K-State Spring Game

Kansas State junior defensive back Walter Neil, Jr. (15) speaks with the media after the spring scrimmage at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in April. Neil is one player head coach Chris Klieman said might be able to step into the role of the defense's vocal leader with linebacker Justin Hughes set to miss the season after tearing his ACL.

When Justin Hughes tore his ACL this spring, Kansas State didn’t just lose one of its starting linebackers. It lost the undisputed vocal leader of the defense.

Four months later, the Wildcats still are working to find that voice. And it hasn’t been easy.

“Justin Hughes was that guy throughout spring ball,” head coach Chris Klieman said Tuesday. “It was so late when he got injured that we’re still trying to identify it.”

With the opener against Nicholls two days away, the role is in a state of flux.

“It’s a work in progress,” Klieman said. “It should be all of them.”

He then listed off eight players he said the defense will “count on” to come together to fill the void left by Hughes’ (for now) silenced voice. It’s a group that featured every level of the defense, from linemen Reggie Walker, Wyatt Hubert and Trey Dishon to linebacker Elijah Sullivan to secondary starters Walter Neil Jr., AJ Parker, Denzel Goolsby and Wayne Jones. Klieman stakes his pedigree on defense. He played defensive back at Northern Iowa, and at every stop in his coaching career, he’s worked with the secondary in some capacity. Even now, he assists with the safeties during practice. So he knows defense, and said he’s “excited” about the plethora of options he has with Hughes scheduled to miss the entire season.

As much as Klieman hopes it’s resolved quickly, he conceded it isn’t something that can be forced.

A solution only will come when one player asserts himself and takes command.

“There are so many guys that it can be, but they have to feed off each other,” he said. “Maybe it’s segmented a little bit, too. Maybe somebody controls the DBs, linebackers and defensive line. But we’ll find out who the ‘alpha guy’ is out there.”

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