2008 Spring Football Preview

Spring practice could not arrive fast enough for the 2008 Kansas State Wildcats as those returning are eager to get back on the field after a tough ending to the 2007 campaign. After opening the year 4-2 with wins at No. 7 Texas and at home against Colorado, and 5-3 with a win over Baylor, the Wildcats struggled through the final four games of the season, dropping each, to end the year at 5-7. The season was certainly full of its triumphs as the Cats’ win at No. 7 Texas was the first-ever on the road against a Top 10 opponent, Jordy Nelson had one of the greatest individual seasons in school history en route to Consensus All-American honors and quarterback Josh Freeman and the offense went on to set 20 records offensively, either as a unit or individually.

But, every spring marks the beginning of a new team and the 2008 version of Kansas State Football will begin with spring drills on March 29.

Kansas State’s prospects for competing for the North division title and making a return trip to the championship game in 2008 will begin in the spring and are buoyed by experience. The Wildcats return 44 lettermen, including 14 regular starters (7 offense, 5 defense, 2 special teams) from last season’s squad and 28 total players who made at least one start.

K-State, which enrolled six mid-year junior college transfers, will welcome a majority of its signing class during the start of fall camp. But those six players, two of which each are linebackers and defensive backs, will make an immediate impact on the depth chart and the competition of spring practice. The Wildcats signed a very impressive group in the spring signing period, which included 12 Top 100 junior college players, but its arrival will have to wait until fall training camp begins in August.

OFFENSE

The Wildcats, who return ample firepower from last season, will be provided the opportunity this spring to build on a 2007 season that saw the offense average 418 yards a game while setting 20 school team and individual records. K-State, which will be led by junior and two-year starter Josh Freeman at quarterback, scored 20 or more points in all but one game last season and 30 or more in eight contests while averaging 275 yards a game through the air.

The Wildcats return eight players who made multiple starts a year ago, including six along the offensive line, and will be led by 2007 All-Big 12 performers Alesana Alesana at left tackle, Deon Murphy at wide receiver and Freeman behind center. K-State will have to fill the void left by All-American wide receiver Jordy Nelson and All-Big 12 running back James Johnson, but Murphy, along with several impact returners and newcomers, and junior tailback Leon Patton should step in and provide the talent and experience the Cats to need to make a run in 2008. K-State’s offense will be under the direction and leadership of new offensive coordinator Dave Brock, who coached the Wildcat wide receivers a year ago.

Quarterback

Freeman enters his junior season as one of the top signal callers in the Big 12 and the nation after a monster sophomore campaign. The junior honors candidate has made 20 consecutive starts in his career heading into the 2008 season and will continue to develop as a quarterback and key leader of the offense, this season under new quarterbacks coach Warren Ruggiero, who came to Manhattan from Elon where he was a highly successful and respected coordinator.

In 2007, Freeman threw for a K-State record 3,353 yards and 18 touchdowns while also setting school marks for completions (316) and attempts (499) in a season and completions in a game with 36 (at Oklahoma State). The Kansas City, Mo., native collected four 300-yard passing performances in 2007, also a school record.

The Wildcats enter the spring with three scholarship quarterbacks as sophomore Carson Coffman and redshirt freshman Tysyn Hartman give head coach Ron Prince some needed depth at the position. Coffman saw action in four games a year ago as the No. 2 quarterback and completed three of his five attempts for 22 yards, while Hartman is coming off a redshirt season and continues to develop. Both are tremendous athletes and students of the game.

K-State signed two high school quarterbacks in February that will arrive for fall training camp in Joseph Kassanavoid and Collin Klein. Both are big and strong in build who will only grow into the position under the tutelage of Ruggiero.

Running Back

James Johnson became the fastest Wildcat in school history to rush for 1,000 yards last season after totaling 1,106 yards and 12 touchdowns during his senior campaign, but K-State will now look to Leon Patton, among others, to take over the reigns at running back in 2008.

Patton will be the lone returning running back this spring for the Wildcats with any starting experience as the junior started two games in 2007 and three back as a freshman in 2006. He rushed for 409 yards and four touchdowns last season after setting a K-State freshman record for rushing yards with 609 back in 2006. The Houston, Texas, native has been one of the Wildcats’ top play-makers over the last two seasons and will now look to take on a much more significant role as the feature back.

