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Texas Longhorns 2017 schedule preview: Kansas State Wildcats

The Purple Wizard seemingly always has enough magic to steal a victory, but does K-State have the pieces this year?

NCAA Football: Texas at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Herman and Bill Snyder will square off as head coaches for the first and quite possibly the only time when Texas hosts Kansas State on October 7. They’ll do so on polar opposite ends of their respective careers — as Herman enters his third season as a head coach and first at a Power 5 program, Snyder is essentially at the tail end of his second Hall of Fame worthy career in Manhattan.

Their teams, on the other hand, are a bit more closely aligned, at least in regards to projected preseason proximity.

Texas will kick off the Herman era ranked No. 23 in the Preseason AP Poll, while Kansas State is pegged just slightly ahead at No. 20. The same narrow preseason edge favoring the Wildcats appeared just over a month ago, as the Big 12 Media Poll picked K-State to finish third in the conference with Texas following at fourth. The ‘Horns and Cats even enter the season with nearly the exact same win-loss projection at 7.5 - 4.7 (UT) and 7.5 - 4.6 (KSU), per ESPN’s FPI.

Of course, none of this will matter by the time Texas and Kansas State meet inside Darrell K Royal—Texas Memorial Stadium, as a third of the season will have already come and gone.

Texas opens the season with a Big Ten foe, remains home for a tune-up game against San Jose State, but then heads to California for a meeting with No. 4 USC. The opening month will be capped with an always uneasy Thursday night game against Iowa State in Ames. K-State, on the other hand, holds a 97 percent chance to defeat each of its first two opponents, while being favored in the next two games before meeting Texas.

The later will include a road trip to Vanderbilt and hosting Baylor in Manhattan and we’ll know much more about Kansas State following that stretch, but prior to the season, the Wildcats appear to be equal parts upside and uncertainty.

Key Returners

  • QB Jesse Ertz
  • RB Alex Barnes
  • FB Winston Dimel
  • WR Byron Pringle
  • DE Reggie Walker
  • CB D.J. Reed

Key Departures

  • C Reid Najvar
  • DE Jordan Willis
  • LB Elijah Lee
  • LB Charmeachealle Moore
  • S Dante Barnett

Offensively, Kansas State is expected to boast one of the most dynamic units in the Big 12, and potentially the nation.

Everything begins with the Wildcats’ senior dual-threat gunslinger, Jesse Ertz. If the name rings a bell for Texas fans, look no further than last season as to why. With the ‘Horns sitting at 3-3 on the season with a chance to enter the second half of the year on a positive note, Ertz nearly single-handedly beat Texas, scoring all three touchdowns and accounting for 61 percent of K-State’s offense in a 24-21 victory.

Ertz is now back for his final season of eligibility and expected to be better than ever after becoming one of just five players to pass for at least 1,000 yards and rush for another 1,000 in 2016.

He’s not alone in the backfield either.

Complimenting Ertz in what’s expected to be a physical, grind it out backfield will be an inside-out running back tandem of Justin Silmon and Alex Barnes, who combined for 906 yards and nine scores last season. Dalvin Warmack will also see plenty of touches, as he did in 2016 with 41 carries for 211 yards, and lest not forget full back Winston Dimel, who churned out 12 touchdowns in just 30 carries on the year.

Collectively, considering the weapon Ertz is with his legs, the unit makes up what Bleacher Report ranked as the sixth-best running game for 2017.

As defensive coordinators game plan around trying to stop of physical and efficient running attack, Ertz has options through the air, such as Byron Pringle, who hauled in 19 receptions for 356 yards in the final four games of 2016. Dominick Heath is another speedy option in space, and Cal transfer Carlos Strickland II joins the rotation this season, as well.

It's not exactly an ideal crop of pass-catchers, but paired with K-State's imposing ground game, the Wildcats should find plenty of opportunities to expose defenses being too aggressive in the box.

All the while, Kansas State chews up and controls the clock, as it did last season by winning the possession battle in 12 of 13 games; the Wildcats’ 44-38 victory over Texas Tech was the exception.

This, in turn, plays into K-State’s hands defensively, as offenses then enter the game a bit rushed, which factored into the Wildcats’ defense leading the Big 12 in points per game allowed last season (22.3).

SB Nation’s Bill Connelly briefly details how this all plays together in unison:

You can see how this all works in concert: KSU’s efficient ground game opens up big-play pass potential, which forces opponents — already antsy and impatient because it takes forever to get the ball back from the Wildcats even without the big plays — to take more risks. A still-solid pass rush and awesome set of safeties then swarm.

