Kansas State will be the last Big 12 team to open spring drills, with its first practice not coming until April 2. We cap our Big 12 spring primers by previewing what to look for from the Wildcats when they kick off spring ball:
Offensive returner ready to take next step: Quarterback Jake Waters’ career at Kansas State got off to a rough start. The K-State offense sputtered in the junior college transfer’s first start, as FCS power North Dakota State toppled the Wildcats in Manhattan. By late October, however, Waters was a completely different player. He forced Bill Snyder to abandon the two-QB system with Daniel Sams, and led the Wildcats to wins in six of their final seven games. During that stretch, Waters threw 14 touchdown passes to just four interceptions. With a year of experience, he should only be better in 2014.
Defensive returner ready to take the next step: The Wildcats lose one of the best safeties in the country in All-Big 12 performer Ty Zimmerman. But they also have been grooming his heir, Dante Barnett, who broke into the starting lineup at safety as a sophomore last season. Barnett was third on the team with 75 tackles (one more than Zimmerman) and led the Wildcats with four interceptions. He has the talent to become K-State’s next cornerstone in the defensive backfield.
Redshirt freshman to watch: Nick Ramirez was the top signee from the 2013 recruiting class, but redshirted with seniors Tre Walker and Blake Slaughter manning two of the spots at linebacker. With Walker and Slaughter now gone, Ramirez will have a chance to jump into the rotation -- if not earn a starting spot.
Most significant position battle: The biggest unknown on the offense is who will replace three-year starter John Hubert at running back. No returning running back had more than five carries last season, leaving this battle wide open. DeMarcus Robinson and Jarvis Leverett will likely split carries this spring, but they’ll have to produce to avoid being mere placeholders for highly touted incoming freshman Dalvin Warmack, who will join the team in the summer.
Key midterm enrollee: With Tramaine Thompson gone, the Wildcats need a new wideout complement to All-American candidate Tyler Lockett. K-State might have found just that player in junior college transfer Andre Davis, who is already on campus. He was ranked the No. 36 overall juco recruit in the country. Davis has the kind of burst that allows him to blow by defenders downfield. With defenses sure to be keyed on Lockett next season, Davis could have plenty of opportunities against single coverage.
Question that could be answered: Spring ball will give the Wildcats the opportunity to experiment with Sams, who essentially fell out of the rotation at quarterback the last month of the season. Still, Sams has tremendous playmaking potential, underscored by his 199-rushing-yard, three-touchdown performance against Baylor. Sams could still be useful as a situational quarterback. But he is also too talented to spend the rest of games watching Waters on the sidelines. Sams could boost the K-State receiving corps. He could also command a few carries a game at running back. Whatever the case, the Wildcats should exit the spring knowing how they’ll be able to unleash Sams in 2014.
Question that won’t be answered until fall: Even though Davis, offensive tackle Luke Hayes and cornerback Danzel McDaniel will be with the team this spring, the Wildcats won’t know until the fall just how big the juco impact will be in 2014. It could be significant. Davis, Hayes and McDaniel could all turn into starters. But more starters from his juco class could be on the way. Defensive tackle Terrell Clinkscales was a four-star recruit who flipped from Nebraska late in the recruiting process. Outside linebacker D'Vonta Derricott was also one of top 50 juco recruits in the country. Both players could nail down starting spots and become impact performers. There are others who could help the team in 2014, too. This could prove to be one of the best juco classes Bill Snyder has ever signed. But that won’t be clear until after the entire class gets to campus.