MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — Kansas State coach Chris Klieman was visibly relieved when he settled down in front of a camera to discuss with reporters the Wildcats' season opener against Arkansas State this weekend.
His team has had multiple players test positive for COVID-19, and at least one player who was expected to be a big part in the defense opted out. There also was the uncertainty of whether the Big 12 would even play this season, then the challenge in finding a single non-conference opponent to prepare for the start of conference play.
“It’s a part of all of our daily lives now," Klieman said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a football player or out in the world in a normal work environment or schools. It’s part of our world, and we have to continue to accept it. We have to continue to be diligent, and we have to continue to realize that the virus isn’t going away.”
So, the Wildcats are ready to play with the danger of it looming over them all season. And now that they have made it to kickoff — well, almost — the Wildcats feel confident in their ability to compete no matter who is on the field.
It helps to have senior quarterback Skylar Thompson directing an offense that, despite having an entirely rebuilt offensive line, returns most of its key playmakers. Thompson already has 27 starters to his credit, and he already is one of just four quarterbacks in school history with at least 4,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing.
He also has been the calming on-field influence that Klieman has relied upon during this most atypical of seasons.
“I’ve been playing this game since I was in third grade. It’s been a long journey, lots of fun, lots of memories,” Thompson said. "This is my last run at it. My family really just tried to drill into my head to try and cherish every moment, especially in the situation we have now. It could be over at any given point in time. You never know when that last game could be.”
Arkansas State (0-1) is no pushover. The Red Wolves lost to Memphis last week, but coach Blake Anderson has led them to six consecutive winning seasons, including four in which they won at least eight games.
“We had a few opportunities to make it interesting and just missed those really good chances," Anderson said of the 37-24 defeat. “We had an opportunity to tie it up and we let them off the hook a couple of times.”
LINE 'EM UP
The Wildcats had one of the most experienced offensive lines in the nation last season. Now, they have one of the most inexperienced. The two-deep roster revealed Tuesday features just three career starts and 31 combined games among them.
Klieman had no scholarship running backs on the roster when he arrived last season, which is hardly ideal for an offense that prefers to grind the ball up and down the field. He managed to lure a couple of senior transfers to Manhattan, but now they are gone as well. That means another inexperienced bunch behind Thompson this season.
Tyler Burns will get the first crack with the ball, but true freshman Deuce Vaughn has been earning rave reviews in camp.
“We have a number of backs. We have a number of receivers. We have a number of tight ends," Klieman said. “It makes us more difficult to say, ‘Boy, if you just double this guy or just key on this guy in the run game or throw game.’”
The Wildcats are led on defense by Wyatt Hubert, who has 11 1/2 career sacks, and a linebacker corp that returns the team's leading tackler in Elijah Sullivan and veteran Justin Hughes, who missed last season due to an injury. But there are some new faces on the defensive line and secondary that will be getting their first chance on Saturday.
SCOUTING ARKANSAS STATE
The Red Wolves used two quarterbacks effectively against Memphis, and Anderson expects that to be the case again on Saturday. Logan Bonner was 14 of 23 for 133 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, and Layne Hatcher was 13 of 20 for 166 yards without a touchdown or an interception.
The biggest problem against Memphis was not offense but defense, where the Red Wolves coughed up more than 500 yards. That included 258 yards rushing, a number that probably has the ground-based Wildcats licking their chops.
The Wildcats could have an edge on special teams all season. Blake Lynch returns for his senior season as the school's career leader in field-goal percentage (89.2), while sophomore Josh Youngblood will continue to handle return duties after he brought back three kickoffs for touchdowns en route to winning Big 12 special teams player of the year.
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