Paving the way for the aforementioned run game’s attempt at having its way is an experienced Kansas State offensive line, which returns three starters, including All-Big 12 tackle Dolton Risner. The one hole to fill came rather late and unexpectedly, as senior center Reid Najvar won’t play in 2017, recently electing to retire due to concussions and will instead serve as a graduate assistant on the staff. Sophomore Adam Holtorf appears to be the man in line to replace Najvar’s snapping duties.

The defense, on the other hand, has a few more key contributors to replace.

Gone from one of the nation’s best units in 2016 are Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Jordan Willis, Elijah Lee, who led KSU in tackles and sacks in 2016, along with linebacker Charmeachealle Moore, an NFL-cailber safety in Dante Barnett and nickelback Donnie Starks. Collectively, this leave Kansas State defensive coordinator Tom Hayes tasked with replacing a tremendous amount of production in the form of 348 tackles — 32.5 of which came for a loss — 14.5 sacks and six interceptions.

Hayes, himself, is well aware of the challenge at hand entering a season in which Kansas State is expected to build upon its 9-4 2016 effort, as he noted to

“They did so much for us over a long period of time,” Hayes said. “That body of work is going to be hard to replace.”

Hayes will have some solid pieces to reconstruct his defense around, though.

While the linebacking corps is sure to regress, the secondary may surprisingly be a strength on the team, despite losing two starters, and the defensive line returns Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, Reggie Walker, and rising defensive tackle, Will Geary.

Everything starts up front so we will too: As noted, K-State’s four-man front line will feature Walker and Geary, who combined for 83 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in 2016. Trey Dishon and Tanner Wood collectively contributed 54 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss, and they’ll start at the defensive tackle and defensive end roles opposite of Walker and Geary, solidifying what should be a quality front four. The depth behind them is another story, and one worth following as the season progresses considering Big 12 offenses will aim to run as many plays as possible, especially if Kansas State’s defense takes a step back from last season’s effort as expected.

Not surprisingly, the linebacking corps is nothing to call home about and could be in line for multiple guys getting starting opportunities as those vacancies are cemented, but a talent like former walk-on Trent Tanking could be impactful here.

The Wildcats’ secondary does lose Barnett and Starks, but cornerback and Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, D.J. Reed, returns after recording three interceptions and 16 pass breakups in 2016. Duke Shelley will provide a veteran presence at the corner spot opposite of Reed following a three interception campaign in 2016, while Kendall Adams, KSU’s fifth-leading tackler, returns at safety. The two holes to fill will come at nickelback, which appears to be Cre Moore’s job to lose, and Denzel Goolsby is the likely other starting safety, although a JUCO product Elijah Walker could see some time in the mix. Once again, depth behind this unit is anyone’s guess and an untimely injury or two could transform what’s expected to be a quality starting unit into a glaring weakness.

On paper, K-State appears to be more in line with the rest of the Big 12 in 2017 than in previous years. The offense should be dynamic — and more notably, extremely efficient — while the defense will have playmakers, but won’t exactly be the dominant unit it was in 2016. As far as how this relates to Texas, the blueprint to a victory over the Purple Wizard will require a few things:

  • Stop the run — This should go without saying. K-State boasts a dynamic running game and considering how mobile quarterbacks had their way with the ‘Horns last season, slowing K-State’s ground game and forcing them to beat Texas through the air is essential. If the ‘Horns can force a few early stops and prevent K-State’s offense from eating up the clock, an up-tempo, pro-spread Texas attack can make this a game of attrition and aim to exploit the Wildcats’ depth, or lack thereof.
  • Run the ball well — D’Onta Foreman is no longer in the backfield for Texas, but the ‘Horns will need someone to step up. The last two times Texas beat Kansas State, the ‘Horns had a 100-yard rusher. Furthermore, Texas’ offense and depth at wide receiver should make for mismatches in the passing game, but Texas will have to keep K-State honest with a respectable ground game of its own.
  • Don’t make mistakes because K-State doesn’t — Kansas State ranked fifth in the nation in 2016 after turning the ball over just 12 times all season. Texas will have to assert itself and more important, play efficiently as the Wildcats always do. Texas will be fortunate to come up with a turnover and two would be an unforeseen gift from the football gods; in short, don’t expect it to happen.

Texas is currently considered the preseason favorite in this matchup, holding a 66.5 percent chance to win, according to ESPN’s FPI.