MANHATTAN — Keith Burns couldn't help but grin last week when asked if he enjoyed the cornerback battle taking place in Kansas State's football practices.
It was like asking if the Wildcats' new defensive backs coach was fond of sellout crowds and bowl games.
There's nothing Burns appreciates more than good competition. Watching it up close on a daily basis is one of the main reasons he likes his job.
He has emphasized it on a daily basis throughout his 26-year coaching career — thriving off it when it was abundant, and creating it when it was nowhere to be found.
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"That's the only way you can get better," Burns said. "One of the things that hinders you as a coach is when there isn't competition. Sometimes when you have established veterans, you have guys who think that they have inherited the job. I don't like that. I never have."
Burns won't have to worry about that problem this season. With top cornerback Joshua Moore opting to leave early for the NFL, he said four Wildcats are pushing each other for playing time.
Upperclassmen David Garrett and Stephen Harrison return as the favorites to start the season opener Sept. 4 against UCLA. But Terrance Sweeney saw playing time last season and impressed coaches during spring practices. Junior college transfer Matthew Pearson has also forced his name into the conversation.
"It's heating up," junior safety Tysyn Hartman said of the cornerback competition. "I hate to use a metaphor about summers in Kansas, but that's how hot it is. They're all pushing each other, and it's fun to watch. All of these guys are good, and we can live with any of them. It's going to be very interesting to see how it turns out."
Whoever ends up on the field will hold added responsibility compared to a year ago. Last season, K-State's secondary relied mostly on Moore and safeties Emmanuel Lamur and Hartman. Together the trio racked up big numbers, recording 186 tackles and grabbing 10 interceptions. Moore was responsible for 64 of those tackles and two picks.
Lamur and Hartman return to anchor the defense, but unless Garrett, Harrison, Sweeney and Pearson — who combined for 59 tackles last season — can fill the void left by Moore, it will be difficult for them to provide a proper encore.
Burns said Garrett, a junior with 29 tackles and a forced fumble last season, was the most productive cornerback coming out of spring practices, and was continuing to show promise during training camp.
His ability to play both safety and corner has made him hard to ignore.
"The guy is going to make football plays for you," Burns said. "You've got to find ways to get him on the field."
Harrison is the most studious player of the group. As soon as Burns showed up on campus in the offseason, Harrison asked if he could watch film of Burns' past defenses.
That initiative, combined with his speed and reach, were enough for Burns to think Harrison could be a special player.
Sweeney, a 5-foot-8, 176-pound senior, wasn't talked about much in the spring, but burst onto the scene this month thanks to his speed.
Unlike last year, when K-State cornerbacks not named Moore relied mostly on safety help, Burns wants this batch to stand tough on their own so Hartman and Lamur can concentrate on making big plays instead of leading the team in tackles.
"Terrance is explosive," Burns said. "When we had a pro timing day he ran the fastest 40. He's a young guy who is learning how to compete. If you're going to play the style of play we're going to play, you need a guy of his ability and his toughness. If you're going to have a chance to play good your seniors have to be great. He's a guy that continues to work at it to get better."
Pearson is described as the hard worker of the group. Hartman said he has become one of the more reliable corners.
Burns didn't indicate who was leading the race, but said he informs his players of their status after every practice.
Anything to keep the competition at a fever pitch.
"We grade them every day on production," Burns said. "When they come off the field they know where they stand. The depth chart is fluid. It's going to change daily until somebody seizes the opportunity."
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