K-State defense retooling after loss of key leaders to graduation

Stephen F. Austin's junior offensive lineman Travis Wiggins tries to block a pass made towards sophomore linebacker Elijah Lee on Aug. 30, 2014 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. (File Photo by Emily DeShazer | The Collegian)

The past few years have been good for K-State head coach Bill Snyder when it comes to his defense. Year in and year out, the Wildcats have managed to piece together one of the best defensive units in the Big 12, and the team is looking to do the same this season.

However, it won’t be easy for the Wildcats, who lose six starters on a defense that was led by a senior core of walk-ons like Ryan Mueller and Jonathan Truman.

The holes start up front with the departures of All-American defensive end Mueller and tackle Valentino Coleman. Sophomore Will Geary and junior Demonte Hood will look to garner a starting spot this spring.

The biggest question mark for the K-State defense seems to be at the linebacker position with the graduations of Dakorey Johnson and Truman.

For at least one of the openings, all fingers seem to be pointing to sophomore Elijah Lee. Lee, who played defensive end in high school, has impressed the coaching staff early after a strong freshman campaign.

“Elijah has good quickness to him, and pretty good range — tall with long arms,” Snyder said Tuesday. “He has that characteristic about him. He runs around pretty well and has the experience of last year, which has been beneficial to him.”

Last season, the Wildcats saw some impressive performances out of Lee. The linebacker finished the season with 4.5 sacks, breaking the true-freshman sack record at K-State. He also led all Big 12 freshman in sacks.

“It’s a big battle,” Lee said. “It’s a day-in and day-out, there is never a relaxed moment; you always have to come to practice ready to compete. Right now, we’re all penciled in. You have Trent (Tanking), Sam (Sizelove), Will (Davis), me and there’s some more guys who are stepping up and competing (for the two positions). It’s never really ‘he has a spot’ or ‘he has a spot,’ it’s you either come to compete or you lose out.”

Sizelove is also drawing the eye of the K-State coaching staff. The redshirt freshman out of Texas won K-State’s Overachiever Award last season, a team award given annually to the top freshman in strength and conditioning.

“Sam is just into it,” Snyder said. “He tries extremely hard, he’s inquisitive, which you like to see. He wants to get it right, and he tries to stay focused on what he’s doing.”

Snyder said Sizelove has begun showing a dip in his improvement, adding that “plateaus” are common among underclassmen.

“You get to that point when you’re a young pup, when your growth can be pretty quick, but then all of the sudden the magnitude of all of it begins to catch up with you and then there’s a plateau,” Snyder added. “Sam’s kind of hitting that plateau right now. Once he learns how to process everything a little bit better, I think he’ll take off again.”

The most intact group returning from last year appears to be the defensive back corps. Returning senior starters Dante Barnett, Morgan Burns and Danzel McDaniel look to be the anchors for the defense. The trio helped K-State become the second best pass defense in the Big 12 a year ago.

Despite a nickleback position open for senior Nate Jackson and junior Donnie Starks to compete for, the competition that’s been garnering most of the attention has been for the open safety position left by the departure of Dylan Schellenberg.

Sophomores Sean Newlan and Kaleb Prewett have been splitting the reps, but all signs point to Prewett having the upper-hand in the competition.

“About the time that you’d think that Kaleb was probably taking a step forward, then in the scrimmage (on Saturday) he made a couple of plays that you don’t like, so we kind of evened the competitive nature of the position,” Snyder said. “Kaleb is probably taking more of the No. 1 reps than Sean is, but it still is a legitimate competitive battle between the two.”