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Better late than never, here are my thoughts on the defensive depth chart for the Arkansas State game that kicks in exactly 13 1/2 hours.
I covered the offensive depth chart for the Wildcats earlier this week and was then sidetracked by some medical stuff. Don’t despair, however, because even though this is a little bit late, I’ve still got a few things to say about the defense as currently constituted. Since time is getting short, let’s get after it.
Defensive End – Strong Side
#56 Wyatt Hubert – 6’3, 270 – Jr.
#40 Spencer Trussell – 6’3, 232 – So
In the least surprising news of 2020, Wyatt Hubert will start at defensive end. Hubert is the star of the defense, and probably the overall star of the team. He’s a human wrecking ball with unlimited energy. He’ll be doubled teamed from the moment he steps off the bus, but it won’t matter. If there is a play to be made, Wyatt will make it. If there isn’t a play to be made, he will still try and figure out a way to make it.
Spencer Trussell, on the other hand, is a bit of a surprise. As you can see by his listed weight, he plays a different game than Hubert. Spencer is more or less a traditional edge rusher, while Wyatt is an interesting hybrid guy that can cause havoc at defensive end or bump inside to defensive tackle and cause centers and guards to question the reasons they decided to pursue football instead of golf.
Trussell hasn’t played much in his two years, but the coaches liked his motor and ability to bend the edge when he signed. I’ll be interested to see if he’s the guy that actually replaces Wyatt at defensive end when he does bump down to defensive tackle on pass rush downs.
Defensive Tackle – Nose Tackle
#59 Drew Wiley – 6’3, 300 – Sr.
#93 Jaylen Pickle – 6’4, 313 – So.
This position took a hit when man mountain Matthew Pola-Mao opted out due to Covid. Drew Wiley, however, was always the favorite to win this position. It’s crazy to say that Wiley is a little undersized for a nose guard, but he’s a touch light. He’ll try to make up for that with 3 years of experience and a high work rate. Wiley is going to need to occupy blocks on the inside and will need to accomplish that by continually pushing the action.
Pickle is the obvious beneficiary of the Pola-Mao opt out. First off, my man has been eating and lifting right these last 2 years. When he signed in 2018, he was listed at 6’4, 260, and now, 2 years later, he’s up to 313. He needed to get bigger to play in college ball, but I didn’t expect him to get BIG big and play nose tackle. He’s only played in 1 game (Bowling Green) over the last 2 years, but the coaching staff wants to rotate the defensive tackles as much as possible. You’ll see Jaylen get significant action this year.
Defensive Tackle – 3 Tech
#92 Eli Huggins – 6’4, 294 – Jr.
#15 – Robert Hentz II – 6’0, 291 – Jr.
#5 Derick Newton – 6’1, 271 – So.
Huggins was a bit of a defensive end / defensive tackle tweener coming out of high school, but is now 100% defensive tackle. That’s a positive for the 3 technique because he’s going try and split gaps and create pressure up the middle for the Wildcats. He’s going to need to prove he can hold up against consistent double teams in the run game. I’m not sure if Arkansas State has the players to do it, but at some point, an offensive coordinator is going to make the interior of the Wildcat line prove it can hold up against a power run attack.
It’s fortunate that the coaching staff went after two junior college defensive tackles in the last recruiting class, because they’re both going to get on the field this year. Hentz is the stronger of the two and will see more time against run heavy teams. Newton brings more speed and explosiveness to the position but gives away a ton of size. I expect to see him on passing downs or against more pass oriented schemes. Either way, I expect both Hentz and Newton to get plenty of burn this year.
Defensive End – Weak Side
#90 Bronson Massie – 6’4, 260 – Sr.
#29 Khalid Duke – 6’3, 244 – So.
This was one of the spots in play through camp, with Massie fighting it out with the fast rising Duke for a spot at the top of the depth chart. In the end, seniority and a more rounded skill set gets Massie the nod in the initial depth chart. Duke projects as the better pass rusher, but Massie gets the nod in every other category. He’s waited for his opportunity and will be given every opportunity to lock up the starting spot.
