Any time a key player goes down with an injury, it takes a toll on a football team. Kansas State dealt with one before the season even started: linebacker Justin Hughes, expected to be the vocal leader of the defense, tore his ACL during spring practice. He's sat out this fall and continues to rehab.
Now, the Wildcats' defense is without another longtime starter: cornerback AJ Parker, who has been in the lineup each of the past 20 games. He fractured his ankle in the third quarter of last week's win over Kansas. Head coach Chris Klieman said Tuesday that Parker "will be out for the foreseeable future."
K-State is moving on. Because it must.
"I think it’s always hard to lose a good player for a little while, but we’ve got to keep going," defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton said Thursday. "It’s one of those deals. It’s football.”
With Parker unavailable, every player on the cornerback depth chart moves up a peg. Ironically, that means a pair of Oklahoma natives will step in for their fellow fallen "Sooner State" teammate: Kevion "Kevi" McGee and Darreyl "D-Pat" Patterson.
"'Kevi' has played an awful lot for us. We’ve been in a three-man rotation there quite a bit," Klieman said. "'D-Pat' has been the fourth, so 'D-Pat' will move up to the third spot at our corner. So, between 'Kevi' and Walt (Walter Neil Jr.) and 'D-Pat,' those guys will get more reps."
Klieman said things are slightly subject to change, dependent upon how cornerbacks coach Van Malone feels about the unit heading into Saturday's game at Texas and beyond.
Still, Klieman is happy with the options at hand.
"We’re fortunate that we’ve been able to play guys like 'Kevi' and 'D-Pat' an awful lot this year," Klieman said.
Parker's absence does leave a gaping hole in the secondary, however, at least statistically: He's picked off a team-high three passes this fall, a total that ranks fourth in the Big 12. That's more than McGee, Patterson and Lance Robinson — a redshirt freshman Klieman said shifts up to the fourth position in the cornerback rotation — have combined. (Patterson has one interception this season.)
The group can't match Parker's starting experience, either. That doesn't faze Hazelton, however, particularly in McGee's case.
"Even like last week, and through the year, 'Kevi' has done a good job jumping in and getting meaningful reps when Walt was down before," Hazelton said, "and those kinds of things."
Senior defensive tackle Trey Dishon is equally optimistic about the players tasked with filling the void left by Parker. Dishon took nothing away from Parker — "AJ is a great player for us, (and it’s) sad that he’s down right now," Dishon said — but is confident McGee, Patterson and others can get the job done, too.
"I don’t think I’m too worried at all about who’s going to step in and cover that role for AJ," Dishon said. "We’d love to have AJ, but we also some great D-backs who can play. So I think they are going to step in and do a great job for us.”
At this point, the Wildcats can't worry about who they don't have. They just have to play.
"I think that’s the deal — whoever's in at the time, they’re the starter," Hazelton said. "Hopefully the next-man-up attitude is good with the guys."