ANALYSIS: Wildcats still a strong team after loss of two key players

Senior quarterback Skylar Thompson runs out of the pocket while looking for a receiver downfield in Kansas State's victory over Texas Tech. It was recently announced that Skylar Thompson will be out for the remainder of the season after sustaining an injury in that game against the Red Raiders. (Dalton Wainscott | Collegian Media Group).

It’s true — Kansas State’s Big 12 Special Player of the Year and sophomore wide receiver Joshua Youngblood entered the NCAA transfer portal. The announcement added insult to injury after the news broke on Monday that senior starting quarterback Skylar Thompson will be out for the rest of the season with an unspecified “upper-body” injury.

The question that remains: Will the Wildcats be able to continue their hot start after losing two of last season’s biggest playmakers?

Although losing Youngblood to the transfer portal after what he was able to do last season may seem troublesome at first glance, his contribution this year says otherwise. Throughout the 2020 season so far, Youngblood only played in two of the team’s first four games, contributing just one rush for three yards and three kickoff returns for 54-yards, all against Oklahoma.

With the Wildcats sitting at 3-1 right now, it doesn’t seem that his absence was felt through the first quarter of the season.

Thompson, on the other hand, poses a much larger issue for the Wildcat offense. Leading the team since 2017, Thompson racked up a total of 6,104 yards during his time as the starting quarterback for the Wildcats, ranking him fifth all-time in total scrimmage yards for K-State players.

Thompson is also one of only four quarterbacks in school history to throw for 4,000 yards and also rush for 1,000 yards. The question then remains, who will run this team without the impact of their star quarterback?

True freshman quarterback Will Howard looks to be the starter going forward for K-State.

Howard came in for the injured Thompson in the second quarter of the game against Texas Tech, leading the Wildcats to a 31-21 victory. In his first career start, Howard helped the Wildcats hang on in a tight 21-14 victory over TCU.

Over the course of those two games, Howard threw for 314 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

In addition to Howard, the emergence of another true freshman at running back Deuce Vaughn has taken the Big 12 by storm. Vaughn, a three-star recruit out of Round Rock, Texas, has already drawn comparisons to K-State great Darren Sproles.

Vaughn reflects Sproles in both stature — sitting at a measly 5-foot-5-inches — and playing style. He’s small and shifty, but not afraid to take a hit and has the ability to break tackles with ease.

Vaughn racked up 248 yards on the ground and 279 receiving yards, leading all other running backs in the nation in that category and earning the nickname, Jitterbug from Fox Sports announcer Gus Johnson.

Along with the two true freshmen making plays on offense, the defense looks better than ever with help from returning senior linebacker Justin Hughes. Hughes missed all of the 2019 campaign because of an injury sustained in practice.

The sixth-year senior already made his presence felt with other senior leaders, like linebacker Elijah Sullivan and defensive back AJ Parker.

K-State’s senior defensive leaders helped rank the Wildcats in the top five nationally in turnover margin at seven-plus, while also having a blocked kick/punt in each of their first four games of the season.

The cherry on top holding this team together is head coach Chris Klieman. The second-year head coach has a six-year, $23.5 million extension to continue coaching at least through 2026.

Klieman is no stranger to success, claiming four FCS National Championships with North Dakota State and coaching 2016 second overall draft pick Carson Wentz.

Sitting at 3-1 after their recent victory over TCU, the Wildcats look impressive during conference play with other wins over Texas Tech, as well as the massive victory against then-No. 3 Oklahoma.

With a nice lineup of games to end the month of October, there shouldn’t be any cause for concern with the Wildcat’s next two games against Kansas and West Virginia. Those two games are before the all-important matchup against undefeated Oklahoma State on Nov. 7 at home.

Even without two of their star players from last year, hopes are high for K-State, sitting at a tie for first place in the Big 12 standings with Iowa State and Oklahoma State headed into their second bye week of the season.