Kansas football rarely enters a season that has higher stakes than those at Kansas State.
As the in-state rivals both report to fall camp Thursday, that unlikely situation appears true — though it’s for all the wrong reasons.
With new athletic director Jeff Long in the fold, a $300 million stadium renovation project in need of momentum and a head coach with a 3-33 record over his first three seasons, the Jayhawks are building to a season of consequence. Wins and losses will be just one of several factors Long uses to evaluate the football program, he recently told The Topeka Capital-Journal, but the biggest topic of speculation in Lawrence remains how many victories David Beaty will need to secure continued employment.
“Is there pressure? Listen: Anybody that tells you they don’t have pressure in this job is lying,” Beaty said. “There is pressure, but that is what makes it so fun, and I love that. I love that I’m at a place where it matters.”
Armed with 26 seniors on its official roster and a nonconference schedule that features three winnable contests, there will be no excuses if the Jayhawks under-perform this season. Still, as a team unanimously picked last in its conference preseason poll, KU has more than its share of unanswered questions.
Uncertainty also accompanies K-State into its fall camp.
While the Wildcats have stability at the top in 27th-year head coach Bill Snyder, the program is integrating a pair of new coordinators in Andre Coleman on the offensive side and Blake Seiler on defense. While K-State fans are sure to recognize the offense, the question of whom will run it remains an open one with quarterbacks Alex Delton and Skylar Thompson battling for the starting role.
Of course, each question feeds into the big-picture topic of overall season expectations. The Wildcats were picked sixth in the Big 12 preseason media poll but received two first-place votes, indicating wide-ranging opinions on the team’s outlook.
The sixth-place projection didn’t seem to offend Snyder.
“That’s high,” Snyder said. “I like 10th. Tenth works well for me.”
With all that in mind, here is a Pick Six of questions (three for K-State and three for KU) as the Wildcats and Jayhawks report for fall camp Thursday:
1. Who gets the (signal) call, Part I?
By now the starting quarterback competition at K-State has been well documented, but the high-profile conundrum involving Alex Delton and Skylar Thompson remains the most important question Snyder, Coleman and co-offensive coordinator Collin Klein must answer during the next month.
Spring drills did little, if anything, to separate Delton and Thompson. That was reflected not only by the coin that Klein flipped to determine the first-team starter for the Purple-White contest, but also in the postgame statistics. Delton finished with 201 passing yards and three touchdowns on 21-for-28 accuracy; Thompson had 204 yards and two TDs while completing 15 of 22 throws. Delton ran for 34 yards on six tries, a single yard more than Thompson gained on the same number of carries.
Delton, a junior from Hays, generally is regarded as the better runner and only enhanced that reputation by rushing for a K-State-bowl-record 158 yards and three scores in the the Wildcats’ Cactus Bowl win against UCLA. Thompson, a sophomore from Independence, Mo., is thought to be the more explosive passer and showed a flair for the dramatic by engineering impressive wins against Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Texas Tech.
Snyder, however, has said repeatedly that the two possess similar skills and are equally capable of directing his expansive offense. In all likelihood, both signal-callers will see considerable playing time this season, but the Wildcats’ Hall of Fame coach prefers to have a clear No. 1 before the Sept. 1 season opener against South Dakota.
2. Who gets the (signal) call, Part II?
While Beaty wants to narrow his three-player race for starting quarterback down to two “pretty quick,” he’s made no guarantees as to when he’ll make a final decision.
Sound familiar? It should, though Beaty hinted this time might be different.
Beaty has taken quarterback competitions down to the final week in each of the last three seasons, waiting until the opener to publicly identify Peyton Bender as the team’s starter last year. While Bender had a sensational first performance against FCS foe Southeast Missouri State, he and backup Carter Stanley both struggled mightily the rest of the way, trading the starting job at various points.
Bender, Stanley and sophomore transfer Miles Kendrick are the front-runners this go-round. Could any of the three get the nod early in camp for a change?
“We’d like to get it down to ‘the guy’ pretty quickly,” Beaty said. “Not going to give a timeline on it, but I will say we want to get it done pretty quickly.”
3. Which Cats are getting their kicks?
While Coleman and Seiler have plenty of issues to tackle as first-year coordinators, K-State associate head coach and special teams chief Sean Snyder has several key decisions of his own to make. The Wildcats lost all of their special teams specialists, with kicking standouts Matthew McCrane and Nick Walsh among the most notable.
