MANHATTAN, Kan — The initial message by Chris Klieman to the Kansas State Wildcats was “be invested in these full 21 days with no regrets,” as the defending Big 12 Champions prepared to take the field for their first fall camp practice session last Wednesday. The fifth-year K-State head coach is stacked with player leadership — “I think we have 24 to 30 tremendous leaders,” he says, adding, “Our captain vote later in fall camp will be really interesting,” — and his player-led program has responded favorably, as expected, through the first six practices.
“We’re in a really good place with a number of leaders,” Klieman says.
One day after it was revealed that K-State starts out at No. 17 in the preseason USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll, Klieman during his initial fall camp news conference on Tuesday asserted that it was probably too early to tell how this 2023 squad could differ from his previous K-State squads. The Wildcats finished at No. 14 in the AP Top 25 Poll with a 10-4 record last season and return 15 starters this fall. That includes senior quarterback Will Howard and the entire starting offensive line. The roster features nine sixth-year seniors, six Division I transfers, and arguably the best K-State recruiting class in two decades.
“You know, when you have adversity, that’s when you’re going to find out (how this team could be different),” Klieman says. “We’re in day six. We had a hot day on day one or day two and we weren’t even in shoulder pads. That wasn’t really adversity. Let’s see who rises to the top when adversity strikes.”
K-State has had the luxury of practicing in somewhat mild outside temperatures so far while it braces for potential triple-digit temperatures down the road.
“(Our players) have these 21 days to come together as a football team and to get better every day in your craft,” Klieman says. “You’re going to have some trying times mentally and physically, and your body is going to be beat up and your mind is going to be beat up a little bit, but make sure and realize we’re not getting this time back. We’ve been fortunate because it hasn’t been 95 degrees out there. We’ve had some really good days — guys have come off the field and still have a pretty fresh mind.”
Here are five things that Klieman addressed on Tuesday:
Cornerback remains competitive, while Savage and Sigle are strong at the safety position
One of the biggest items of intrigue remains the cornerback position as longtime cornerbacks Julius Brents and Ekow Boye-Doe are currently in NFL training camps, with Brents being selected in the second round of the 2023 NFL Draft by Indianapolis and Boye-Doe signing a rookie free agent deal with Kansas City. It appears there are many potential suitors for the two vacant cornerback positions, including 6-foot-3, 185-pound sophomore transfer Will Lee III (Iowa Western CC) along with returning sophomore Jacob Parrish (14 tackles, three passes defended and one fumble recovery) and Keenan Garber, who saw his first action at cornerback in the Big 12 Championship Game. Also, keep an eye on 6-foot, 178-pound Jordan Wright, who redshirted last season after arriving at Fullerton (Calif.) College.
“Will Lee has taken another step just by being here in the spring,” Klieman says. “Jacob Parrish, you can tell his experience of playing last year. Keenan Garber had a little bit of experience playing last year, and that’s really helped him. Justice James is a junior college corner who redshirted last year, and Jordan Wright, we’re playing him at a lot different spots, moving him around because he’s a really good athlete.
“We’re gaining depth but (competition) is going to be ongoing through camp.”
Marques Sigle garnered mention by both Klieman and returning senior Kobe Savage during Big 12 Media Days, and his strong reputation continues through the start of fall camp. The 5-foot-11, 197-pound cornerback at North Dakota State has apparently been virtually flawless in his transition to the safety position, potentially giving the Wildcats’ a deft one-two punch in the deep backfield.
“Kobe is the unquestioned leader in that group just because of the way he played and him practicing all the time now,” Klieman says. “Sigle is a really good football player. He played corner at his previous school, and we moved him to safety. It was maybe a little foreign to him in the spring. Sigle could lead that group just as easily. Some of that leadership is coming out as he’s feeling more comfortable and not having to think about what he’s doing.
“I’m confident. We’ll challenge Sigle a little bit more to be one of those leaders back there.”
Carver Willis and others are providing added depth for the offensive line
The talk over the offseason, of course, has been “Bring Back the Beef,” as the Wildcats return their starting offensive line with All-American left guard Cooper Beebe along with right tackle Christian Duffie, center Hayden Gillum, left tackle KT Leveston and right guard Hadley Panzer, yet the 6-foot-5, 300-pound Duffie remains on the mend. Klieman is hopeful that the Wildcats will get him back early in the season.
“We’re holding (Duffie) out from something that happened in the summer, but it’s not long term,” Klieman says. “We’ll find out a little bit more probably in the next couple weeks about when his availability will be.”
The good news? Added depth. That includes 6-foot-5, 291-pound junior Carver Willis, who has apparently turned heads early in camp. Willis, a native of Durango, Colorado, played in seven games last season.
