MANHATTAN — The last man standing, for all intents and purposes, is Kansas State junior defensive end Ryan Mueller.
That’s not to say he’s alone.
“The leadership we lost last year is going to be tough to replace,” Mueller said. “But that’s why we have to get the new guys, the young guys up to speed and adjusted to what we expect. I’ve been out there on Saturday afternoons, so my role so far has been to take a lot of guys underneath my wing, which is what guys did for me when I got here.”
And if Kansas State’s almost-new defensive front is to have any success this year, the Wildcats will need help from Mueller and a bevy of heretofore unknown faces.
The Wildcats lost both defensive end starters in All-Big 12 standouts Meshak Williams and Adam Davis and all of their interior line.
Mueller, 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, saw action in all 13 games last year on K-State’s way to sharing the Big 12 title with Oklahoma and earning a berth in the Fiesta Bowl. Mueller was mainly used as an added rusher on passing downs and finished with 14 tackles, two sacks, six pass break-ups and two fumble recoveries.
“Whatever role I need to have to help this team win, on special teams or defense, I’ll do,” Mueller said. “The defensive line has been spending three hours a day, all summer, working together. The chemistry is going to be there. What we need to have is eight solid guys that can play those positions up front, because that’s how you build a team. Starters and great backups that can give them a blow. That’s how you win championships.”
Mueller is a likely starter at one of the defensive end spots — junior Laton Dowling (6-3, 254 pounds) and sopohomore Marquel Bryant (6-3, 241 pounds) could also be in the mix on the other side.
“It’s been great to have Ryan in the room because he’s a natural leader, and the guys we have back don’t have as much on-field experience, but they’ve been around the program, they’ve been in the meeting rooms and at practices,” K-State defensive ends coach Blake Seiler said. “We lost two great defensive ends and can’t afford to have a drop off. The challenge to this new group is living up to those expectations, which means we’ve gotta be hard on them at times.”
The only other returner with a modicum of experience is 6-4, 295-pound sophomore defensive tackle Travis Britz, who saw action in 11 games last season but only posted six tackles. His biggest game came in a win over Oklahoma State, where he forced a fumble and had a tackle for loss, and as a freshman he showed potential for being a Big 12-caliber run stopper one day.
For the Wildcats, that day needs to come soon.
“It’s been an experience, that’s for sure, with this many new guys and trying to create chemistry,” Britz said. “But the offseason has been fun, it’s been a lot of hard work and you’ve got to work at building something new. Even with everything this team has attained in the past, we’ve got lots of goals, lots of weaknesses and things we need to keep working hard on.
“As long as we’re working toward that, as a team, I don’t care who starts. I think a lot of us feel that way.”
And who starts is not something that will be determined for quite some time — K-State defensive line coach Mo Latimore bristled at even being asked who he thought might see the field.
“I don’t know, and I won’t know until camp is over,” Latimore said. “We’ll be fine. We’ll play some guys, I don’t know who yet.”