Kansas State secondary

As the Wildcats get ready to start spring football this week, the unit seeking the most redemption is the Kansas State secondary.

It’s been a rough couple of years for the defensive backs in Manhattan. Two years ago the Kansas State secondary allowed 286 passing yards per game, 2nd worst in the Big 12 to only Kansas. Then in 2016, the unit wasn’t much better, giving up 273 passing yards per game, 9th in the Big 12, only in front of Texas Tech.

Considering Kansas State had the #1 total defense in the Big 12, this is even more frustrating. The defense allowed only 115 rushing yards per game, nearly 50 yards better than the 2nd best team in the conference (Oklahoma).

One thing we can give the pass defense credit for is increasing the interception total from a paltry 5 in 2015 to 16 last season, which led the Big 12 and helped K-State finish the season with the best turnover margin in the Big 12 conference.

That being said, what can this unit do to improve?

For starters, it won’t be easy for the Kansas State secondary to replace safety Dante Barnett, who was an Honorable Mention All-Big 12 player in 2016 and a three-year starter for Bill Snyder, along with being a three-year team captain.

Also, the Wildcats need to replace Donnie Starks who started all 13 games last year, the first 10 at nickleback and the final 3 at cornerback. He was a two-year starter, who was in the top ten in the Big 12 in interceptions during the 2016 season.

The Wildcats need to see continued improvement from three rising juniors who spent time at starters last season: Duke Shelley, D.J. Reed, and Kendall Adams.

The loss of Duke Shelley down the stretch of the season hurt the Kansas State secondary. He had an interception in Kansas State’s early November game against Oklahoma State, a game K-State was leading 23-21 in the third quarter. Shelly went down with an ankle injury in the second half and never returned. Oklahoma State then took advantage of Shelley’s replacement, Cedric Dozier, beating him for an 82-yard touchdown in the 4th quarter, a score that gave the Cowboys a lead that they would never give up.

Shelley then re-injured his ankle two weeks later against Baylor and did not play for the rest of the season, including Kansas State’s Texas Bowl win over Texas A&M. If Shelley comes back completely healthy and becomes the leader of this secondary unit, then Kansas State is off to a good start in the defensive backfield.

Shelley needs to get a helping hand from his fellow returning starting cornerback D.J. Reed. Reed got off to a shaky start, getting torched by West Virginia’s Shelton Gibson early in the season. But Reed’s season turned around as he went on to become the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year. Two years after graduating high school without a major-college scholarship offer, Reed will be one of the key cogs in the Wildcats defense.

Meantime, Kendall Adams returns at free safety. Adams entered the starting line up towards the tail end of his redshirt freshman season in 2015 and was a full-time starter last year. He’s a very solid player, but needs to show some improvement in his consistency in pass coverage.

Adams is likely to be joined by the prize of the Kansas State 2017 recruiting class: safety Elijah Walker, from Cerritos Community College (same as D.J. Reed), who the Wildcats nearly lost to TCU late in the recruiting process. Walker already has high expectations for this team in 2017.

After finally committing to the Wildcats, Bill Snyder had high praise and expectations for Walker, saying, “I liked his ability to run, but I liked the way he processed information, too. That’s how you play the game fast, by being able to process information. When you play at those safety spots you have to process information quickly so you don’t waste those initial steps, and you have to play quickly. He defends the run and the pass well.”

As for new faces that are likely to become more household names, Cre Moore came on late last season when Shelley went down, mostly at cornerback or nickle. The rising redshirt senior had 9 tackles over the final 2 games, which hopefully propelled him into a solid offseason. Moore has been an enigma for most of his time in Manhattan.

Throw in the likes of former walk-on Sean Newlan, Brogan Barry, and Jonathan Durham who may see increased time.

But ultimately this secondary should see drastic improvement thanks to a healthy Duke Shelley, a rapidly improving D.J. Reed, a more consistent and older Kendall Adams, and the addition of the stud JUCO transfer like Elijah Walker.

Bill Snyder and defensive coordinator Tom Hayes should finally get the production out of this unit they received in 2013 and 2014, but didn’t get the past two seasons.

If that happens, watch out Oklahoma schools, the Wildcats, led  by the Kansas State secondary, will be the dark horse team to win the Big 12 conference in 2017.

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