Duke has been the talk of camp. The former 216 pound linebacker has made the full transition to college sized defensive end, and the coaches love what he brings to the table with his edge rushing skills. He’s easily the 1st defensive end off the bench, and I could see him being used as the 3rd end when Hubert kicks inside to tackle. He couldn’t beat out the bigger, stronger, and more experienced Massie, but he earned substantial playing time and has positioned himself as the next elite pass rusher for the Wildcats moving forward.
#32 Justin Hughes – 6’1, 229 – Sr.
#22 Daniel Green – 6’2, 238 – So.
The only surprising thing about the linebacker depth chart is the fact that it only lists two linebackers. I like it because any depth chart that lists a true 4-3 in the Big12 (unless Kansas State is playing) is delusional. Most teams play the majority of their snaps in nickle in order to match up against the spread.
Hughes returns to his familiar spot in the middle after missing last season with a torn A.C.L. He’s one of the key leaders of the defense, and he’ll need to shake of the rust quickly because Daniel Green is one of the most physically gifted linebackers on the squad, and will be tough to keep off the field. In the end, it’s what Hughes brings as the “quarterback of the defense” that earned him the nod over Green. He gets everyone lined up, calls the plays, and is a coach on the field.
Green has NFL upside, and after playing in 13 games last season as a freshman, I expect him to be even more involved this year. He’s the 3rd linebacker for the Wildcats, and is the best (in my opinion) overall athlete in the group. His seven tackle performance against Mississippi State last year was impressive. Green has to prove he can bring that sort of intensity game every game. If there is a knock on Green, it’s his ability to dial in his focus. Keep in mind that last season was his first as a college linebacker, and focus is something that tends to develop with age. He’s the future at linebacker.
Weak Side Linebacker
#0 Elijah Sullivan – 6’0, 215 – Sr.
#55 Cody Fletcher – 6’2, 224 – Sr.
Sullivan was the obvious choice at weak side linebacker after his Honorable Mention All-Big 12 season in 2019. He’s small for a linebacker, but in the Big12, I’ll take small, quick linebackers over bigger, slower run stoppers every day of the week. Sullivan plays well in space, and is solid in coverage. Size and skill wise, he straddles the line between a small linebacker and a big safety. That’s ideal against Big12 passing attacks.
Fletcher is junior college product who has paid his dues the last two seasons on special teams and as a reserve. He has solid range for the position and good in coverage. He had 3 pass break-ups as a reserve last season. He’s the 4th linebacker, but is capable of stepping in and providing quality play if needed. It’s nice to have a guy like Fletcher in reserve.
#26 Will Jones II – 5’9, 183 – Fr.
#19 Ross Elder – 6’0, 180 – Jr.
It’s rare to see a freshman start for Kansas State on defense, but Jones’s talent, coupled with Johnathan Alexander opting out and Walter Neil Jr. transferring out of the program, finds Jones in just that position.
Jones is a true slot corner, and will mirror the oppositions slot receiver most of the game. He got his feet wet last season, appearing in 4 games while still preserving his redshirt. He’s a freshman, but he’s not completely green.
Elder is a K-State walk-on special. He’s a kid that probably should have had a few offers coming out of high school, and talent wise, was par with many of the players that K-State signed in the 2017 class. He’s been a staple on special teams, playing in 11 games as a freshman and all 13 as a sophomore. He won’t be overwhelmed by the moment if his number gets called. I’m not sure he’s the long term solution if Jones has to miss substantial time with an injury, but he’s more than capable of filling in off the bench if needed.
#12 AJ Parker – 5’11, 178 – Sr.
#6 Justin Gardner – 6’2, 191 – Jr.
