OPINION: In an athletic year unlike any other, K-State’s freshman class performed beyond expectations

Freshman running back Deuce Vaughn looks to run past a group of Texas defenders in K-State's 69-31 loss to the Longhorns on Dec. 5, 2020. Vaughn is just one of the many talented freshman K-State athletes from this year. (Sophie Osborn | Collegian Media Group)

Obviously, the 2020-21 athletic year did not live up to expectations for Kansas State. Granted, this season was immensely stranger than most thanks to COVID-19. Hopefully, student-athletes do not have to deal with that again.

If there was any silver lining about this year though, it highlighted the freshman class at K-State and provided hope for the future.

If there was any trend in college athletics this year, it was that experience matters. Look at the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament for example — every No. 1 seed, with maybe the exception of Gonzaga, is loaded with experience.

In college football, experience was a critical component of what made the 2020 national champion Alabama. Six players from the Crimson Tide roster are projected to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft, according to ESPN football analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s second mock draft.

Quarterback Mac Jones had to wait his turn behind Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, and it served him well — he is a national champion and his draft stock rose significantly.

What K-State can find hope in is that this freshman class made quite an impression in almost every sport this season.

Freshman running back Deuce Vaughn was one of the first of this class to make waves in the program. He joined Tyler Lockett as the second Wildcat football player to win the Big 12 offensive freshman of the year award and was one of two freshmen to make an All-Big 12 team with a second-team selection.

Vaughn was reliable in the ground game and through the air with 642 rush yards and 434 receiving yards. The Round Rock, Texas, native, was one of three running backs in the nation with at least 600 rushing yards and 400 receiving yards in a season.

Travis Etienne of Clemson and Najee Harris of Alabama were the only other running backs to reach that feat, and both are likely going early in the NFL draft.

Freshman quarterback Will Howard stepped up after the loss of senior quarterback Skylar Thompson and led the Wildcats throughout the majority of the season. With the youth came mistakes, though — Howard threw 10 interceptions.

He was one of four true freshmen to play in seven games. Football is far from a one-and-done league, per the NFL’s standards, and it is just the reality of fielding a 53 man roster with plenty more scholarship players.

Seeing a true freshman take the helm of an offense doesn’t happen often. It will be interesting to see what Howard’s next move is after Thompson announced he would be returning for his final year of eligibility.

It is hard to deny that the men’s basketball team struggled mightily this season, but showed massive improvement at the end the year. Unlike football, the men’s basketball team knew this season would be a learning season, having just one senior.

Most freshmen on the football team were pushed into action because of injuries and COVID-19 protocols. It was widely known that basketball was going to have a process — a long, grueling process that featured a 13-game losing streak.

Freshman trio Selton Miguel, Nijel Pack and Davion Bradford all found themselves as consistent starters this season. Miguel transformed into one of the best defenders on the team and took on some of the best players in the conference.

Despite missing five games because of COVID-19 and an eye issue, Pack was one of the leading scorers on the team, averaging a team-high 12.7 points per game. He led the Wildcats in scoring in ten games and produced double-digit scoring efforts in 16 games.

Bradford jumped into the starting lineup and gave the Wildcats some solid minutes and points in the paint. Late in the year, the Wildcats got early leads by getting him the ball inside. He garnered 126 rebounds, second only to sophomore guard DaJuan Gordon.

It is easy to compare this team to the 2018-19 Wildcats led by Dean Wade, Kamau Stokes and Barry Brown, who were put in a similar situation and missed the NCAA tournament in 2016. The trio eventually reached the Sweet Sixteen and won the Big 12 Conference tournament the following year.

K-State baseball is riddled with experience with the added year of eligibility for spring athletes. Yet freshman infielder Nick Goodwin got off to a hot start and earned a lot of praise from head coach Pete Hughes.

Goodwin is batting in the heart of a lineup stacked with experience and performed well with a .311 batting average, 14 RBIs and four home runs, all of which are second on the team in 16 games. The Overland Park native also showed his ability to get on base with a .982 OPS with nine walks — not a bad start for the number two ranked shortstop in Kansas, who did not play his senior season because of COVID-19.

In an odd season for K-State volleyball, the Wildcats jumped from an eighth-place finish in 2019 to a third-place finish in the conference. K-State went 10-6 in Big 12 play this season, which was significantly better than a 4-12 finish a year ago.

Freshman duo outside hitters Aliyah Carter and Jayden Nembhard helped the Wildcats make that jump. Both earned multiple conference rookie of the week awards and finished in the top 10 in kills in conference play.

Carter is in the top four in points while freshman libero Mackenzie Morris finished in the top four in the conference in service aces.

Across all sports, this class raised some eyebrows and made fans excited about the future of K-State athletics. This freshman class is special, and if they continue to buy into the program, K-State could be a dominant school in the Big 12 very soon.

As ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla put it, “The greatest thing about freshman is that they become sophomores,” and that is certainly an exciting thought for K-State fans.

Cody Friesen is a Collegian staff writer and a graduate student in mass communications.The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.