The Kansas State Wildcats got off to a promising start in 2020, but then quarterback Skylar Thompson went down and the wheels fell off Chris Klieman‘s team. K-State started off 4-1, including another stunning win over Oklahoma, but then lost five in a row to end the season, finishing 4-6. But Thompson is back and the Wildcats are hoping to be the surprise team in the Big 12 Conference this fall. As we take a closer look at the offense, here are three things that will define the unit during the 2021 season.
1. Deuce Vaughn’s Growth
Deuce Vaughn had a monster 2020 season for the Wildcats, as he was named the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year and being named the 247Sports True Freshman of the Year. Vaughn rushed for 642 yards and seven touchdowns on 123 carries, caught 25 passes for 434 yards and two touchdowns, and he returned seven kickoffs for 145 yards. Can he put on an encore?
Sometimes, players like Vaughn take a step back in a sophomore slump as defenses figure them out with a full offseason of tape. But K-State fans are desperately hoping that’s not the case. If Kansas State wants to be more explosive on the offensive side of the ball, Vaughn needs to maintain his performance from 2020, and possibly take a step forward and become the most dangerous player in the Big 12 Conference in 2021. Other fan bases might scoff at that notion, but watch some of Vaughn’s highlights from 2020 and you’ll quickly remember this is the shiftiest guy in the conference who still has room to grow in Manhattan.
2. Offensive Line improvement
The Wildcats offensive line was completely revamped in 2020, replacing five seniors, and at times it showed. K-State ranked 7th in the Big 12 with 151 rushing yards per game, but only gave up 14 sacks in 10 games. Overall, this unit did make huge progress.
The coaching staff is excited by this unit and its depth. “Our offensive line has just come leaps and bounds from where we were last year at this time when we had all the new guys and didn’t have spring ball,” head coach Chris Klieman said this spring. “I’m really excited about the growth there.”
Noah Johnson anchors the middle of the line, which is the strength, while the tackles are the weaker spots. However, if this unit takes another leap like it took in 2020, then the Kansas State offensive line is going to be considered one of the strength’s of this team and one of the best units in the Big 12 Conference in 2021.
3. Who are the playmakers (other than Vaughn)?
Especially at wide receiver. It’s great to have Thompson back at quarterback, but boy he needs some consistency for who he’s going to throw to this season. Chabastin Taylor is one of those players who makes a play and flashes all his potential, then he goes missing. And he’s had that kind of hype going on three seasons. Malik Knowles might be the best bet to be that guy if he can stay healthy. Late last season he had a 75-yard run against Baylor and then had nearly 100 receiving yards in the season finale against Texas. Phillip Brooks is another name to keep an eye on for a player to burst onto the scene. He was incredibly effective in the return game, but that didn’t always translate to being a wide receiver.
Another name that might just be that “other playmaker” for Kansas State is Nebraska transfer Kade Warner, who will be on campus this summer. Warner is a former record-setting high school receiver out of Arizona. He held the 11-man Ariona high school football record for most career catches with 241, breaking the record that was held by former Oklahoma receiver Mark Andrews (207 catches). Warner walked on at Nebraska and worked his way up to a scholarship and being a team captain. However he only had five catches for 40 yards last season. This after having 25 catches his first two seasons in Lincoln. It’s exactly the kind of player that has excelled at Kansas State over the last generation.