MANHATTAN — Before spring football practices began at Kansas State, Zach Hanson called a special meeting. He invited only senior offensive linemen, and kept the agenda brief.
Without Zach Kendall, Wade Weibert and Kenneth Mayfield around to anchor the interior of the Wildcats' front line and supply leadership to the entire team, Hanson wanted his fellow veterans to understand just how important their roles will be in the coming months.
"All of us seniors have been trying to step up and doing what we can," Hanson said. "Because we know those three spots are going to be filled by young guys. We got together and just said, 'Hey, this is our deal now. We lost our leaders from last year, Kendall and Wade were our big leaders.'
"Personally, I've taken it as a challenge, like I need to step up and make sure these guys know what they're doing, and if they don't, help them get it corrected."
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So far, K-State's blockers have struggled with the transition. Coach Bill Snyder has indicated that returning senior starters Manase Foketi and Clyde Aufner, combined with Hanson, give the Wildcats options and depth at both tackle positions.
But mainly freshmen and sophomores are competing for the two guard and center slots that Weibert, Kendall and Mayfield filled a year ago. That means growing pains.
"They are consistently inconsistent like everyone else," Snyder said. "I think that they have their good days and they have their bad days."
Finding consistency will be key. The Wildcats will start both an inexperienced quarterback and running back behind the offensive line.
"I don't care who you are," Snyder said. "Whether it's Daniel Thomas or Darren Sproles or anybody else, if you don't have guys up front it's a hard road to travel."
So who will step in to snap balls and block in the middle of K-State's offense?
Snyder said sophomore Keenan Taylor and freshman Tomasi Mariner are currently competing for one of the available guard positions, and senior Colton Freeze sits above Wyoming transfer Nick Puetz at the other. Either B.J. Finney, a 6-foot-4 freshman from Andale, or Shaun Simon, a sophomore, will start at center.
That inexperience has shown during the first half of K-State's spring practices.
"That's probably the hardest thing for the new guys," Hanson said. "Just getting their calls down and just having that awareness on everything they do."
But it's obvious they are improving. Unlike last year's line, which was outstanding at opening up holes in the running game but struggled in the passing game, this group is trying to stay balanced.
"They're definitely getting better and they're definitely physical," linebacker Blake Slaughter said. "That's one thing they don't have to work on. Some of their schemes and blocking assignments they need to work on, but I don't see any lack of toughness or lack of heart there. They should be fine."
K-State's new offensive line will have to master more than calls and schemes. Weibert, Kendall and Mayfield were valuable not only for their blocking abilities, but their leadership traits.
They weren't afraid to speak in the locker room, and Kendall and Weibert often made sure there were positive vibes in the huddle.
Snyder said restoring that leadership will be "vital."
"Clyde Aufner has done a pretty good job in that respect," Snyder said. "Freeze has done a nice job with that. B.J. is making a nice attempt at it, but he's a true freshman.
"We're gaining some of that, but sometimes it's like pulling teeth."
Getting better — Snyder said the Wildcats' second week of practice was much better than their first.
"Since we met a week ago, I think that we have taken some steps forward," Snyder said. "We have shown at certain times that the consistency is not there. But I have seen us perform better on offense. I have seen us run the ball with more consistency... I have seen us throw the ball a little bit better. I have seen us make fewer mistakes, so the execution has become a little bit better."
He has been more impressed with his team's improvement on defense, though.
"The last half of yesterday's practice was a scrimmage day for us, and our defense performed probably the best that it has all spring," Snyder said. "So they have made some continued improvement."
Players were hesitant to share particulars of what set the defense apart in the scrimmage, but linebacker Blake Slaughter said K-State's offense had a hard time moving the ball.
"We just got the ball rolling yesterday and really had some momentum working on our side," Slaughter said. "There was really no stopping us at that point. The sideline got into it, the other players got into it."
Quarterback update — Snyder said there has been no separation in the three-way competition for the starting quarterback job between Collin Klein, Justin Tuggle and Sammuel Lamur. He said all three have played well for stretches, but none of the three has sustained quality moments over a string of practices.
In the mix — A handful of players have performed well enough through the first half of spring practices that Snyder singled them out as possible starters on Tuesday. He said Ray Kibble and Raphael Guidry are on top of the depth chart at defensive tackle and Nigel Malone is playing like a starting cornerback. When asked who will start at defensive end, Snyder said Meshak Williams, Jordan Voelker, Brandon Harold and Adam Davis are all in the mix.
Hrebec out — An undisclosed injury has kept Alex Hrebec out of spring practices. He will not play in the spring game, but is expected to return in the fall.
Renovations — On Friday, K-State will hold a formal news conference to unveil designs and sketches for a planned renovation to the East side of Snyder Family Stadium and its field.