Miner Matchup: Kansas State Wildcats

Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

UTEP heads to the Little Apple for a physical Big 12 matchup

The beginning of the 2013 season was one that captured the nation’s attention. Kansas State grabbed every headline, but for the wrong reason. The Wildcats were upset by FCS and two-time defending national champion North Dakota State 24-21 in a shocker in Manhattan, Kansas. After that jarring defeat K-State had two options, let the loss define their season or rally and make a bowl game for the fourth straight season. They chose the latter, finishing 8-5 (5-4 Big 12) and earned a spot in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl where they dismantled Michigan 31-14.

This year, K-State was picked to finish 3rd in the Big 12 preseason poll behind Oklahoma and Baylor. Four Wildcats were named to the Big 12 preseason team. Wide receiver and kick returner Tyler Lockett plus linemen B.J. Finney and Cody Whitehair were named to the offensive team. Defensive end Ryan Mueller was the only Wildcat player named to the defensive team.

If you’ve paid any attention to Head Coach Bill Snyder’s Wildcat teams, you know they are about smash-mouth football. Now tough and rugged aren’t usually adjectives used to describe the spread option, but that’s what K-State does best.

Their physicality starts up front with Finney and Whitehair, both who helped pave the way for the Wildcats to rush for 2,314 yards last season. Returning to lead the offense is senior signal-caller Jake Waters. Waters led the Wildcats in total offense last season with 2,469 yards passing (16 TD’s) along with 312 rushing yards (6 TD’s) on the ground. Waters enters his senior season with the top career passing efficiency rating in K-State history and ranks fifth in passing yards per game.

When it comes to the Wildcats weapons on offense, there are some big holes to fill. Particularly at running back, K-State is looking to replace its top two rushers. John Hubert, who like K-State legend before him Darren Sproles, stood small in stature but huge on the stat sheet. Hubert became the school's second all-time leading rusher next to Sproles finishing with 1,048 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns. Second on the team in rushing last season was quarterback Daniel Sams, who was primarily used in the run game. Sams rushed for an impressive 807 yards and 10 touchdowns.

With Hubert leaving to the NFL and Sams transferring to finish his career at McNeese State, you have nearly 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns not returning. Expect carries to be split between Charles Jones and Jarvis Leverett in the fall.

On the outside, First Team All-Big 12 and Second Team All-American Tyler Lockett returns to wreak havoc on opposing defenses. Lockett had a phenomenal season in 2013 with 81 catches for 1,262 yards and 11 touchdowns. According to CBS Sports NFL Draft Scout Lockett is ranked the 7th top wide receiver prospect in all of college football. Joining Lockett is senior Curry Sexton who was third in receiving yards last season. Sophomore Deante Burton hauled in six grabs in the Wildcats’ spring game to add to himself in the mix for one of the top spots.

Defensively this 4-3 unit returns three of it’s top five tacklers and ranked 26th in total defense in 2013.  This unit is great at stopping the run and funneling the skill positon players into the middle of the defense. One playmaker to keep an eye is Ryan Mueller who also led the team in sacks with 11.5 and tackles for loss with 18.5. The former walk-on was named a Second Team All-American last season. Lining next to Mueller is Travis Britz, a 2013 Honorable Mention Big 12 performer who tied for second on the team in tackles for loss with 6.5. This defensive front does a solid job of pushing the pocket and creating opportunities for sacks.

In the middle, there is a vacant position that needs to be filled. Last year, departing senior Blake Slaughter led the defense in tackles with 110 total. Senior linebacker Johnathan Truman who was second on the team in tackles should emerge as a leader on this side of the ball.

Patrolling the secondary is 2013 Buffalo Wild Wings Defensive MVP Dante Barnett who led the Wildcats in interceptions with four and Randall Evans who finished 4th in tackles. Evans, a former walk-on currently is the leading active tackler for the Wildcats.

On special teams, keep an eye out on Lockett returning kicks. His speed and ability to find the open seam is what makes him deadly on the field. He is second all-time in all-purpose yards at Kansas State.

Bottom Line: UTEP is faced with yet another challenging Big 12 matchup that will be tough to handle. The Miner secondary will face one of the best receivers in the country in Tyler Lockett and figures to be the unit’s ultimate test. Up front, K-State is much bigger and more experienced led by their All Big 12 preseason selections. Defensively, the Wildcats are one of the best units in the Big 12 and will need to have their pass rush slowed if UTEP wants a chance in this ball game. Picked 3rd in the Big 12, this Wildcat team will have something to prove after their bowl win and disastrous season opener a year ago. Bill Synder coached teams are tough and disciplined, UTEP cannot afford to make any mistakes in this matchup if they want to steal the victory.

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