“Carver Willis has really developed a lot since having a lot of reps in the spring and a decent amount of reps in the fall,” Klieman says. “Andrew Leingang has done a really good job gaining extra reps. Sam Hecht has done a phenomenal job gaining some extra reps. Taylor Poitier, having him back and not being limited, he can take whatever reps because he’s healthy right now. It gives us a lot of options across the board.
“We’ve been able to move guys around. People have been able to stay fluid and play a lot of spots.”
Klieman notes that Willis, Leingang, Hecht, Poitier and redshirt freshman John Pastore could play at tackle and that the Wildcats could even move Beebe out to the edge as well.
The goal is to have eight or nine quality offensive linemen, including many who can play multiple positions, and it appears that offensive line coach Conor Riley might reach that number in the fall.
The battle is on to see if true freshman Avery Johnson can catch redshirt sophomore Jake Rubley on the depth chart as backup quarterback. The 6-foot-3, 217-pound Rubley, who was rated the 25th-best overall prospect in the Class of 2021 by ESPN, saw action in four games last season, completing 4-of-5 passes and rushing six times for two yards. Rubley redshirted his freshman season in 2021.
“I’m really excited about where Jake has come in for starters,” Klieman says. “He’s probably taken more reps right now because it’s early on and we’re really excited — Jake has come back and the game is slowing down more and more for him because he’s been here for a while.”
However, the 6-foot-2, 188-pound Johnson, a Maize native, apparently continues to make strides. The top dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2023 by Rivals seems to turn heads anytime he has the ball in his hands.
“Avery is doing some really, really good things,” Klieman says. “He plays the game so fast. He knows he’s still learning what we’re doing schematically. He’s learning a lot from Will Howard and Jake, but the one thing, when the ball is snapped, every play is really, really fast.
“As he continues to learn our system and the defensive side of things slows down for him, we’re going to continue to see quantum leaps from him. Make no mistake, when he tucks it away and runs, it’s a different speed out there.”
DJ Giddens, the pride of Junction City, earned votes for the 2022 Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year award by the league’s coaches after rushing for 518 yards and six touchdowns, marking the third most rushing yards by a freshman in school history. Giddens also caught eight passes for 98 yards while playing in every game last season. Plenty of hype has accompanied the 6-foot-1, 212-pounder who can bulldoze his way to the second level of the defense and carries the speed to break off chunks of yards, as best demonstrated by his 36-yard carry against No. 5 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Treshaun Ward arrived at K-State from Florida State prior to spring practice but was unable to go full 100% following an early-spring injury, but the 5-foot-10, 194-pound versatile threat brings a strong reputation to the Wildcats. Ward played in 10 games with six starts as the Seminoles’ second-leading rusher with 649 yards and seven touchdowns on 95 carries en route to 2022 All-ACC Honorable Mention accolades. That includes a 127-yard effort in last year’s season opener for the Seminoles.
“(Anderson) has done a really good job of giving both guys a lot of touches,” Klieman says. “We get enough reps that we’re spreading those things pretty equally. The big thing for us and for Coach Anderson is learning Treshaun’s skillset and what he does really well. We had him in the spring, but he didn’t practice very much. We’re trying to learn things that he does really well. We know what DJ does, but when you had Deuce there that overshadowed everything. We’re trying to make sure we see what DJ Giddens does really well because DJ missed the spring.
“We’re sharing all those reps.”
The man in the middle of the defense is senior defensive tackle Uso Seumalo. The 6-foot-3, 340-pound native of Maunaloa, Hawai’i is hard to miss on the football field and opponents are sure to see him plenty in the fall. A backup to sixth-year senior Eli Huggins last season, Seumalo played in every game in 2022. Tabbed by Klieman at Big 12 Media Day as a defensive player to watch this fall, Seumalo remains a force in fall camp.
“He’s done a really good job,” Klieman says. “He’s very strong and explosive and in really good shape right now. He understands what we’re doing defensively, so he’s playing really fast.”
It appears sophomore Damian Ilalio remains solid as well. Ilalio, a 6-foot-1, 296-pound native of Manhattan, played in five games last season. The Wildcats further fortified the tackle position by going out and getting 6-foot-2, 290-pound junior Jevon Banks from Mississippi State. Banks had a career-high 17 tackles to go along with 2.0 tackles for loss, a half sack and a pass breakup in 2022.
“We like the depth we have behind (Seumalo),” Klieman says. “Damian has done a really good job, Jevon has done a really good job. We’re probably deeper right now because of the experience, especially that Damian has. Right now, it’s a position of depth and strength.”
Although the return of Khalid Duke to defensive end — his true position — has made headlines in the offseason, the return of 6-foot-5, 249-pound junior Nate Matlack deserves ample mention as well. The Olathe native never played at 100% last season yet still played in all 14 games with seven starts, and he contributed seven tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss, two sacks, a pass breakup and a fumble recovery.
“Nate is playing at a really high level now,” Klieman says. “If Nate can stay healthy, I see a really big year for him.”