Editor’s note: Normally, Mercury sports editor and Kansas State beat writer Ryan Black offers a trio of thoughts on the Wildcat football team’s latest game. But with news of starting quarterback Skylar Thompson’s season-ending injury, this space will focus on what that means for the team going forward.
Howard takes over QB1
Well, things certainly have shifted quickly since Saturday, haven’t they? Then, it was freshman Will Howard stepping into the lineup for his first career start. Now ... he’ll be starting for the foreseeable future.
He didn’t play spectacularly in the 21-14 win at TCU. But he made enough plays to win. That included scoring K-State’s only offensive touchdown, a 4-yard run in the second quarter. An 80-yard run on the Wildcats’ first offensive possession — the seventh longest in school history, and second longest by a quarterback — helped Howard immediately rid of himself of any nerves he may have had. Ending as the game’s leading rusher (86 yards) is nothing to scoff at.
His final passing numbers don’t jump off the page: 8-for-19, 117 yards, one interception, no touchdowns.
Yet his receiving corps was far from perfect, too, with multiple dropped passes. (That isn’t even counting a play where tight end Sammy Wheeler initially had a reception called before it was overturned on review.)
Saturday’s game couldn’t have unfolded any better for a quarterback — and remember that Howard is a freshman — making his first start.
Howard didn’t have to go out and lead the Wildcats on seven touchdown drives. Because of the superlative play of K-State’s defense and special teams, his lone touchdown proved to be enough to lead the visitors to a win at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
Until Howard gets more experience under his belt, expect last week’s game plan to be what the Wildcats use going forward.
Don’t make Howard do too much. Let him pick his spots in the passing game while leaning on the run. Play stellar defense. And continue being rock solid on special teams.
As head coach Chris Klieman said after Saturday’s win, he’s told his team to be ready to grind out some victories as the season progresses. (Translation: Expect more final scores similar to Saturday, in the vein of 24-20 or 20-14 as opposed to 48-45.)
The good news for K-State is that Howard can use this off week to continue to get more reps before what, on paper, should be an easy win over in-state rival Kansas.
The bad news is that the Wildcats have a two-game stretch, versus Oklahoma State (Nov. 7) and Iowa State (Nov. 21) in back-to-back outings, two of the three teams in the Big 12 still unbeaten in conference play; K-State is the other.
To give themselves a puncher’s chance in those contests, the Wildcats will need Howard to mature quickly.
Perhaps by the time K-State’s second (and final) road trip to Texas this season — that’s the Nov. 28 game at Baylor — rolls around, Howard will be in a spot where the coaches can put more on his plate. Maybe he’ll be ready to throw the ball 30 or 35 times, if need be, to spur the Wildcats to a victory. Conceivably, by then, he might be ready to engage in a high-scoring, back-and-forth offensive showcase against Baylor signal-caller Charlie Brewer or Texas’ Sam Ehlinger, who comes to Bill Snyder Family Stadium in the regular-season finale Dec. 5.
With Howard ascending to the top of the depth chart, that means those behind him move up one peg accordingly: Nick Ast to No. 2, redshirt freshman Jaren Lewis to No. 3.
Ast’s name constantly is mentioned. By all accounts, he’s indisputably the backup.
But how much will things change with Thompson’s injury? Will the staff elect to open up the competition to give Lewis a chance to step in if Howard goes down with an injury?
Lewis has the most arm talent on the team — the strongest arm, for sure. Yet that alone doesn’t help a player win a starting job. The fact that he started out the 2020 campaign fourth on the pecking order was a bit baffling, if only because quarterbacks coach Collin Klein repeatedly praised Lewis’ progress as a freshman last season.
Then Howard came in and blew past Lewis on the depth chart.
When a player of Thompson’s caliber goes down, it forces a team to make adjustments elsewhere. Howard already has taken advantage of his opportunity. Perhaps it will light a fire under Lewis to know he would be first in line to replace Howard if anything goes awry. But to earn that right, he first must prove to the coaches, in practice, that he’s a better fit than Ast.
Admittedly, the news Thompson is done for the year is shocking. The initial hit that injured him — one that led to Texas Tech linebacker Riko Jeffers’ ejection from the game because of a targeting call — didn’t appear as bad as others this season. Even when Thompson returned for the second half of that game Oct. 3, on the sideline with his right arm in a sling, a season-ending injury seemed unlikely. Head coach Chris Klieman even expressed optimism last week that Thompson might be able to play at TCU. (Thompson didn’t even end up traveling.)
This always was a “free season” for Thompson, as is the case for every player in college. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA is not counting this season against a player’s eligibility.
So that leads to the obvious question: Would Thompson want to return for another year, his sixth, in 2021?
In large part, this may come down to how Howard fares the rest of this season.
If Howard leads K-State to a top-two finish in the Big 12 and a spot in the league championship game, what would happen if Thompson wanted to come back?
He’s the most respected player on the team. He was a senior captain for a reason. Time and again, he’s come through in clutch moments. (Five game-winning/game-tying drives in the fourth quarter or later during his K-State career attests to that.) Would he really want his college career to end because of an injury?
Conversely, Thompson might look at the situation another way.
I’m already in Year 5. My legacy is secure. I’ve had my time in the sun. Let Howard have his.
That’s not even mentioning that the Wildcats bring in Jake Rubley next year. A 2021 commit, he would be the highest-ranked recruit of the Klieman era thus far, as well as one of the most highly regarded quarterbacks K-State has had since the onset of recruiting rankings. (If Thompson returns, that’s one crowded quarterback room. Might need to invest in more chairs at the Vanier Family Football Complex.)
Thompson has plenty to ponder about his life — and college career — in the days, weeks and months to come.
Good thing he has ample time to make up his mind.
In lieu of more in-depth thoughts on K-State’s win over TCU, here are three quick hitters:
1. While AJ Parker’s pick-six is the image that will be remembered in the future, it can’t be overstated how well K-State’s secondary performed. Taye Barber was the Horned Frogs’ leading receiver entering the game, with 12 receptions for 133 yards in two games; K-State limited him to one catch for 11 yards Saturday. Or put another way: TCU averaged 315 passing yards per game in its first two contests, versus Iowa State and Texas, respectively. The Wildcats held the Horned Frogs to 153 yards through the air.
2. Blake Lynch’s performance likely was overlooked, but how pivotal did his pair of first-quarter field goals prove in the end? Note that one of those makes was from 53 yards, a personal best for Lynch.
3. If you predicted D.J. Render as the Wildcats’ leader in receptions (three) Saturday, give yourself a pat on the back. (And please share what numbers one should pick to win the lottery.) A fifth-year senior, Render had played in 17 games at K-State before Saturday; in those previous 17 appearances, he’d never made a catch.