With Kansas State football’s preseason camp well underway, Chris Klieman is sure of one thing about his linebackers: The Wildcats boast a solid quartet.
Now, they’re looking beyond that.
“We’re trying to develop another one, whoever that may be,” said Klieman, who is entering his first season as K-State’s head coach. “We’re trying to find a fifth. There are a number of guys who are battling for that.”
The frontrunner for that fifth spot is senior Eric Gallon II, a K-State legacy. (His father Eric starred at running back for Bill Snyder’s earliest K-State teams in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s.) Ahead of Gallon — or whoever lands that fifth spot — the Wildcats believe they are set with senior Da’Quan Patton, juniors Eli Sullivan and Cody Fletcher and redshirt freshman Daniel “Deuce” Green.
Sullivan originally was slated to play the weakside position, known as Will. But after Justin Hughes tore his ACL just before spring practice ended, the Wildcats moved Sullivan to the middle, known as Mike.
“You can say that he understands the game of football,” said defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton, who also serves as the linebackers coach. “I think that he understands, just because of his time at tailback when he was younger, in high school and stuff like that. And he’s a good football player. He’s probably got a little bit more snap than a lot of the guys. He has some explosion to his body. He’s working through the process of, ‘Hey, really it’s my first time learning this defense as the Mike and making those calls.”
Both Sullivan and Patton, Hazelton said, are physically imposing.
“They’re very athletic young men. They are very athletic,” he said. “They have the ability to run and they’ve got pop to their body. They can move and do those things.”
On the flip side, Hazelton said Fletcher and Green are more cerebral.
“They’re different styles,” Hazelton said. “You would say they’re more instinctual and make the play.”
Sullivan said it’s hard to miss either one at practice. They’re both “flying around” all the time and bring energy every day.
“Daniel Green, he gets after it. Cody does the same thing,” Sullivan said. “I love playing around them. They’re great. We have a great group of guys in the linebacker room. Everybody is eager to learn and ready to get out there, do what they need to do and ball.”
Sullivan and Patton are the leaders of the group in terms of experience; Sullivan has appeared in 27 games the past three seasons while Patton started every contest in 2018. Fletcher and Green are the question marks.
Fletcher played in every game a season ago, though most of that action came on special teams. Green hasn’t taken the field in a college game.
Yet Sullivan left little doubt how good he thinks the unit can be this fall.
“We can be a great group,” he said. “To be honest, I feel like even if we do rotate everybody, we won’t miss a beat at all. Everybody knows what they’re doing — there may be a couple things from the group here and there that we probably need to work on, but other than that, we’ll be fine.”
Klieman pointed out the group has little margin for error in terms of injuries.
“We’re always going to be a little thin there, just losing Justin Hughes as late as we did and we didn’t have a big class of linebackers coming in,” he said. “So that will be an ongoing process of trying to find more guys who can help us there.”
Hazelton was in the middle of Klieman and Sullivan; less bullish than his player but a tad more optimistic than his boss.
In his mind, it all comes down to health.
“If we can keep developing those four guys and we don’t get any more injuries after ‘J-Ball’ (Hughes),” Hazelton said, “then you would say, ‘OK, we’ve got a chance to be OK.’”