Parker is the star of the secondary. The two year starter was named Honorable Mention All-Big12 last season, even after his year was cut short by an ankle fracture in the 8th game. He’s looking to take his role as a lock down corner to the next level this season. He has NFL potential with another stellar season. The only potential weak spot in his game is his ability to match up with a physical #1 receiver. He’ll get plenty of opportunities to prove he can match up against the current crop of 6’3, 200+ pound guys that are almost ubiquitous in college football these days.
Gardner was a solid junior college pick up and brings some length to the corner position. If Parker does struggle against a giant receiver, Gardner is ready to come in and help out with his lanky 6’2 frame. He made it through the junior college meat grinder and will have ample opportunity to prove his worth this season. He was one of my favorite signings in 2019 because he brings something a little different to the corner position for the Wildcats.
#4 Wayne Jones – 6’0, 208 – So.
#24 Brock Monty – 6’2, 211 – Sr.
#14 Tyrone Lewis – 5’11, 202 – Fr.
I mentioned above that it’s rare to see a freshman start for Kansas State, but Wayne did exactly that last season, starting all 13 games for the resurgent Wildcat defense. He finished 4th in total tackles last season, and flies around the field looking for someone to hit. His major flaw last year was his tendency to get too excited and over commit on occasion. If he stays healthy, he’ll be a rare 4 year starter.
Monty, like Elder, is a K-State walk-on special. He’s another guy that, based on his prep career, probably could have been scholarship player somewhere. All he’s done at K-State is bust his rear end and do everything in his power to help the program. He’s been a special teams ace, earning the Special Teams MVP award as a sophomore. Like Elder, I’m not sure he’s the long term solution if Jones goes down, but I do think he’s a solid short term solution in a pinch and will once again be a menace on special teams.
Lewis makes his first appearance in the two deeps, after playing 4 games and redshirting last season. He’s another guy that benefits from Alexander’s absence, because he probably doesn’t make the depth chart otherwise, but that’s neither here nor there at this point. He’s on the depth chart, and brings a little something extra in terms of athleticism off the bench.
#31 Jahron McPherson – 6’1, 200 – Sr.
#17 Ryan Henington – 6’1, 206 – Jr.
Pre Covid, I had McPherson penciled into the nickle corner role he filled last season, and Alexander as the starting free safety. It possible, however, that McPherson would have taken over this position regardless. McPherson brings plenty of experience to the free safety spot and, like Justin Hughes with the linebacker group, will be a solid leader in the secondary. He’s more of a coverage guy than a big hitter, but that’s what you want out of your free safety. It’s his job to keep the lid on the opposing offense and make the plays in front of him. He’ll have a different view of the field this season, after playing closer to the line last year, but he’s always been considered a natural safety. He played out of position last season because he too talented to keep off the field. If there is a true “break out” player in the secondary this season, I think McPherson is the guy.
#3 Kiondre Thomas – 6’0, 186 – Sr.
#2 Lance Robinson – 5’10, 194 – So.
Thomas was an important pick up for the Wildcats in the transfer portal. The former Minnesota defensive back brings 16 starts and 32 total games of experience to the secondary. He’s a physical corner who isn’t afraid to stick in and make a tackle when the opportunity arises.
Lance Robinson earns the “or” designation after starting the final 3 games last year after A.J. Parker went down to injury. The then freshman Robinson held his own in those games and will be a major player in the secondary this season. I don’t think it matter who starts, because Thomas and Robinson will both see plenty of action. If Will Jones misses any time, or struggles as a first year starter, it wouldn’t shock me to see Robinson slide over and start at nickle. It’s not his best position, but I think he’s capable of performing at a high level at any of the corner spots. He’s the future at the position and will be asked to step into AJ Parker’s lock down corner role next season.
I like the potential of this defense, but I have one big question, and I don’t think I’ll get my answer in the Arkansas State game.
Can the undersized interior of the defensive line hold up?
Outside of that position group, I think the Wildcats are loaded on defense. They have a solid group of players and I think you’ll see new defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman mix and match his personnel groupings a good bit this season. He’s got solid depth at several positions, and I think he’ll use it to keep fresh bodies on the field in order to best facilitate his attacking style of defense.