Inside spring practice: A close look at Wildcat football heading into the fall

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Senior quarterback Skylar Thompson throws the football into the end zone as a lineman attempts to block the pass. The Wildcats beat the Red Raiders 31-21 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. (Dalton Wainscott | Collegian Media Group).

Offensive coordinator and receivers coach Courtney Messingham and some offensive players provided an update on the growth of Kansas State’s offense — including a preview of some new Wildcats — during Tuesday’s press conference.

Last season, one of K-State’s biggest offensive woes was consistency at the wide receiver position. They simply never really came together, and the passing game suffered due to injuries in the receiver room — and along the line and at quarterback.

“The thing that I think some folks miss is it’s the entire offense,” Messingham said. “A couple of [opportunities] we actually had somebody in the quarterback’s face. … It’s more than just the one individual receiver, it’s the o-line, it’s the quarterback, it’s the wideouts getting open. All of us as a group putting ourselves in a position to make a play.”

The Wildcats likely will not have a stand-out wide receiver once again this season, but the depth at the position could help K-State make some noise in the passing game.

“Been really happy with Keenan Garber,” Messingham said. “Obviously, Malik [Knowles] and a [Phillip] Brooks know so much about our offense now after being here for two seasons. They’ve been easy to coach, and they’ve done a good job trying to help some of the younger guys.”

The two leading receivers for K-State’s already lackluster passing game were a running back and a tight end, one of whom is headed to the NFL Draft and will not return next season.

Luckily, K-State found a transfer tight end to plug that gap in senior Daniel Imatorbhebhe, who has spent time at both Illinois and USC.

“Daniel’s a really good football player. You can tell he’s played a lot of football and has a lot of experience just by the way he runs routes, the way he understands defenses,” sixth-year senior quarterback Skylar Thompson said. “What I really like about Daniel is that he’s really physical with his routes and uses his big frame to get open.”

K-State will also return its most explosive and productive offensive playmaker, sophomore running back Deuce Vaughn. Behind him at running back will be a committee of classmates.

Who has impressed the most in early spring practice? Sophomore Joe Ervin, who opted out last season.

“The first two or three practices before we got pads on, it felt like ‘I don’t know where he’s at.’ But once we got pads on … he’s done a phenomenal job of doing what we saw him do as a true freshman,” Messingham said. “We’re really, really happy with how he’s progressed this spring.”

Thompson will return for a sixth year after losing most of last season due to a season-ending shoulder injury and surgery. He was targeting a June return, but Messingham said that he is taking reps in seven-on-seven drills and throwing to live receivers but is still non-contact.

He is the presumptive starter for the beginning of the season.

“I attacked my rehab every single day,” Thompson said. “I’m going to be positive about this and I’m going to come back better than I was before. That’s been my mindset since the day I got surgery.”

The Wildcats also have promising talent behind Thompson. Sophomore Will Howard was thrown into the fire last season and performed well at times. Messingham is impressed with how he’s grown both mentally and physically this season, especially with his confidence in running the football.

True freshman Jake Rubley is talented, but Messingham said the game has not slowed down for him yet. Sophomore Jaren Lewis also impressed.

“Jaren has the best arm talent on our team, I think anyone in that room will say that,” Thompson said. “He has a natural ability to throw the ball.”

K-State also has a wealth of returning talent along the offensive line. Messingham describes his offense as a “knock your socks off” physical offense and that starts with the trenches.

“Night and day from where it was when we started fall camp last year,” Messingham said. “The biggest reason is because those young men got forced into playing … The growth and mental side of it that we’re seeing out of those guys has really been good. Now they have to get back to where they’re being the most dominant physically that they can be.”

The first game of the year for K-State will be a Labor Day weekend trip to Arlington, Texas, to take on Stanford in AT&T Stadium in the Allstate Kickoff Classic, before finishing out their non-conference schedule with home games against Southern Illinois and Nevada.

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Hi! I'm Nathan Enserro, a graduate student from Olathe, Kansas, working on a Masters in Mass Communication. I graduated in spring 2020 with a Bachelor's of Science in strategic communications from K-State. This is my fourth year covering K-State sports for the Collegian.