Kansas State reached its first BCS bowl last season and became the second Division I-A program to post 11 wins six times in a seven-year span. But with quarterback Ell Roberson and linebacker Josh Buhl no longer in town, can the Wildcats retain their swagger?
No worries. Bill Snyder has made an art out of reloading talent. K-State enters the fall with some questions, but the returning players insist there won't be any drop-off.
"There's a lot of people in place to step into the right positions," junior fullback Victor Mann said. "Each year you lose your leaders, captains and seniors, and guys have to step up and take over the job. We have a good group of guys that can do that."
OffenseFor the first time in three years, the Kansas State quarterback isn't named Roberson. The starting job will belong to sophomore Dylan Meier, a dual-threat passer who has some big shoes to fill. Already, Meier has impressed coaches and teammates with his playmaking ability and has a big fan in coach Snyder.
"He's really proven to all of us that he's on his way to becoming a very viable part of our offense," Snyder said.
The task for 2004? Simple. Keep the ball out of Darren Sproles' hands just enough to keep defenses honest. The All-America tailback can beat opponents a variety of ways. He led the nation in rushing yards (1,986) a year ago and intends to repeat the feat, but he also is a dangerous pass-catching threat out of the backfield. The Heisman Trophy candidate is nearly impossible to tackle one-on-one in the open field.
The Wildcats boast some stars-to-be at wide receiver, including senior Tony Madison, who should take over where departed James Terry left off as a 1,000-yard pass-catcher. But a revamped offensive line, featuring guard-turned-center Mike Johnson, must provide Meier with time to find his downfield threats.
DefenseK-State is the only team in Division I-A to rank at least sixth in total defense in each of the past seven seasons, and senior cornerback Cedrick Williams, the program's best shutdown corner since Terence Newman, thinks it will be the same story again.
"To be honest, I'm really confident," Williams said."I know everyone is always saying you need to rebuild, but we're getting stronger."
Talented linebackers Ted Sims, Matt Butler and Marvin Simmons are game-tested and plan to prove the unit won't miss a beat. Simmons, the most inexperienced of the three, could be a monster at the weak-side position.
A wealth of on-field experience returns across a defensive line that helped record the second-most sacks (51) in the nation in '03, headlined by senior tackle Jermaine Berry, who started every game a year ago.
The secondary is stocked with depth. Hard-hitting Jesse Tetuan has the most starts (18) of any defender and could play at either safety position.
SpecialistsKicker Joe Rheem should become the second Wildcat after Martin Gramatica to score 300 career points, but the punter spot is a glaring question that junior college transfer Jesse Martinez will try to answer.
Sproles, who led the nation with 2,735 all-purpose yards, averaged 27.2 yards on 10 kickoff returns and took a punt 63 yards for a score last season.
Final AnalysisKansas State has been here before: It must find replacements for several key players on both sides of the ball, including Roberson, Terry, and seven defensive starters who had a combined 184 starts. Such a quandary typifies the college football cycle, but arguably nobody has reloaded better year-in and year-out than Snyder.
The Wildcats' key will be keeping Sproles healthy and riding his explosiveness as far as he can take them.
K-State will face a difficult three-game October homestand against Big 12 South champion Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas Tech. That stretch will determine the course of the season, and it will also determine how far Meier has come as a quarterback.