MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — The school that once produced Chris Canty and Thorpe Award winner Terence Newman has struggled to defend in recent years in the pass-happy Big 12.
It still draws Kansas State coach Bill Snyder's ire.
The hard-to-please Hall of Fame coach was often quick to bemoan a bunch that allowed 272.7 yards per game through the air last season, better only than the sieve known as Texas Tech. Their shortcomings were only made worse when they were forced to stand beside by the Wildcats' staunch rush defense, which was by far the best in the Big 12.
But the Wildcats harbor hope for success this season.
They return D.J. Reed, the league's defensive newcomer of the year, and running mate Duke Shelley at cornerback. Two-year starter Kendall Adams is back to anchor the safety corps, while a host of experience headlined by Cre Moore, Sean Newlan and Denzel Goolsby provide plenty of depth.
Throw into the mix Elijah Walker, the third-ranked junior college safety last season, and some think Kansas State could have the best secondary in the Big 12 — perhaps even the nation.
"I've seen it all happen, the good and the bad," said Shelley, who burned his redshirt as a freshman in 2015 when injuries forced him onto the field. "Really for us as a unit as well, we went from nobody respecting us to, 'Wow, our unit is getting some love and respect we deserve.' We knew we deserved it."
Now it's time to keep it.
Things started promisingly enough for Kansas State last season, holding Stanford in check in the opener on the road and shutting down Florida Atlantic and Missouri State. But concerns arose when Skylar Howard threw for 298 yards in West Virginia's comeback victory, and they had a full-scale problem the following two games against Texas Tech and Oklahoma.
First-round draft pick Patrick Mahomes II torched the Wildcats for 504 yards and two touchdowns, while the Sooners' Baker Mayfield had 346 yards and four TDs passing in a 38-17 rout.
The key is to prevent a similar downturn this season.
"When you have a decent number of returning starters and returning players, the general public will probably say if you have a lot of people coming back then you will have an even better football team," Snyder said. "We were pretty decent at the end of the season last year, so there is great expectation.
"There is nothing wrong with that. That is great," he continued. "The key element is you have to do something about it. You just can't be a returning starter or guy that played an awful lot and the same coaches coming back, etcetera. You have heard me say so many times, every season presents new dynamics."
One of those dynamics is the schedule.
Kansas State opens Sept. 2 against Central Arkansas, then plays Charlotte the following week. It gives the secondary ample opportunity to come together before a trip to Vanderbilt. But the Commodores are no real threat through the air, ranking 100th out of 128 teams in passing offense a year ago.
Throw in a week off after the nonconference schedule and the Wildcats should have hit their stride before the Big 12 slate opens with games against Baylor, Texas and TCU.
High-powered Oklahoma looms Oct. 21 in a game that could help decide the conference race.
"As long as they keep working, having daily improvement, stay together, play together, we will find replacements for those five or six guys we lost," Kansas State defensive coordinator Tom Hayes said not only of his secondary but the entire unit. "It's our job as coaches to identify them and certainly the players' job to go earn them."
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