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K-State linebacker Elijah Sullivan (3) attempts to make a tackle during a game against West Virginia in 2017. Head coach Chris Klieman said Sullivan will have to step into the role vacated by Justin Hughes following the latter’s ACL injury that will keep him out this fall.

ARLINGTON, Texas — Justin Hughes was expected to be the heartbeat of Kansas State’s defense this fall. Not only expected to contend for top tackler honors, Hughes, a fifth-year senior linebacker, is a vocal leader. And it’s an ability he put to good use: He would make many, if not all, the calls at the line of scrimmage for the unit.

But after tearing his ACL during the final week of spring practice, Hughes will miss the entire 2019 campaign. He’s planning on returning next season for a final go-round with the Wildcats. As for now, however, K-State head coach Chris Klieman admits Hughes’ loss isn’t easily replaceable.

“It’s going to be difficult,” Klieman said at Big 12 Media Days last week. “Eli Sullivan will move into his spot, but ‘J-Ball’ is kind of the heart and soul of the defense. ... ‘J-Ball’ was kind of the voice, so that’ll be missed. We’ll have him around us this year, but I’m excited that he’s going to repeat his senior season (in 2020). He wants to play, so I look at it as a little bit of a blessing that I’m going to be around him for two years rather than one, because I think he’s that special of a leader.”

Outside of Sullivan, Klieman said he liked what he saw out of two other linebackers this spring: Cody Fletcher and Daniel Green, who goes by the nickname “Deuce.”

A junior, Fletcher played in all 12 games last season, though he primarily served on special teams. His five special teams tackles (all on kickoffs) ranked third on the team. Fletcher’s signature performance was against Baylor, when he saw time at linebacker and recorded a career best six tackles.

Green, a redshirt freshman, did not play a single snap in 2018. But he had a highly decorated high school career, with Rivals ranking him among the top 250 players in the 2017 class regardless of position. Rivals also tabbed him as the country’s No. 10 inside linebacker prospect that year.

Despite liking what Sullivan, Fletcher and Green bring to the table, Klieman said there is still plenty to learn about the linebacker corps when preseason camp starts Aug. 1.

“There’s a bunch of guys who I think we need to find out here in August how much they learned and retained from the spring and throughout their summer captain’s practices,” he said.

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