Providing depth in the backfield this spring will be several freshmen who redshirted a year ago in speed merchants Dee Bell and Justin Woods, along with Frank Delarue and Rodney Kenner. More depth and talent will arrive in the fall as K-State signed several highly-touted running backs, including junior college standout Daniel Thomas, Logan Dold and Jarell Childs.

Wide Receiver

The Kansas State offense will no doubt miss Biletnikoff Award Finalist and Consensus All-American Jordy Nelson. Any team would. Nelson accounted for nearly half of the Wildcats’ receiving yards a year ago (1,606) en route to having one of the best individual seasons in Kansas State history. But, the cupboard is certainly not bare at the position with several players returning and even more talent on the way.

Deon Murphy returns for his senior season after making an immediate impact as a junior college transfer. Murphy, an honorable mention All-American as a punt returner and an All-Big 12 performer at wideout, is the leading returner at receiver after hauling in 57 catches for 605 yards and five touchdowns last season. The Houston, Texas, native also was named the Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year after his solid season and was a dangerous threat as a receiver, returner and even rusher (15 carries, 103 yards, three scores).

At the other receiver spots, seniors Ernie Pierce and Cedric Wilson, along with sophomore Lamark Brown give the Wildcats plenty of options for quarterback Josh Freeman. Pierce caught six passes for 59 yards and two touchdowns last season and is a big target at 6-4, while Wilson returns as one of the most experienced players on offense with 25 games played in two seasons. Brown is a physical specimen at 6-3 and 215 pounds and will continue to develop into a tremendous all-around threat after seeing time in eight games and making one start.

Tony Purvis will also provide some depth at the position, while junior college transfer Adrian Hilburn will participate in spring practice and begin to make a push for playing time. Even more depth and talent will be on the way this fall as junior college All-Americans Brandon Banks, Aubrey Quarles and Attrail Snipes could round out what could be a very potent wide receiving corps.

Tight End

Kansas State returns two tight ends with significant game experience from last season in junior Jeron Mastrud and senior Brett Alstatt. Mastrud started nine games and appeared in all 12 last season and led the group with 30 receptions nearly double his 2006 total- for 316 total yards. Mastrud is the team’s most experienced tight end heading into spring and will be called upon by the entire offense to provide his leadership.

Alstatt will also be returning for his final season after playing in all 12 games in 2007. He was a key contributor on special teams and also caught a touchdown pass on his lone reception of the season last year at Nebraska. Senior Darrin Seiwert will look to fill the void left by Mike Pooschke a year ago as a key blocking tight end, while sophomore Gabe Gantz and redshirt freshman Jeremy Mack will be looked upon to provide depth at the position and battle for playing time this spring. Redshirt freshman Jayson Cuba will begin the spring at the tight end position and look to push for immediate playing time.

Offensive Line

Perhaps the most returning experience for the Wildcats on the offensive side of the ball will be along the line in 2008. The offensive line returns seven players that made multiple starts in 2007, including five seniors and five juniors, to give the Cats the most experienced group during Prince’s tenure.

There will be plenty of competition at center heading into the spring as senior Jordan Bedore and junior Trevor Viers both return after making starts in 2007. Bedore opened the season as the starter and is one of the Cats’ most experienced lineman with 22 career starts, but Viers stepped in nicely after Bedore was injured and performed well for the final seven games of the season.

K-State returns both of its tackles from a year ago as All-Big 12 performer Alesana Alesana and Penisini Liu return for their senior seasons. Alesana started all 12 games a year ago and protected Freeman’s blind side, while Liu came on strong and started the final 10 games of the season at right tackle. Nick Stringer can play the guard or tackle position and gives the Wildcats another viable option as he has started 11 games in two seasons, while redshirt freshmen tackle Kaleb Drinkgern and Clyde Aufner are two to keep an eye on in the future.

At the guard spots, senior Gerard Spexarth returns after starting all 12 games at right guard a year ago. Junior Brock Unruh, who started two games at left guard last season, also returns to give the Wildcats some experienced depth at the guard position. Junior college All-American Wade Weibert will also participate in spring drills and could make an immediate impact along the line. Also providing depth and looking to have a breakthrough this spring are Eric Benoit, Colten Freeze and Brad Rooker.

