Manhattan, KS (SportsNetwork.com) - The highly-anticipated 2014 season gets underway for the Kansas State Wildcats, as they kick things off on Saturday with a home date against the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks.
Bill Snyder's Wildcats are coming off an 8-5 season that saw the team go 6-1 down the stretch, including a 31-14 victory over Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The team opens the new season ranked 20th in the country.
Stephen F. Austin heads into a new era with Clint Conque beginning his reign in Nacogdoches, Texas. Conque comes over from Central Arkansas, where he had great success, amassing a 105-59 record in 14 seasons at the helm, including a pair of Southland titles. He has his work cut out for him after last year's SFA squad went 3-9 overall, including a mere 1-6 Southland mark that spelled the exit of J.C. Harper.
This marks the first-ever meeting between these two programs.
Moving the football wasn't the problem for SFA a year ago, as the team churned out 571.6 yards of total offense, thanks in large part to a passing game that generated a whopping 389.0 ypg. Star quarterback Brady Attaway (4,268 yards, 32 TDs) has moved on however. Conque's son Zach has transferred in and will get the first crack at filling the void under center. Just a sophomore, the younger Conque could be pushed by junior Joe Minden for playing time.
The good news is that second-team All-Southland selection Gus Johnson returns to man his spot in the backfield. The 5-10, 224-pound senior led the team in rushing a year ago with 1,061 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging just under 100 yards per game (96.5).
A talented receiving corps will also help the transition for the new QB, as both Tyler Boyd (79 rec, 1,183 yds, 8 TDs) and D.J. Ward (61 rec, 809 yds, 7 TDs) return to the fold.
While the Lumberjacks had very few problems on the offensive side of things, the defense were their downfall in 2013. The team was torched by both the run (189.8 ypg) and the pass (338.0 ypg), as the team gave up a generous 49.3 ppg.
There is some holdover from last year's squad, as the team will seek leadership from players like senior linebacker Collin Garrett (88 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 INT), senior defensive end Ishmiah Miles (41 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 5 sacks) and senior safety Trey Vallier (48 tackles, 4 INTs).
Conque knows this program is in rebuilding mode.
"We are only three years removed from back-to-back, I believe, out-right Southland Conference Championships, 2009 and 2010 at SFA," said Conque. "We have good players in our program. We have really good players in our program, but we have some work to do from a physical maturation standpoint, and an academic standpoint. Obviously, some roster management went into this, some roster moves. The young men have embraced that. As a coaching staff we are energized. Every place that we have gone we have been well-received both in recruiting and our satellite camps. I think we have a very, very bright future."
Unlike the Lumberjacks, the Wildcats are set at the quarterback position, as senior Jake Waters is expected to be one of the better signal callers in the Big 12 this season after throwing for nearly 2,500 yards and twice as many touchdowns (18) as interceptions (9) in 2013.
"Jake is one of those young guys that has a tremendous value system,' said Snyder. "He's a young guy that understands what our program is truly all about. He's a young guy that works diligently to improve his plight in life and on the football field on a daily basis."
Fellow senior Tyler Lockett has developed into one of the top receivers in not only the Big 12, but the nation as well. Lockett (81 receptions, 1,262 yards, 11 touchdowns) is the top target, but Waters has several other options in Curry Sexton, Deante Burton and former quarterback Daniel Sams.
Finding a replacement for productive running back John Hubert won't be easy, and Sams is the team's top returning rusher (807 yards, 11 touchdowns). Sophomore Charles Jones and senior DeMarcus Harrison will get the call early to try and fill the void.
The Wildcats allowed 22.9 points and 358.8 yards per game, both of which ranked them third in the conference and in the top-31 nationally. However, fewer than half of the starters return. The ones that do though, are very good.
Ryan Mueller was named the 2013 Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year after matching the school record for sacks in a season with 11.5, and the 6-2, 245- pound senior could be poised for another big season. Junior Travis Britz (6-4, 293) is strong in the middle of the line, while senior linebacker Jonathan Truman (top returning tackler, 89 stops) and senior defensive back Randall Evans provide leadership from their respective spots on the field.