Kansas State football got off to a stellar start last fall. Despite dropping its lone non-conference game — a home affair against Arkansas State to open the 2020 campaign — to begin the season, K-State rebounded to win its next four games, all versus Big 12 foes, to give it a 4-1 overall record and a 4-0 mark in conference play.
It was all downhill from there, though.
The Wildcats finished the season on a five-game losing streak.
Their first opportunity to put last season in the past came Wednesday morning, as they held their first of 15 practices this spring.
Here are three storylines to monitor as K-State progresses through the spring.
Who will be QB2?
Quarterback Skylar Thompson is back for his sixth season with the Wildcats, making him one of five K-State players (along with center Noah Johnson, defensive lineman Bronson Massie, linebacker Cody Fletcher and defensive back Jahron McPherson) who are taking advantage of the extra year afforded by the NCAA, which made last fall essentially a free season for every college athlete.
What Thompson’s return does, however, is stall the future of the quarterback position. Though Will Howard stepped in after Thompson’s season-ending injury in October, he struggled down the stretch. Now Howard, who still will be a true freshman in terms of eligibility, will have to fight off early enrollee Jake Rubley, one of the most highly touted quarterback signees in program history. (Per 247Sports, by composite rating, the only signal-callers the Wildcats ever have signed who owned a higher ranking were Nick Patton in 2004 and Josh Freeman in 2006.)
If Thompson goes down again, the K-State fan base will be clamoring to see what Rubley can do.
And where does Jaren Lewis fit into the picture — if he’s even in the frame at all?
As Howard and Rubley did in the years that followed, Lewis was an early enrollee. At one time, quarterbacks coach Collin Klein constantly lauded Lewis for his grasp of the offense, as well as his top-flight arm talent. The one consistent knock on Lewis was that he too in love with his arm — wanting to try to fit the ball into windows that sometimes weren’t there.
Though he redshirted in 2019 and didn’t appear in a game last season, it’s clear that Lewis has talent.
The problem for him is that Howard and Rubley have just as much ability — if not more.
Can they strike gold again with a transfer tight end?
Briley Moore joined K-State last season as a transfer from Northern Iowa.
Daniel Imatorbhebhe took a far more circuitous route to Manhattan. He originally signed with Florida out of high school. He went through spring practice with the Gators in 2015 before transferring to Southern California. He remained in Los Angeles through the 2019 season before transferring to Illinois.
Now, he’s a Wildcat.
The program just hopes he can come close to replicating what Moore brought to the table last season.
Moore caught 22 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns despite missing one game last fall. His three touchdown catches tied for the team high, while his yardage and reception totals ranked second.
If Imatorbhebhe ends anywhere in the vicinity of those numbers in 2021, his season will be viewed as an unmitigated success.
How quickly will new strength coach find his footing?
The only job in K-State’s football program that hadn’t changed in the past decade-plus was the strength and conditioning director. Bill Snyder hired Chris Dawson for the role in January 2010, and Dawson remained in that spot — Chris Klieman retained Dawson after Snyder’s retirement in December 2018 — until last month, when he was hired in the same capacity at Central Florida.
Klieman wasted no time tabbing Dawson’s replacement, hiring South Florida’s Trumain Carroll for the job.
Carroll spent last year on the first-year staff of Jeff Scott at USF. He also led the Arkansas football program’s strength and conditioning efforts for two years (2018-19) and SMU’s the three seasons (2015-17) before that.
He has plenty of experience with the Big 12, having played at Oklahoma State from 2001 to 2005 and working at his alma mater as an assistant strength coach in two separate stints. He also has familiarity with this geographic locale: UMKC gave him his first strength and conditioning directorship in 2008, where he worked until 2011, when he departed for South Carolina.
All K-State’s players have known in recent years is Dawson’s way of doing things.
How long will it take for Carroll’s philosophies and weight-room strategies to become second nature for the Wildcats?
Klieman certainly hopes that answer is sooner than later.
After its dismal end to the 2020 season, he challenged his players to hit the weight room and become physically stronger — he doesn’t want to see them pushed around by their Big 12 brethren any longer.
Carroll is the key to ensuring that goal becomes a reality.