Even more talent will head to Manhattan in the fall as junior college standout Edward Prince will stir up competition at the tackle spot, while freshman Ethan Douglas could add depth at the guard position.

DEFENSE

The Wildcat defense will look to take the next step and bounce back from last year’s 5-7 campaign beginning this spring as 19 players return after earning at least one start last season, including seven players that started at least five games, giving the defense plenty of depth and experience heading into the 2008 season.

K-State finished the 2007 season ranked eighth in total defense in the final Big 12 rankings but opened the 2007 season very strong with a big win at No. 7  Texas and holding a very good Auburn team to only 291 yards of total offense in the season opener. The Wildcats, for the second straight season, were among the Big 12’s best in sacking the quarterback, finishing the 2007 season second in the league with 30 total.

The defense, which returns key players at nearly every position heading into the spring, also added two junior college All-American linebackers and two all-conference defensive backs to improve both the talent and depth at every spot.

Two-time First Team All-Big 12 defensive end Ian Campbell returns for his senior season to anchor the defense, while senior Reggie Walker and junior John Houlik are the two top returners at linebacker. The secondary returns both safeties from a year ago in Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year Gary Chandler and junior Chris Carney. Joshua Moore, Kendrick Matthews and Ray Cheatham give the Cats three solid options at corner, while the two newcomers could make an immediate impact. 

Defensive Line

The departure of defensive linemen Moses Manu, Rob Jackson, Clayton Cox and Steven Cline leaves perhaps the largest hole to fill defensively heading into the spring, but the return of sophomore Xzavier Stewart, senior Brandon Balkcom, senior Chidubamu Abana, sophomore Gabe Crews and Campbell certainly gives K-State some experience and big-play talent at those spots.

Campbell returns looking to end his memorable Wildcat career on a high note as he finished the 2007 season with a team-leading 11 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Campbell will return to his defensive end position this spring and look to again compete for the conference defensive player of the year award after two ultra-successful seasons.

Stewart and Balkcom return to fill the hole vacated by nose guard Steven Cline. Balkcom has the most experience at the position after playing in all 12 games last season as a junior, picking up 23 tackles and one sack, while Stewart brings youth and athleticism to the position after making a push late in the season as a true freshman. Stewart played in the final two games of the season and earned his first career start in the finale.

One of Kansas State’s primary objectives on signing day in February was to sign defensive players, and linemen in particular. The Wildcats pulled in one of the top recruiting classes in the country for defensive players as the signatures of junior college standouts Daniel Calvin, John Finau, and Jack Hayes, along with three highly-regarded high school defensive linemen, could make for an extremely competitive fall training camp come August.

Linebackers

The linebacker position could be one of the more entertaining battles to watch this spring as junior college All-Americans Ulla Pomele and Hansen Sekona join a group that lost just one starter from a year ago. Justin Roland, the lone senior in last year’s group, started every game at middle linebacker, but Pomele and Sekona head into camp as two very fast and physical linebackers. And, don’t forget about Walker and Houlik. Both combined to start every game alongside Roland last season and both will enter the spring as two key players to watch. Houlik is the group’s top returning tackler after recording 68 stops last season, while Walker was right behind with 65 and perhaps has the most experience.

On the outside, junior Eric Childs returns after starting nine games and will look to have a breakthrough season, while Antwon Moore, Courtney Herndon and Olu Hall give the Cats even more options at the rush linebacker spot. Moore was tremendous in two games last season before being injured, while Hall was impressive on scout team defense after sitting out last season due to transfer rules. Ross Diehl, Kevin Rohleder and Davyon McGhee are also looking to get into the mix at linebacker after solid contributions in 2007.

Secondary

The secondary will look to replace departed seniors Justin McKinney, Bryan Baldwin and Byron Garvin at the corner spots, while Marcus Watts vacates a safety position that looks to be in good hands with Carney and Chandler. McKinney led the team in tackles a year ago with 74 and was an All-Big 12 selection, but the return of Joshua Moore from a redshirt season and the addition of junior college standouts Blair Irvin and Billy McClellan, the corner position could quickly become the most talented on the team and a strength for the defense. Moore started five games and played in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2006 and earned freshman All-Big 12 and freshman All-America accolades from The Sporting News.

