Know Your Opponent: Wildcats will showcase new roster against South Dakota

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K-State football making their entrance on to the field before their October 30, 2021 game. (Archive photo by Madison Riebel | Collegian Media Group)

Transfer quarterback Adrian Martinez and new offensive coordinator (OC) Colin Klien are the focus of the 2022 campaign for Kansas State Football. Following Kansas State routing Louisiana State in the 2021 TaxAct Texas Bowl, fans are wondering if the Wildcats found a new play-calling identity, or if the hype is a fluke. 

Multiple LSU scholarship players chose not to play in the bowl game with NFL interests in mind, but K-State took care of business, winning 42-20 with 442 total yards on offense. The balanced run-pass attack allowed the Wildcats to keep LSU’s defense on their heels and control the game.

Skylar Thompson played a role in the victory this past season, throwing 21-28 with 259 yards and three touchdowns. Although Thompson advanced to the NFL, K-State’s recruiting team snagged another dual-threat quarterback. 

Coming from Lincoln, Nebraska, after four seasons as starting quarterback, Adrian Martinez brings new life to the table in OC Colin Klein’s first season. Like Thompson, Martinez’s talent and ability to throw dimes and scramble outside the pocket is without question, but can he lead like Thompson?

Adrian Martinez

As a Nebraska Cornhusker, Martinez’s best season in his four-year career as starting quarterback came as a true freshman. In 2018, Martinez was deemed a Freshman All-American and was voted Honorable Mention Big 10 by coaches and media members despite a 4-8 team record.

The QB’s best season came as a freshman, but he was named on award watch lists in his sophomore, junior and senior seasons: The Manning Award (2019-2021), the Maxwell Award (2019-2021), the Davey O’Brian Award (2019), the Walter Camp Award (2019) and the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award watch list (2021).

Over Martinez’s career, he’s thrown 8,491 yards and 45 touchdowns on a 63.5 completion percentage. He’s also piled 2,301 yards rushing and 35 rushing touchdowns on 4.5 yards per carry.

The question with Martinez isn’t his talent, but his leadership. Despite tossing 45 touchdowns at Nebraska, the graduate-transfer struggles with the turnover bug, throwing 30 interceptions in four seasons. However, with a veteran offensive front headlined by Cooper Bebbe, K-State’s protection may reduce the amount of turnovers fans witnessed when Martinez played for Nebraska.

Deuce Vaughn

Vaughn’s been the backbone of K-State’s offense throughout his career, capping the 2021 season off with 146 yards rushing and three touchdowns against LSU. The 5-foot-6-inch junior faced obstacles with Thompson injured and COVID-19 during the 2020 season, but still managed to exceed expectations.

In his career, he’s rushed for 2,046 yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground, while being a threat in the passing game with 902 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns. Although the 2022 Preseason All-American won’t have Thompson alongside him in the backfield, Vaughn’s new companion, Martinez, presents opportunities for success.

Defense

The Wildcat defense returns several starting defensive linemen, All-American linebackers and impact players from the injured list. It’s a 3-3-5 defense that only surrendered 21 points per game this past season, ranking 19th in the nation.

Khalid Duke’s presence as linebacker will be a huge benefit for the Wildcats. Duke is coming back from a season-ending injury in the third game of the season where he made his mark on the stat sheet.

Recording a sack in each of the first two games, his pass rushing ability alongside star defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah and upcoming defensive end Nate Matlack could give the Wildcats consistent pressure on opposing QBs. The potential three-headed monster isn’t the only trio which may cause opposing offenses havoc. Duke will be lining up with fellow linebackers Julius Brentz and Daniel Green, creating a physical presence up front.

The safety position for the Wildcats sees three transfers with previous success at smaller schools. Kobe Savage comes to the Wildcats from Tyler Junior College. Savage’s second season at Tyler earned him a Second Team NJCAA All-American and First Team All-Conference honors with 70 tackles and five interceptions.

Alongside Savage as an All-American stands Drake Cheatum, HBCU All-American from Prairie View A&M. Cheatum saw similar production to Savage last season, completing a team-high 86 tackles for the Panthers along with five interceptions and 10 pass breakups. 

The third starting safety transfer is Josh Hayes from Virginia. While Hayes came from the Cavaliers, his most productive seasons came as a North Dakota State Bison. 

Hayes started every game at cornerback, finishing with 59 tackles, 12 passes defended and two interceptions. These stats earned him a Second Team All-Missouri Valley Conference selection.

The three safeties together can all help contribute to the run and pass game on defense. Knowing the possibly high-level pass rush, the trio may be able to shorten the field and create turnovers from frantic QB play. The well-rounded defense from up front to the back end can greatly complement the offense in the field position battle, earning the upper hand on Saturdays.

South Dakota 

The Coyotes finished 7-4 this past regular season with notable games against KU, losing 17-14 and against No. 7 ranked FCS D-1 South Dakota State, winning 23-20.

The Coyotes’ 2021 offense relied mostly on its rushing attack, led by the running back duo of Nate Thomas and Travis Theis, with each running for over 600 yards and a combined 13 touchdowns. As well as Thomas and Theis, they also saw contributions from running backs Mike Mansaray and Shomari Lawrence as well as QB Carson Camp. All five players are still on the roster and will continue as a runner-by-committee approach for the offense. 

With the rushing attack as the main weapon on offense, the passing game served as a median for the team last season. While Camp only threw 187.67 yards per game last season, he did so efficiently. Camp completed over 65 percent of his passes last season, throwing for 2,252 yards with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions. 

Even with a safe, consistent passing game, the Wildcats have a chance to cause trouble for the Coyotes with their new receiving weapons. Carter Bell led the team in receiving with 673 yards on 41 receptions for five touchdowns last year. Bell returns to the team as the only weapon in the top four in receiving yards last year still on the team, causing potential issues for the offense.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Coyotes led with a balanced attack all-around, allowing less than 21 points per game from their opponents. Their defense saw their best production up front, allowing only 3.5 rushing yards per play and completing 33 sacks as a team in the year. 

Similar to the offense, the defense lost some of their key contributors, including Jack Cochrane, who led the team with 103 tackles and four interceptions last season. As well as Cochrane, they also lost two of their top four sack leaders, but still have defensive lineman Nick Gaes, who tied for the team lead with seven sacks last year.

The team strives to win the game at the line of scrimmage by winning the run game on both sides and keeping pressure on opposing QBs. While that is how the Coyotes have operated, K-State also thrives in that area but with even more dominance. The pressure to win up front will be on South Dakota, as they will have to go up against star players Beebe, Vaughn and Anudike-Uzomah.

Predictions

South Dakota shows flashes of a potential upset, but K-State’s new talent meshes enough to handle the Coyotes. Klein makes this possible by calling more plays from the playbook than the Wildcats have in past season openers and keeping Martinez on the field for longer than expected.

The defensive front contains the run and forces South Dakota to pass, but K-State’s bull rushers cause havoc for the Coyotes’ offensive line. The pressure’s too much for the Coyotes and K-State runs away with the score.

Chase Hagemann: K-State 37-16

Luke Lazarczyk: K-State 31-17

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