As Kansas State prepares to begin one of the strangest college football seasons in history, let’s make one point perfectly clear: Anyone who says they know what will happen in 2020 is either deluded or lying. Yet one can try to piece together just how different things will look for the Wildcats this fall in a number of ways.
One is glancing at the team’s roster and depth chart. Another is by parsing through quotes from players and coaches.
Once K-State’s 2020 campaign finally kicks off come 11 a.m. Saturday, we’ll start to have a bit more clarity.
Only one K-State player is publicly known to have opted out of the season: senior defensive back Jonathan Alexander, who made the announcement on his personal Twitter account shortly after revealing he had tested positive for the coronavirus. In the middle of preseason camp, however, head coach Chris Klieman acknowledged “a few” more players also had decided to opt out.
“We’re going to support those decisions, and then we’ve got to move forward with the guys who are going to participate and play,” Klieman said. “But rest assured, we’ve supported those guys and we’re going to continue to supply them with the stuff they need from the academic side of things to mental health to athletic training, whatever it may be. ... When you opt out of a year that doesn’t count, we’ve really got to make sure that we take care of those guys.”
Asked to name the players (other than Alexander) who opted out of the fall, Klieman said he had no interest in announcing them “right now.” Ultimately, he never did reveal the names.
That led to some digging, looking for discrepancies of players who aren’t listed on the roster K-State Athletics sent out as part of its game notes earlier this week.
Alexander, while still listed on the official team roster on the K-State Athletics website, is not part of the game notes roster.
Three other players are on the website roster but missing from the game notes: running backs Joe Ervin and Thomas Grayson along with defensive tackle Matthew Pola-Mao.
K-State did not confirm the three redshirt freshmen are considered opt outs.
But K-State didn’t deny it, either.
“They are not part of the gameday roster this fall,” a K-State spokesperson told The Mercury Thursday night.
The biggest name of those three, by far, is Ervin.
He appeared in four games last season — just enough to earn some reps, but few enough to preserve his redshirt — and carried 23 times for 95 yards and a touchdown. Coaches and teammates consistently have lauded his maturity and ability.
“Joe, it’s his explosion,” K-State running backs coach Brian Anderson said last month. “Once he sees a hole, he can get into and out of it, and he’s got enough speed to (take it a long way).”
Standing 5-foot-8 and weighing 177 pounds, Ervin wouldn’t be a tailback the Wildcats expect to carry the ball 20-plus times a game; he’s more of a change-of-pace option. Had he not opted out, he likely would have been first in line, alongside fellow redshirt freshman Jacardia Wright, for the third spot on the depth chart behind Harry Trotter and Tyler Burns. (Ironically, with Ervin out, K-State actually has a pair of true freshman who offer skill sets similar to his own: 5-foot-5, 168-pound Deuce Vaughn and 5-foot-7, 179-pound Keyon Mozee.)
How much playing time Grayson might have received this fall isn’t known.
A star at Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, Okla., Grayson ran for 2,422 yards and 28 touchdowns during his prep career, and the Tulsa World named him an all-state honorable mention each of his last two seasons. He didn’t take the field at all in 2019 while redshirting. His name never came up in conversations about running backs during the preseason, but offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham said it had nothing to do with a lack of development on his part, and more about how good the players in front of him — Trotter, Burns, Vaughn, Mozee and Wright — have looked during practice.
Pola-Mao is in a similar spot. Like Grayson, he redshirted last season without participating in a single game. His name also was missing in discussions about the defensive tackle rotation.
Coronavirus and the depth chart
At last count, the Wildcats had 12 players recently test positive for the coronavirus. That number only is known because of information provided by the Riley County Health Department. During the summer, K-State Athletics periodically sent out emails detailing their testing results. Those emails stopped in July.
How many of those 12 cases still are active? That’s not known. At least judging by the depth chart for Saturday’s game, no key player is missing — though it must be noted a depth chart only is semi-reflective of where a team’s positional pecking order actually stands. If, say, Malik Knowles is one of the active cases and can’t play Saturday, why would K-State publicize that? There’s not a reason to do so.
Publicly, the Wildcats’ coaching staff said it felt better about the team’s health as the week went on.
Klieman during his time on the Big 12 coaches teleconference on Monday: “We’re like everybody else — we’ve been hit at certain positions, so you can’t go back out there and practice for two-and-a-half hours because you don’t have enough bodies at this position or that position. Probably devoted a lot more time to meeting times, walk-through times, group times where you’re slowing that tempo down and explaining it and walking through some of those situations because you don’t have the amount of numbers where you can say, ‘Hey, let’s go full speed in practice’ and, ‘Let this wide receiver play quarterback.’”
Compare that to Messingham’s comments Thursday.
“It’s gotten better (in) the last four, five, six days as far as everybody we thought would be in the game plan being back and being able to go.”
