Kansas State is a team lacking experience in certain spots. That theme directly applies to the receiving corps. Position coach Jason Ray’s group is depending heavily on the leadership of Dalton Schoen and the younger group of wideouts stepping up and making heavy contributions.
Talent isn’t in question. The Wildcats have athletic, fast and big young receivers in redshirt-freshman Malik Knowles and true freshman Joshua Youngblood.
“From spring to camp, I think we made decent progress,” Ray said. “There are still some detailed things that we need to iron out and fundamentals, footwork and hand placement things in the run game, but truly I think we are making good progress.”
Knowles has the benefit of already having played in four games in 2018, and showing effectiveness in those games while preserving his redshirt. Knowles caught 10 passes for 100 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Those numbers put him in good company: his 10 receptions were the most by a true freshman Wildcat since Tyler Lockett in 2011.
“I think (Knowles) is moving in the right direction,” Ray said. “He is still a young player, played in four games last season, so he has those under his belt. You can see he is more confident in his ability. He’s talented. I think the ceiling for him is very high and there’s a lot of upside and he’s going to continue to get better. It just getting the details with him.”
The team also has consistently raved about Youngblood’s play-making ability from the moment he stepped on campus.
“(Youngblood) is a guy Coach (Klieman) has been high on,” Ray said. “We’ve all been high on him as far as character and pedigree coming from Tampa and some of the things he brings to the table from the explosive standpoint. But he is still a true freshman.”
Youngblood was included in Ray’s list of talented, young receivers who still need to fine-tune their fundamentals and technique. The fortunate part for Ray is that the younger players in his meeting room also have Schoen to look up to.
Ray said Schoen took to heart the leadership role bestowed upon him. Hunter Rison and Isaiah Zuber aren’t with the team anymore, and the Wildcats have to look to someone with experience. That role unquestionably goes to Schoen.
“I think (Schoen) did a really good job as far as just getting the wideouts together,” Ray said. “It’s never perfect, and he is continuing to learn that his role outside of playing receiver for us is because he is the true veteran in that group. I think as camp continues on, and obviously throughout the season, he has to be a leader for us.”
Schoen, who has 55 receptions for 990 yards and five touchdowns in his Kansas State career, said he knew his role with the team had to change for the receiving corps to be successful. While he expressed confidence in his wideouts, Schoen said he needed to assist the other vocal leaders on the team.
“I’ve always tried to be a good leader by example because of my work ethic and how I am, but this year has been a huge step up for me vocally,” Schoen said. “Coach Klieman really pushed me early on to step up my vocal leadership because I need to help (quarterback) Skylar Thompson and take some work off of his plate. But it’s a good year, we’ve got a lot of young guys who are willing to step up and have done a great job of following me, so it has been easy to step up vocally and try to lead those receivers to where we need to go.”
The Wildcats rotated seven to eight receivers during the first week of so of camp, Ray said. Eight is the maximum he wants to go with for now. Ray also looks over the special teams unit, and he said a good way for some of these young athletes to solidify a role with the team is in that area.
“I think that’s how you get on the bus ultimately,” Ray said. “If you are a guy on the bubble to get into receiver (rotation), you better be able to play special teams for us.”
“Stepping up” has been a consistent theme for the receiving corps to focus on in recent months. While Knowles also mentioned Schoen, calling him a “guru” in the film room and a good person to have in the main leadership role, Knowles also wants to lead. He was on the leadership counsel in high school at Lake Ridge.
“I think our wide receiving corps is phenomenal,” Knowles said. “We have a lot of different types of receivers. I am just trying to emerge as a leader in our corps because we have a lot of young guys, so I am doing the best I can to step up.”
There also wideouts who are still a work in progress and need to iron out their own details before they can be consistent contributors. Keenan Garber is one such example. A true freshman who starred at Lawrence Free State, Garber, is a player Ray believes has plenty of upside.
“(Garber) is a great prospect for us and a great kid,” Ray said. “He is in the film room learning and studying. Ultimately with him, he’s a true freshman and he’s going to figure out how we run things and how the system operates. But I think ultimately when you see him on the hoof, it’s speed and his ability to run.”
While the Wildcats don’t lack for options in their receiving group, Youngblood enters the fall with a spotlight on him. Ray said the best-case scenario, for now, is for the team to get Youngblood on the field early in the season to see his progress, and decide what to do from there with the redshirt rule.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are looking to give him a redshirt, either.
“Right now, this is like NFL camp here,” Ray said. “There are no classes and there are no other distractions. Come fall, there is going to be a lot more distractions. There are going to be more people on campus, classes to go to and schedule changes. I think ultimately once we figure out where guys fit and once they learn our system, then you can kind of start talking about if this guys is ready for the big time. But athletically, (Youngblood) can do things. Once you get a full season schedule, sometimes those kids taper off or sometimes they rise to the occasion. I expect him to rise to the occasion just because of the type of kid he is.”