MANHATTAN — Jordan Willis left his footprint at Kansas State. So did Elijah Lee, Charmeachealle Moore and Dante Barnett.
A year ago, they were K-State’s primary defenders, providing quality leadership and big hits. Willis was Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Lee and Moore led the team in tackles and everyone referred to Barnett as the quarterback of the defense.
“They did so much for us over a long period of time,” K-State defensive coordinator Tom Hayes said. “That body of work is going to be hard to replace.”
And yet, the Wildcats are cautiously optimistic they won’t miss all that much without them.
“We have candidates,” Hayes said. “Certainly, it’s going to be competitive at several positions, and it should be. We feel like we have enough guys to be a good defensive team in this league. They understand what it takes.”
K-State will be hard-pressed to match the defensive results it produced last season. Behind a dominant edge rusher, two solid linebackers and a veteran safety, the Wildcats led the Big 12 against the run (3.74 yards per attempt) and in scoring (22.3 points per game). They were less effective in the secondary and ranked ninth in the Big 12 against the pass (7.47 yards per attempt), but managed to limit teams to 387.7 yards per game.
They were good enough for some to joke that K-State, along with West Virginia, was one of the few teams in the high-octane Big 12 that bothered to play defense.
On paper, K-State should take a step back this season as it turns to an inexperienced group of replacements stepping into starting roles left behind by former playmakers.
But the Wildcats are quietly confident that won’t happen.
“I think we can be really good,” senior defensive tackle Will Geary said. “With all the returners we have up front, we know what we are doing. We are pretty experienced. I think we could be good.”
Reggie Walker is ready to help fill the void left behind by Willis. The sophomore defensive end burst onto the scene with 39 tackles, including 11.5 for loss, last season and won Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors.
With Trey Dishon, Tanner Wood and Geary joining him on the defensive line, he is ready for an encore.
“My expectations are really high,” Walker said. “It will be kind of hard playing without Jordan on the other side, but we are all competitors and we are all ready to go. I know I will be a much better player than I was as a freshman. I know what to expect now. Last year, I was still learning the position.”
Walker has received several preseason honors, and so have other members of K-State’s defense.
Junior defensive back D.J. Reed, fresh off 75 tackles, 19 pass breakups and three interceptions, seems poised to take over leadership responsibilities in the secondary without Barnett. He will be joined by an experienced group that includes corner Duke Shelley and safety Kendall Adams. If Denzel Goolsby or Eli Walker can hold their own at the other safety position and Cre Moore or Johnathan Durham steps up at nickelback, there is hope K-Stat will improve against the pass.
“We are going to be really good,” Reed said. “To be a good defensive player, especially at corner or safety, you just have to have good eye discipline. We are all getting better at that. Duke is going to have a really good season now that he is healthy. Kendall looks really good. He is making a lot of plays. We also have more depth. I feel like our secondary is going to be dynamic.”
Linebacker is the biggest question.
K-State lost both of its starters and its primary backup at the position. Lee and Moore combined for 185 tackles. That’s a lot of production to replace.
But former walk-on Trent Tanking leads an eager group of replacements. The senior appears locked in to a starting spot after spending the past three seasons as a difference-maker on special teams. Other candidates include Sam Sizelove, Jayd Kirby, Da’Quan Patton and Elijah Sullivan.
“Trent Tanking has been a backup, but a very dependable guy,” Hayes said. “Now he’s vying for a job and he is doing a very nice job. Jayd Kirby is doing a nice job. We don’t play as many linebackers as some. We can’t, because of what we play against. I hope we can find another good group this year.”
The season is almost is here, which means the search is almost over.
K-State defenders are ready to show what they are capable of.
“We are all very confident,” Walker said. “We are going to be pretty good. We have a lot of talent on this side of the ball.”