Bill Snyder, the grand old man of college football, finds himself in rather unfamiliar territory. For the first time since 2005 he will be coaching a Kansas State football team that is coming off a losing season. The 2015 Wildcats suffered a six-game losing streak in the middle of the season, won their final three games to become bowl eligible, and then fell to Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl to finish 6-7.
But, as is usually the case with Snyder-coached teams, the Wildcats were rarely blown out. In fact, three losses, to Oklahoma State, TCU, and Baylor, came by a combined 16 points.
K-State also had particular misfortune with injuries. Starting quarterback Jesse Ertz was lost for the entire season on the first play from scrimmage. Starting safety, and All Big 12 candidate Dante Barnett also was lost for the season in the opener. In Ertz and Barnett, KSU arguably lost its most important offensive and defensive players.
Ertz and Barnett return to the fold this season, but the Wildcats still look rather anemic on offense, and in a conference with as many scoring machines as the Big 12 has, offensive ineptitude can be too much to overcome.
As the only returning skill position player with even remotely impressive stats, senior running back Charles Jones is KSU’s offensive player to watch, almost by default. In 2015 Jones rushed for 696 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 4.9 yards per carry. He also caught 12 passes for 129 yards. For his K-State career, Jones has racked up 1,236 yards. Jones is on the Doak Walker Award watch list for 2016.
Jones does not have a dazzling skill set, but he is a hardnosed plugger. Jones is at his best when plunging straight ahead between the tackles. And when he gets to the second level of the defense, he runs with determination and finishes carries well.
K-State will go as far as its defense can take them in 2016, and it’s a defense with some prime talent. Linebacker Elijah Lee appears to be the best of the lot, but receives strong competition from sack-master Jordan Willis, interior mauler Will Geary, and ace safety Dante Barnett who is returning after missing 2015 with an injury. Another Wildcat to keep an eye in is sophomore cornerback Duke Shelley who had a very good freshman season.
With regard to Lee, he led the Wildcats in tackles with 80 last season, to go along with 7.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
In Arthur Brown and Emmanuel Lamur, K-State has produced speedy, active linebackers recently, and Lee is the latest to be cut from that mold. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds he’s big enough to take and deliver punishment in the run game, but is also athletic enough to more than hold his own in coverage. He’ll certainly be one of the Big 12’s very best linebackers in 2016.