Wasting time on things they can’t control won’t help them beat the Red Wolves Saturday, anyway.
“I know we have a number of guys who are going to be playing for us, and those are the guys we’ve been dealing with and worrying about,” Messingham said. “I don’t think it’s going to affect us very much. I think we’re really in pretty good shape personnel wise with the ability to go out and play.”
What will happen after positive tests?
After a positive COVID-19 test — or those who are considered close contacts to those active — the Wildcats are doing what they can to ensure players are not simply sitting around doing nothing during their quarantine period. The strength and conditioning staff is sending workout plans to affected players.
“Although they cannot go into the facility, we want those guys to go out on their own and run routes, or run in general if you’re an O-lineman or D-lineman to keep yourself in shape,” Klieman said.
While staying physically fit always is important for an athlete, that’s doubly true now.
“If they know they’re going to be back a day before or four days before a game, we have to be cautious with them,” Klieman said, “because we have to make sure they are safe and not going to pull a hamstring or hurt themselves.”
Klieman also is thankful for technology.
“We have those guys in every Zoom position meeting, unit meeting that we have, and they have their iPads, so they’re sent practice videos, so they’re reviewing that,” he said. “They have the game videos, so they’re reviewing the game cut-ups or who we’re playing. They have the install, but they’re in their position meeting. ... So they’re getting that stuff mentally.”
Because of the circumstances, K-State no longer will have a minimum number of practices a player needs to take part in during a game week. If a player is good to go at least once at practice, Klieman said, that’ll be good enough come game time.
“If a young man can practice a day or two and get all of the meeting stuff from a mental standpoint, and help you — I don’t know if that’s 60 snaps, but maybe it’s 25 snaps — I think you have to have, as I tell our guys, ‘All hands on deck,’” Klieman said. “Everybody who is eligible to play — thankfully we don’t have to worry about freshman on a four-game rule this year — we can give them five snaps a game and not feel like, ‘Oh shoot, I can’t get to Game 5 with this guy.’ So we’ve simplified some packages for some of those young players. If you’re eligible to play on Saturday, you’ve got to be able to play some snaps.”
K-State’s final COVID-19 tests of the week — they are tested three times each week, per a directive from the Big 12 Conference — will be on Fridays. As soon as they are completed, the team will head to its hotel.
That’s yet another area that will be different this season.
In years past, parents and other members of a player’s family typically stop by the hotel to visit with their sons.
“We’re going to take that part of it out right now because of our bubble,” Klieman said, “but Manhattan is a small community, so that’s something I know our kids aren’t excited about. But they understand why we’re doing it.”
Starting quarterback Skylar Thompson already is dreading it. Just thinking about it, he became emotional Tuesday during a video interview with reporters, reflecting upon the enjoyment he gets from the night-before-game hotel sessions with his father.
“It was a moment where it was just my dad and I. I didn’t have a bunch of other people trying to talk to me or trying to visit with me,” Thompson said.
“I could just sit there and talk to my dad and have some really quality father-son time. Talk about the game plan, talk about how I’m feeling. My dad would just tell me how proud he was of me or just talk about memories of me being a little kid. Just having conversations with my dad in those types of moments, I always cherished and really take a lot of pride in and value. That not being realistic this year is going to be tough.”
Players will ‘make most of’ postgame
Players will be able to see their families once the clock reads triple-zero on Saturdays. That’s something, Klieman said, that has to be allowed.
But that doesn’t mean the reminders about the dangers of COVID — and how quickly it can spread — ever are far away.
“We keep preaching, like every coach in America does, about staying safe after practices and after games,” he said. “We had a mock game on Saturday and cut them loose on Saturday night, because you can’t practice with them 24-7. So the maturity level has to step up at some point and say, ‘Hey guys, if we want to have the opportunity to be able to tee it up each Saturday, we have to make sure and keep ourselves safe.’”
Thompson said that goes both ways. As much as he’s trying to practice the proper guidelines amid this pandemic, he’s making sure his family and friends know if they want to be able to talk with him after games, they have to do their part during the week.
“They understand that they’re a part of the sacrifice, too. They can’t go out and be around tons of people and put themselves in situations to get this virus either,” he said. “At the same time, we’re always going to take the right precautions of the situation. In my living situation, I only live with one other person.”
Klieman’s son, Devin, a K-State student coach.
“He’s really bought in and he cares about our football team as well. He’s not going to put himself in a position to get sick either,” Thompson said. “We both understand we’re going to have to do a lot and sacrifice a lot, but at the end of the day, we want to play football. Ultimately, that’s what’s most important right now, and everybody in my life and his life and everybody understands that.”
None of the precautions players are being forced to take this season are easy. Or ideal.
But they’re doing what they must to continue playing the game they love.
“It’s going to be a process we’re going to have to work through and understand and make the most of having a six-feet conversation with my family (after games),” Thompson said. “It will be good, and we’ll make the most of it.”