Heading into his fifth season as head coach, Chris Klieman has won the Big 12 Championship, taken the Wildcats to the Sugar Bowl and signed an 8-year extension with Kansas State. Expectations reached new heights after a monumental 2022 season. The team lost the talents of star running back Deuce Vaughn and star defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah to the NFL and will need younger players and newcomers to step up. Quarterback Will Howard stands at the helm as the undisputed starter after earning the role in the middle of the 2022 season. His ability to lead and perform will dictate much of the season as the rest of the roster provides experience and talent.
DE Felix Anukie-Uzomah, CB Ekow Boye-Doe, CB Julius Brents, S Drake Cheatum, S Josh Hayes, NG Eli Huggins, WR Malik Knowles, RB Deuce Vaughn, WR Kade Warner, K/P Ty Zentner
DT Jevon Banks, WR Keagan Johnson, S Will Lee, S Marques Sigle, RB Treshaun Ward
Howard leading the K-State offense has been a long time coming. After struggling in his first two years with limited playing time, Howard became a savior for the Wildcats last season. Stepping in for the injured Adrian Martinez, Howard seized the moment, throwing for 15 touchdowns in seven games, winning four of his five starts.
“It’s been really fun to be able to watch him [Howard] really take the reins as the starting QB,” offensive coordinator Collin Klein said.
Howard’s final season will feature a variety of different weapons, but also one of the strongest front units in college football.
The “Beef” has been a heavy topic of conversation surrounding the K-State football team. Headlined by standout guard Cooper Beebe, the Wildcats return its entire offensive line from the 2022 season. The unit was one of the best in college, creating openings for Vaughn and his 1,558 rushing yards while protecting the quarterback. The group was named to the midseason Joe Moore Award Watch List in 2022, given to the most outstanding offensive line in college football. The offensive line’s consistency should provide Howard with plenty of time to scour the field. Running backs Treshaun Ward and DJ Giddens will both have plenty of opportunities to replace the backbone of the Wildcats 2022 offense. All offensive weapons will be aided by the men up front if they can continue their success.
The running back duo of Ward and Giddens will also benefit from the offensive line. Ward comes into his first season at K-State after spending time at Florida State. In his four years with the Seminoles, Ward dealt with injuries but averaged an impressive 6.6 yards per carry.
“As far as running backs go, you know, I am a little guy as well,” Ward said. “After seeing what Deuce did last year, I wanted to get into an offense that is similar to my game.”
He’ll likely split time with Giddens, who specializes as a bruising back. Behind Vaughn, Giddens ran for 518 yards and six touchdowns in his first season, capitalizing when Vaughn needed a rest.
The receiving weapons at Howard’s disposal are in a similar situation to the backfield. Tight end Ben Sinnott and wide receiver Phillip Brooks are the two most productive receiving options returning. The duo combined for over 1,000 yards as Sinnott thrived with Howard, recording back-to-back games with over 80 yards and at least one touchdown.
The receiving options do not have much experience as a K-State receiver, outside of Brooks and Sinnott. Keagan Johnson comes in from Iowa, where he recorded 352 receiving yards in his freshman season. Another projected starting wide receiver, RJ Garcia II, only had 70 receiving yards last year. Garcia still made an impact, scoring a touchdown in the 31-28 Big 12 Championship victory over TCU. The impact of Garcia and Johnson could determine if the offense can reach another level to defend the Big 12 title.
The defense enters the 2023 season after losing multiple starters. Anudike-Uzomah was joined by cornerback Julius Brents and safety Josh Hayes in the NFL Draft, and nose guard Eli Huggins also graduated. The unit will feature many players who have not played much in college, who will mix with veteran players.
“It’s an interesting mix that we have on defense because we’ve got some really good veteran leadership, some guys that have played a lot of football and then a lot of new guys,” defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman said. “Some of them first year in the program, some of them second year in the program and some of them maybe even third year in the program who haven’t been on the field much. We’re gonna need those guys if we’re gonna be really really good.”
Many of those potential new impact players could come in the secondary. Outside of safety Kobe Savage, nearly every other secondary player has limited to zero playing experience for K-State. Sophomore safety VJ Payne and cornerback Jacob Parrish both received playing time last year and have received praise from Klanderman. Rounding out the potential starters are transfer cornerback Jordan Wright who redshirted in 2022 and transfer safety Marques Sigle from North Dakota State, collecting two interceptions last season. Cornerbacks Keenan Garber, Will Lee and others will likely find playing time in the talented but inexperienced position group.
Much different than the back end, the front seven for the Wildcats are very experienced. Defensive ends Nate Matlack and Khalid Duke both have extensive experience and may be looked up to take a jump in the absence of Anudike-Uzomah. Klanderman described Duke as a “dynamic pass rusher” and Matlack as “one of the best pass rushers in the country.”
Outside of the pass rushing duo, nose guard Uso Seumalo will find a larger role to plug up running lanes with Huggins gone. The veteran duo of Daniel Green and Austin Moore combined for 155 tackles, 3 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in the 2022 season. They will be joined by Desmond Purnell who had appearances in every game of the 2022 season.
“He’s not a role player, he’s an impact player,” Klieman said about Purnell.
Alongside veterans in all three areas of the defense, the Wildcats have a slew of young and unnoticed talent that is looking to build on the success of last season.
K-State lost a lot of talent but now has a roster full of young depth and potential. The Wildcats should stay near the top of the Big 12 but will have a tall task against talented rosters including Texas, TCU and more.