MANHATTAN — Kansas State linebacker Elijah Sullivan started his first game against Vanderbilt last week, and he helped the Wildcats put together their best defensive effort of the season.
The Commodores averaged 2.03 yards per rush and 8.9 yards per pass, which led to just two scoring drives. That turned out to be enough for a 14-7 victory, but the Wildcats will take their chances in future games if they continue to play that well on defense.
Thing is: K-State found most of its success against Vanderbilt with three linebackers on the field, instead of the nickel defense it primarily uses. Sullivan started in place of defensive back Cre Moore, and his mixture of speed and size made a big difference against Vandy’s power running game. But most Big 12 teams prefer to move the ball through the air with spread offenses.
What will Sullivan’s role be as K-State shifts away from the nonconference portion of its schedule and plays nine consecutive Big 12 games?
“Whatever the coaches decide, I am letting them do that,” Sullivan said earlier this week. “But I like the defense we had against Vanderbilt. It was pretty good.”
K-State coach Bill Snyder agrees.
He thought the Wildcats took a step forward on defense, and that Sullivan was a big reason why. K-State linebackers Trent Tanking (10), Jayd Kirby (8) and Sullivan (2) combined to make 20 tackles against the Commodores. Sullivan also recovered a key fumble in the second half.
“I thought our linebackers collectively played well,” Snyder said. “They made some plays in the ballgame and they helped us control, and win, the line of scrimmage in most instances. I thought Elijah fit in well and played well. Nobody is without an error here or there, but collectively they just played well and hard and aggressive, the way you like for them to play.”
Sullivan, a 6-foot, 220-pound sophomore from Tucker, Ga., has quickly become a fan favorite this season. Though he played sparingly in games against Central Arkansas and Charlotte, he looked like the most athletic linebacker on the roster, piling up five tackles and a forced fumble in his first two games.
It seemed like only a matter of time before his playing time increased, and he got his opportunity against Vanderbilt.
“He is doing real good,” Kirby said of Sullivan. “I think he is doing an excellent job. He is getting better each and every week. That is big for us ... He is a fast player, and any time you have a fast player like that on the field it helps you out tremendously.”
It will be interesting to see how K-State keeps him involved when it plays its next game against Baylor on Sept. 30. The Wildcats will almost certainly go with a 4-2-5 look against the Bears, and most of their Big 12 opponents. Does that mean Sullivan could become a candidate to split snaps with Tanking and Kirby at the two primary linebacker spots? Or does that mean he will only come in when defensive coordinator Tom Hayes switches to a 4-3 formation?
For now, Sullivan is trying to learn as much as he can, so he will be ready for anything.
“Once you know how to read your keys and where to go everything slows down,” Sullivan said. “The biggest thing is just the speed of the game.”
Things appear to be slowing down for Sullivan, especially now that he has starting experience.
“He has been doing really great in practices and everything,” K-State defensive end Kyle Ball said. “Elijah has got that fast twitch, that explosiveness. He comes down field hard in blitzes. He’s been able to get more into the game, doing a lot more on special teams and more at linebacker. It’s exciting to see.”