Just how significant are those two graduation losses? McCrane tops the Wildcats’ career field goals list with 57 in 66 attempts. That’s three more made FGs than Martin Gramatica booted from 1994-98 before going on to a successful NFL career. As for Walsh, the Lyndon product finished third on K-State’s career punting chart with an average output of 42.34 yards on 217 punts.
Sophomore Blake Lynch, a product of Eisenhower High, connected on a 44-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter to produce the winning points in the spring game, but the public scrimmage revealed little else as Nick McLellan and Jake Roark each missed first-quarter attempts. McLellan and Roark did make their PAT kicks, as did Lynch and Andrew Hicks.
K-State also has added Maxwell Poduska, a highly regarded freshman from Fort Collins, Colo., who could challenge for both the place-kicking and punting duties. Devin Anctil and Bernardo Rodriquez are other leading options at punter.
4. Any frontline fears for KU?
The Jayhawks’ offensive line appears to be one of the team’s biggest areas of concern entering the 2018 campaign, another narrative KU fans should recognize.
Program departures make this perhaps the season with the most uncertain outlook for that unit.
Former starting center Mesa Ribordy, an anchor on the line over the last few seasons, was forced out of the sport by an undisclosed medical condition. Ribordy missed two games last season and the Jayhawks totaled just 127 combined yards in those contests. Jacob Bragg, another former starter and potential replacement at center, also left the program.
Junior Hakeem Adeniji underwent surgeries on both shoulders this offseason, one of many offensive line injury issues that forced the team to tweak its spring game to a practice format. Sophomores Cam Durley (knee) and Chris Hughes (shoulders) were also limited by injuries this spring.
While the program hired new position coach A.J. Ricker, a Mizzou product, and added graduate transfers Kevin Feder (Ohio State) and Alex Fontana (Houston), it’s fair to speculate whether the unit can keep whichever quarterback wins the team’s competition upright — KU allowed 2.42 sacks per game last season, tied for 90th nationally.
5. What about that pass defense?
Did you know K-State ranked dead last among 129 FBS teams in passing yards allowed during 2017? The Wildcats yielded 4,018 yards through the air, 11 more than UConn in the next-to-last position. K-State permitted 309.1 passing yards per game, ranking ahead of only UConn on the national charts and 12 yards worse than ninth-place KU in the Big 12.
In other words, Seiler has some work to do in his first year as defensive coordinator to keep the Big 12′s potent aerial offenses in check.
K-State lost star cornerback D.J. Reed but returns three key pieces from last year’s secondary in Duke Shelley, Kendall Adams and Denzel Goolsby. Eli Walker, Johnathan Durham, AJ Parker, Walter Neil and Kevion McGee, a transfer from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, should provide additional support in the secondary.
The Wildcats’ defensive backs also could use assistance from their teammates up front. K-State registered only 24 sacks last year, ranking seventh in the Big 12. Former Topeka High standout Will Geary posted a team-best of 4 1/2, the fewest sacks by a Wildcat leader since 2008.
With Geary gone, can linemen such as Reggie Walker, Trey Dishon and Kyle Ball join expected first-year starting linebackers Elijah Sullivan and Da’Quan Patton in applying more pressure to opposing QBs? We’ll see.
6. Should we look for frosh faces?
Freshman cornerback Corione Harris, a four-star prospect and the nation’s 105th-ranked incoming player according to recruiting outlet Rivals, honored his early oral commitment to KU, signing with the Jayhawks in what represented a bit of a recruiting coup for the program.
Should fans expect the first-year player to make an immediate impact?
“He had some different intangibles to him that some of our guys don’t possess even at a young age,” Beaty said. “He still struggled (in spring) because there’s some technique when you get to this level that you’ve got to master, but you saw him grow and he can make up for issues that a lot of guys at that age can’t make up for just because he’s got so much skill.”
Another incoming four-star recruit, running back Anthony “Pooka” Williams, has also made a good first impression. While Beaty said KU will monitor Williams’ freshman workload, the team won’t shy away from using the 5-foot-10, 170-pounder as a true running back.
“The good news is the guy is very versatile. He can do it all,” Beaty said. “He’s plenty strong enough to play running back, plenty. People think he’s a little guy — he is a jacked-up, put-together (guy). When he goes through workouts he’s got some power.
“He’s got a demeanor that you like — ‘Just give me the ball and let me go.’ ”