MANHATTAN — Elijah Sullivan has spent three years at Kansas State waiting for this moment.
A season on the sidelines made Da’Quan Patton just as eager for his opportunity.
That the two junior linebackers not only expect to fill a hole in the middle of the Wildcat defense, but also to immediately step in as leaders has done nothing to dampen their enthusiasm.
“I feel like for any linebacker leadership should come natural,” said Patton, a former junior college All-American at Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College, who after redshirting last season appears poised to take over at outside linebacker. “Because you’re the centerpiece of the defense, so you’ve got to be able to be the motivation, to lift everyone up and bring the energy whenever need be.”
Sullivan has more experience in the K-State program, excelling for the past two seasons on special teams while also making two starts at linebacker last year. He finished the season with 28 tackles, including a career-high six in a 35-17 Cactus Bowl victory over UCLA.
Like Patton, he pointed to 2017 seniors and first-year starters Jayd Kirby and Trent Tanking as examples of how to handle their own business while also commanding respect as leaders.
“With Jayd and Trent leaving, I feel like we had to fill that void in the room as far as the two linebackers,” Sullivan said. “Taking on that leadership role and trying to get everybody as a collective group playing on the field, I think that’s the biggest thing.
“To fill those shoes, that will be big.”
Sullivan, a 6-foot, 219-pounder from Tucker, Ga., and the 6-1, 221-pound Patton showed in the spring that they certainly have the physical abilities to handle the position. They may be the most athletic duo of linebackers K-State has deployed in some time.
“I feel like I’m more physical,” Sullivan said. “I can play sideline-to-sideline, so that’s my biggest asset.
“You’ve got to do that as a linebacker.”
Patton also said he also relies on his instincts and attention to detail.
“Just IQ, speed and power,” he said. “Just willing to perfect everything.
“I try to get everything perfect to a tee.”
The key will be for Sullivan and Patton to harness their skills.
“They’re definitely good athletes,” said new offensive coordinator Blake Seiler, who also coaches the linebackers. “I think the biggest challenge is we’ve got to use that speed in the right way.
“We’ve got to be going in the right direction and we’ve got to get our eyes in the right spots to utilize it.”
Patton made sure during his redshirt year to keep his eyes and ears tuned to Kirby, who led the Wildcats with 99 tackles, and Tanking, who was second on the team with 97 stops.
“They were great leaders, showing us the way, showing us the plays, showing us where we needed to be, what we needed to do, how we needed to line up and how we needed to execute,” he said. “Having those guys show me the way was very beneficial.”
In addition to what they learned from their predecessors, Patton and Sullivan can turn to current senior Sam Sizelove, who figures into Seiler’s defensive plans as well.
“Sam is a fifth-year senior and super-smart guy who knows it well,” Seiler said. “Elijah has been around here not quite as long, but close.
“And I give Da’Quan credit for a junior college guy coming in here. In a year’s time he has caught up quickly.”
Patton and Sullivan also have been willing to put in the work, according to Seiler.
“It’s been encouraging to see because we had spring ball for those guys to play side-by-side and you can see they’ve had a whole summer working out here and correcting a lot of the things they needed to correct in the spring,” he said. “So they’re way ahead of where they were in the spring to start fall camp.”
The next step, Sullivan said, is making sure the whole defense is on the same page.
“I’ve started in high school before, but college is a whole different game,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of different guys to take care of.
“You’ve also got your own responsibilities, so that’s been a challenge. But getting over hump is right where we’re at.”