Conor Riley emphasizes that competition “across the board” exists for Kansas State’s offensive line.
Even so, four positions are all but locked up. Left tackle Scott Frantz, center Adam Holtorf and right guard Tyler Mitchell — all seniors — are returning starters with plenty of experience. Another senior, Nick Kaltmayer, is set to slide into the right tackle spot vacated by Dalton Risner, who now plays for the Denver Broncos.
That leaves left guard, where senior Evan Curl is battling third-year sophomore Josh Rivas.
Yet Riley’s primary focus lies beyond the starting five.
“Our challenge as a staff is going to be — and (head) Coach (Chris) Klieman has talked about it — finding that seventh, eighth, ninth offensive lineman,” Riley, in his first season as K-State’s offensive line coach, said at the team’s media day Aug. 9. “But also continue to push the program forward. I am not — and you guys will see this — I am not going to be afraid to play seven, eight, nine offensive linemen.”
Riley concedes that stance sounds absurd. Moreso than arguably any unit in football, stellar offensive line play comes from cohesiveness that only can be developed from working alongside one another. Repeatedly. Constant shuffling can upset that delicate balance.
But Riley doesn’t care.
“If a young man works hard enough and prepares the right way and deserves to play, he’s going to play,” he said. “If a young man can bring value to the team by getting out on the football field, he’s going to play.”
It comes down, in Riley’s mind, to helping the Wildcats’ football program move forward in the first year of the Klieman era. And it only can happen by giving players live reps when the season arrives.
“The only way we’re going to do that is by challenging young people to get out there and do it on Saturdays, throwing them in that fire,” he said. “When they earn our trust and they show that they have the ability to do it, then they’re going to play on Saturdays. That’s what our challenge is right now.”
In his most recent meeting with media members, which came in a post-practice availability Tuesday, Riley said the first word that came to mind to describe his group’s play through two weeks is “inconsistent.”
There’s been “a lot of good,” he said. But then there are things that give him pause.
He pointed to Tuesday’s session for proof.
“We had some tough situations: A lot of third down and long. A lot of pressure situations,” he said. “What we need to do, and what I just talked to the guys about is, ‘OK, one bad play. How do we respond? How are we going to move forward?’ How are you going to say, ‘So what? Now what? That happened, let’s move forward. Next play. Let’s learn from it, but next play.’”
He also referenced a never-back-down mentality he brought up at every opportunity during the spring. A team never wants injuries to occur. But Riley said that can’t be used as an excuse to avoid contact. It’s just about being smart, Riley said.
Or to steal a phrase from Klieman: The Wildcats aren’t facing themselves this fall.
“The way we are standing up and staying off the ground, those are things that are going to make sure we are in that first game healthy and that everybody in this group is going to be healthy,” he said. “Is that a guarantee? No, because it’s still the game of football. We are asking our guys to continue to push themselves, play fast and finish, but still protect their teammates.”
Aside from stepping onto the field healthy for the opener — set for 6 p.m. Aug. 31 against Nicholls State — Riley wants to continue to build depth, particularly at the tackle spots behind Frantz and Kaltmayer.
“I know we have a couple of young kids (there),” he said, “and we are going to continue to tell them, ‘It’s a race to it. You’ve got to continue to grow up. Time is not in your favor. You don’t have a couple game reps? That’s what it is. We can’t control that. All we can do is control our focus and control our effort every single day.’”
Though not mentioned specifically, one young player lacking those “game reps” Riley cited is Noah Johnson, a transfer from Butler Community College. He’s receiving reps at both center and guard — and that’s by design. Look back at his track record, Riley said. He has a history of linemen who cross train at multiple positions.
It’s a means of bringing out the best in a player.
“We talk often about putting them in uncomfortable situations,” Riley said, “because you want to try and create an uncomfortable situation out there today so they can handle it come Saturday afternoon.”