MANHATTAN — Unlike the cubicle worker that hangs inspirational posters above his desk, Kansas State linebackers coach Blake Seiler looks to negative words and statistics for motivation.
The players he meets with daily can attest. For several months, Seiler has reminded K-State’s newest crop of linebackers they are the biggest question mark on the team.
“Every position group on this team has players that earned preseason accolades, except for this one,” Seiler said. “I put that in front of them each and every day they come through. That has been a motivation for them.”
Compared to the rest of the roster, linebacker is one big wildcard.
The Wildcats appear loaded on offense with eight returning starters. They also look solid on defense, with plenty of experience returning up front and in the secondary. But no one knows what to expect in the middle of K-State’s defense following the departures of Elijah Lee and Charmeachealle Moore. Together, they combined for 185 tackles and six turnovers a year ago.
“Obviously, it is a challenge to replace two great linebackers and we are kidding ourselves if we don’t think it is a challenge,” Seiler said. “The encouraging thing is we have guys behind them who have been in the program. They are very experienced players and they know the defense. I am encouraged.”
So far, Seiler’s motivational techniques have produced good results. He says K-State’s unproven linebackers have played with high intensity at practice and with an edge during scrimmages.
They will need to follow that up with quality play when the season begins on Sept. 2 against Central Arkansas, but Seiler, coaching linebackers for the first time since being promoted from defensive ends, is hopeful that will occur.
Trent Tanking is one of the biggest reasons why. The senior from Holton started off as a walk-on and spent the majority of his first three seasons on special teams, but he is now a captain and appears poised for a breakout year.
Though no starting jobs have been assigned, Tanking is the odds-on favorite to lead K-State’s linebackers this season, especially after finishing off his junior year with 19 tackles and an interception.
“It was big for me to show the other guys what I can do on the field,” Tanking said. “Even though they have kind of seen me do it in practice, it wasn’t over an extended period of time. Last year, I showed I can do it, and I think that helps my teammates feel confident in me. That trust is what I really care about.”
Who will join him in the middle of K-State’s defense? That’s the question no one seems ready to answer. There are many candidates, including former backups Sam Sizelove, Elijah Sullivan, Jayd Kirby and Justin Hughes. Touted recruit Daniel Green was also once thought to be in the mix, but that now seems unlikely as he is still working to become academically eligible.
One newcomer that could make a difference is junior-college transfer Da’Quan Patton, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound playmaker with impressive athleticism.
“There are at least eight guys in that room who could start at linebacker,” Sizelove, a junior, said. “I have full confidence that no matter who the coaches decide to put out there, linebackers won’t be a weakness of the team.”
Still, you can think of reasons to trust or doubt them all.
For example: Seiler says the returning backups are all smart and know defensive assignments like veteran starters. That’s good. But can they run down Baker Mayfield? No one knows.
Seiler says Patton has the ideal combination of size, speed and strength to play the position, but he’s also new.
“That always creates a question,” Seiler said. “Our defense is a lot to learn. We haven’t had any new guy come in here off the street and start. Even if you look back at Arthur Brown, he had a year to learn the system before he got on the field and was the man. Da’Quan studies the game and the strides he has made are very impressive, but it’s still a matter of time.”
K-State’s linebackers are striving to beat the timetable doubters have set for a unit that combined to make 34 tackles last season.
They have plenty of motivation.