PREVIEW: K-State prepares for season-opener against Red Wolves

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Senior quarterback Skylar Thompson runs out onto the field before K-State's football game against Nicholls State in Bill Snyder Family Stadium on Aug. 31, 2019. The Wildcats defeated the Colonels 49-14. (Logan Wassall | Collegian Media Group)

The Wildcats play host to the Red Wolves on Saturday in a quick tune-up game before jumping into Big 12 Conference play, which is celebrating 25 years as a conference this season.

Kansas State has a lot to prove after being picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 Conference preseason poll. Last year, the poll predicted K-State would finish ninth but the team tied for third.

K-State Athletics announced Thursday that Saturday’s game will serve as the program’s unity game. During warmups, players will wear attire featuring social justice messages such as “unity”, “Black Lives Matter” and “Raise Your Voice.”

Catching up with the Wildcats

The Wildcats return 47 letter-winners from 2019, including 12 starters following an 8-5 season and a Liberty Bowl appearance in 2019. K-State boasts 21 true freshmen and 22 seniors in 2020. The sophomore class is the largest on the squad with 33 players, including wide receivers Malik Knowles and Joshua Youngblood.

Offense

Senior quarterback Skylar Thompson gears up to lead the Wildcats this season. Chasing history, Thompson is aiming to become the second player in school history with 5,000 passing and 1,000 rush yards. Thompson needs 605 passing yards to reach that mark.

The offensive line remains the biggest question for the Wildcats after losing all the line’s starters. The limited practice the Wildcats have had will also not be helping the situation.

The young receiving core will be looking to improve in 2020 after finishing at the bottom of the conference in passing offense. The Wildcats return players with 67 percent receiving yards from last year, with the biggest loss being Dalton Schoen, who became an undrafted free agent after his senior season. Wide receiver Malik Knowles is responsible for 16.9 percent of the production returning.

Head coach Chris Klieman said the backfield would be held by committee. Senior running back Harry Trotter is listed as the starter for week one, and fellow senior running back Tyler Burns is listed as the second option for the Wildcats. True freshman running back Deuce Vaughn made the week-one depth chart and was highly touted out of fall camp.

Defense

Safeties coach Joe Klanderman will take over the reins as the defensive coordinator after Scottie Hazelton departed for Michigan State following last season. The change of leadership mixed with the reduced practice time will be something to watch for early in the season.

The defense is returning two experienced players at linebacker this season, Justin Hughes and Elijah Sullivan return to the field after missing 2019 with injuries. The two high school teammates have appeared in a combined 24 games for K-State and both were named captains for the 2020 season.

Junior defensive end Wyatt Hubert was named to the All-Big 12 preseason team and will be one of the main leaders of the defensive line. Hubert had 11.5 sacks in his first two seasons, which is tied for second-most in school history by a player in that time span. Hubert was named to the first-team All-Big 12 list and received votes for Big 12 defensive player of the year in 2019.

The K-State defense will be without senior defensive back Jonathan Alexander, who opted out of the season due to safety concerns regarding COVID-19. In 12 games last season, Alexander had 25 tackles, a blocked field goal, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown in 2019.

Special Teams

K-State football has had a long-running tradition of “Special Teams U,” and this year is no different. The four kickoff touchdowns last year led the nation, which tied the school record. Youngblood was responsible for three of those returns, which earned him Big 12 special teams player of the year honors. The Wildcats returned 100 percent of both kickoff and punt return production from 2019.

Arkansas State Red Wolves

The Red Wolves travel to Manhattan after a 37-24 defeat to Memphis last weekend. Arkansas State finished with 424 total yards in the game — 299 of those yards through the air.

The Red Wolves utilized two quarterbacks and will likely do that against the Wildcats on Saturday. Sophomore quarterback Layne Hatcher threw for 166 yards, and junior quarterback Logan Bonner threw for 133 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.

Players to watch

K-State: Sophomore defensive end Khalid Duke was highly touted out of fall camp. Duke saw action in seven games last season and recorded seven tackles and two sacks last season. The 6-foot-3-inch, 244 pound Georgia native will be taking over for losses on the D-line.

Arkansas State: Sophomore cornerback Jarius Reimonenq recorded 11 tackles in the Red Wolves opening tilt with Memphis. He led the team in tackles and also recorded two tackles for loss.

All-time series

The Wildcats are 2-0 all-time against the Red Wolves, but the two schools have not squared off since 1980. K-State is 9-1 all-time against the Sun Belt Conference, the last win coming over Louisiana in 2013.

Kickoff is at 11 a.m. Saturday in Manhattan. The Wildcats are a 10.5 point favorite. K-State opens the gates to Bill Snyder Family Stadium with reduced fan capacity and COVID-19 protocols.

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