70 snaps.

"He was, like a lot of the guys we had in those roles, surviving. But now he's made that commitment is seems to be a dominator and not the survivor. Your first year out there you're trying not to mess up; just survive on the field and learn. Now though, like so many other guys, he's in a position where we are expecting him to be a playmaker."

Playmaker might as well be Williams' middle name, who started the last 11 games for the Wildcats at corner last season. Williams, who was second on the team with five interceptions, including two against Ohio State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, said he's seen more out of the defense in the first two weeks of fall camp than he did all of last season.

At the beginning of the camp, Williams asked all the penciled in starters to stand up and then told everyone from the twos to the new faces that those spots are open and it's their job is to push for starting jobs.

According to Williams, when everyone does that, one thing happens, "Its going to make us a hell of a lot better."

"The practices so far have been great," Williams added. "You can see it already. We didn't have that last year, with everyone pushing. Nobody pushed them to get better. They know now that these 11 spots are open to the best worker and the best football player and that they need to come out here and fight for the spots every single day."

But why that attitude was absent a year ago, Williams isn't sure exactly. He did say, "I just don't think some of the guys wanted to push the others because they had been here and playing for four years. I don't know if they just thought they didn't have a chance at the positions or not, but they just didn't push them very hard for the starting spots, thought it was in concrete, too comfortable. But now it's different."

On the defensive line K-State welcomes back a face it didn't see last season due to injury in senior Andrew Bulman. Bulman, who received a medical redshirt for last season, is set to take over on the interior line where the Cats lose Justin Montgomery from last year. In 2002, Bulman recorded 12 tackles.

"You look at Andy Bulman and we need him to play for us." Elliott said. "He's always been hurt, but we need him to have a great senior year. He's a very important part of the system this year and what we're trying to do. If healthy, Bulman can among the best in the game at his position and we recognize that."

When asked how good this group of fresh faces on defense could be he said, "These guys certainly want to be as good as or better than we've been. They're going to everything it takes do the work to get to that level. And I don't think anyone on this defense thinks its going to be easy.

"Look at last year," he added. "We had all those returning starters and we stumbled out of the blocks and didn't catch our stride till midseason. It's never easy and it won't be easy this year and I think our guys understand that.

Elliott also said it's going to be a while till the defense gets to "full-stride," but when they do, "we're pretty formidable.

"I'd rather be playing good at the end than good at the beginning and bad at the end."

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