MANHATTAN — Kansas State’s offensive line has a problem. It is lost in transition.
With three veteran starters returning from a group that paved the way for the Wildcats to average 402 yards of offense last season, they have a core strong enough to be even better up front next season. But replacing the two blockers they lost isn’t easy.
They were both tackles. Cornelius Lucas, a NFL Draft hopeful at left tackle, and Tavon Rooks, a dependable right tackle, both started all 13 games last season. Lucas protected Collin Klein and Jake Waters. Rooks helped John Hubert run right. They leave a considerable void to fill, especially for a new crop of unproven tackles.
“When you have new guys playing alongside guys who have been there, it takes a while to adjust to the style of play,” senior center B.J. Finney said, “and just to know that guy next to you. We are having a lot of growing pains right now.”
Those were most evident within the last week. K-State is midway through its spring practice schedule, and its offense is on the decline. Nothing that can’t be fixed, but coach Bill Snyder expected more out of a unit that dominated a closed scrimmage last week. When the team gathered for a rematch, the defense won easily.
Snyder blamed the poor outing on a lack of consistency. He was so displeased that he lectured K-State players for nearly 30 minutes afterward. His main message: Don’t take ourselves for granted.
That message hit home for the offensive line.
“Definitely not even close to where we want to be,” said Luke Hayes, a 6-6, 295-pound right tackle from Butler Community College, “We do some good things, but we also do some bad things. We just need to keep adjusting, I guess, and getting used to each other.”
The challenge is hardly unusual. Spring football is all about transition, and no unit at K-State faces more transition than its offensive line. Even last season, when the Wildcats returned all five starters from the year before, injuries and incoming players forced different combinations onto the field.
This spring, Finney and Boston Stiverson, a guard, remain at the same position they played last season. Coaches have moved Cody Whitehair from guard to left tackle, Will Ash is practicing with the first team as a guard and Hayes is the right tackle.
Those changes have made things interesting for the entire offensive line.
“There is big room for improvement,” Finney said. “Coach has high expectations, and, from the unit itself, we hold ourselves to high expectations. We haven’t been hitting them lately. But, like I said, there are a lot of growing pains that we have been going through. Trying to get the continuity on the offensive line.... It just takes a minute.”
Snyder hopes the offensive line comes together in time for the spring game on April 26. If not, he expects it to be in top form during fall practices. Whitehair was arguably the team’s top blocker a year ago. Once he gets acquainted to left tackle, big things are expected.
Besides, Snyder wants his blockers to learn all three line positions so the Wildcats can adjust to any injury scenario during games. Spring practices are the perfect time to learn.
Oh, and he thinks Hayes already appears at home.
“Luke Hayes has really come along quite well,” Snyder said. “I think he is doing very, very well right now. He is still in the learning process right now, but he is making headway and we are feeling good with him.”
Defensive end Ryan Mueller, who matches up across from Hayes in practice, agreed.
“He is pushing me back a little bit more than usual,” Mueller said. “Earlier in the spring I was just blowing past him. You can see the improvement. That gives me a lot of confidence that he is capable of being a strong contributor to this team.”
Finney, a three-year starter, says he will be there to help Hayes and any other lineman that needs help along the way. He doesn’t like growing pains.
Still, they are part of the transition.
“I have definitely seen them grow,” Waters said. “They are like the entire offense as a whole. It’s all about consistency. One day they will be great, but the next day they might not be so great. But they are getting better and I am confident they are going to get to where they need to be.”