Less than a month remains until Kansas State football takes the field for the first game under new head coach Chris Klieman.
The run-up to the Aug. 31 opener against Nicholls begins Thursday, with players reporting back for the beginning of preseason camp. The Wildcats will hold their first practice Friday. And then on Monday, Klieman will meet with media members.
Here are a few storylines to follow as the 2019 campaign draws ever closer.
Running back pecking order
To say the Wildcats had a massive hole at this position at the end of last season is an understatement.
Alex Barnes, who led the Big 12 in nearly every major rushing category during the regular season in 2018, elected to forgo his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft. Dalvin Warmack graduated. So did Justin Silmon.
But Klieman and his staff rebuilt depth at the spot soon after taking over.
James Gilbert, a graduate transfer from Ball State, exited the spring as the likely starter — though Klieman stated on multiple occasions he didn’t have a depth chart, and wouldn’t release one until the calendar turned to August.
Gilbert isn’t the only new face, though.
The Wildcats signed three running backs (Joe Ervin, Thomas Grayson and Clyde Price) as part of their initial 2019 class. They added another graduate transfer running back in Jordon Brown in May. And Wichita native Tyler Burns, who spent the 2016 and 2017 seasons with the Wildcats before leaving prior to last season, rejoined the program.
That’s not all: Jacardia Wright, who put up eye-popping numbers as a senior — 2,609 yards on 219 carries (11.9 yards per carry) and 55 total touchdowns at St. Teresa High School in Decatur, Illinois — is now on campus. (Klieman told The Mercury at Big 12 Media Days last month that Wright was not yet with the team, but a K-State spokesperson informed the paper Thursday morning that Wright is now good to go.) Another note on Wright: K-State lists him as an "athlete" on the official team roster on the athletics department website, so it's possible he might play defense; USA Today named him a first team all-state performer as a defensive back last year.
Whether Wright plays running back or not, there’s one other player to keep in mind. Klieman said last month he’s “really excited” about Harry Trotter, who sat out last season after transferring from Louisville.
To now boast that many options in the backfield, given how it looked at the conclusion of last season, is a testament to Klieman and his staff’s work on the recruiting trail.
Return game uncertainty
The Wildcats have no worries at the specialist spots.
Kicker Blake Lynch and punter Devin Anctil are on preseason watch lists at their respective positions, with those around the country expecting stellar seasons from both. While there might be stability in those two areas of special teams, the same can’t be said for the return game.
Isaiah Zuber, the Wildcats’ primary returner on kickoffs and punts last season, transferred to Mississippi State. K-State almost had a solution for his departure after adding New Mexico transfer Marcus Hayes, who led the nation in punt return average last season. But his waiver to play immediately was denied by the NCAA, and he’ll sit out this fall.
Receivers Phillip Brooks and Malik Knowles had scarce opportunities to contribute in the return game last season, but neither recorded more than three attempts.
So it should go without saying that the roles of the primary kickoff and punt returner — with the possibility the same player will handle both — will need to be sorted out during camp.
Who steps up at wide receiver?
Zuber topped K-State in almost every receiving category one can name in 2018. As previously noted, he’s gone. Hunter Rison, expected to play a starring role this fall after sitting out last season, is out as well, coming to a "mutual agreement" to leave the program following a domestic violence arrest in April.
Beyond senior Dalton Schoen, the Wildcats have just one other receiver (Knowles) who caught more than 10 passes last season.
Whether that is simply pumping up teammates for the sake of positivity or grounded in reality remains to be seen.