Chandler, a hard hitting senior, had 54 tackles last season while starting six games and seeing time in all 12 games. Carney finished the 2007 season first on the team in interceptions with four and fifth in tackles with 64 and was perhaps the most consistent player defensively for the Cats last season.

Cheatham, Matthews, Courtney Herndon, who could also fill in the role as a rush linebacker, Andrew Erker and Otis Johnson all provide depth and experience in the secondary after seeing playing time in 2007.

Special Teams

Kansas State has traditionally been one of the top programs nationally when it comes to special teams play and that certainly has been the case for the two-plus years under Prince.

In 2006, the Wildcats finished the season ranked No. 1 in the nation in kickoff returns and last season, five touchdowns on punt returns led to No. 1 national ranking in that category, led by Jordy Nelson and Deon Murphy. Murphy returns for his senior season after averaging 17.5 yards a punt return as he earned All-Big 12 and All-America honors from numerous publications as a return specialist.

Murphy, Leon Patton, Cedric Wilson and Blair Irvin all could see time as kickoff return specialists this spring. Redshirt freshmen Justin Woods and Dee Bell could also figure into the mix with their shiftiness and blazing speed. Patton returned a kick for a score back in 2006, while averaging 22.2 yards a return last season.

In the kicking game, Kansas State will look to replace All-Big 12 and Ray Guy Award semi-finalist Tim Reyer, who left Kansas State at or near the top of almost all punting categories after four solid seasons. K-State may have to wait until the fall for its punter of the future to arrive as junior college All-American George Pierson will head to Manhattan after a stellar career at Tyler (Texas) Junior College. For the meantime, punter/wide reciever D.J. Fulhage and kickers Jared Parker and Josh Cherry may get plenty of reps and experience this spring.

Senior place kicker Brooks Rossman returns for his senior campaign in 2008 after tying the Kansas State record for field goals in a season last year with 22  makes. A Lou Groza Award candidate, Rossman connected on 18-of-19 field goals from 40-yards in a year ago and will look to be an honors candidate in 2008. Rossman, Cherry and Parker all look to compete for kickoff duties this spring.

Schedule

After opening the season at Auburn on national television last season, Kansas State returns home in 2008 for the season opener as North Texas visits Bill Snyder Family Stadium on August 30.

Following two games at home to open the season, the Wildcats travel to Louisville on Wednesday, September 17 for a nationally-televised game against the Cardinals on ESPN2. The Wildcats will have two straight Saturday’s in which they will not play as they then wrap up non-conference action with Louisiana-Lafayette at home on September 27.

The Wildcats dive into Big 12 Conference play the following week as Texas Tech visits Manhattan on October 4 in a rematch of the first-ever Big 12 Conference football game back in 1996.

Four of the next five conference games will be on the road for the Wildcats as K-State visits Texas A&M on October 11 and Colorado the following week on October 18.

Oklahoma visits Bill Snyder Family Stadium on October 25, while road tests at Kansas (November 1) and Missouri (November 8) open the month of November. K-State will then close the regular season with two home games as Nebraska visits Manhattan on November 15 before Iowa State makes the trip south on November 22.

The 2008 Big 12 Championship game will take place on December 1 at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium.

The Wildcats will not only play a competitive and entertaining schedule in 2008, but Prince continues to line up challenging non-conference games for the future.

In addition to its two-game series with Louisville, which will conclude this next season, and the previously announced home-and-home contracts with UCLA for 2009-10 and Miami (Fla.) for 2001-12, Kansas State recently announced the addition of two additional blockbuster series with Oregon and Virginia Tech.

The Wildcats and Ducks will kick off their two-game series on Sept. 3, 2011, when Oregon visits Snyder Family Stadium. K-State will return the game to Eugene and face the Ducks at Autzen Stadium on Sept. 1, 2012.

Kansas State’s series with the Hokies begins on Sept. 6, 2014, in Blacksburg, with the Wildcats slated to host Virginia Tech on Sept. 24, 2016.