Of all the question marks Kansas State will face during the upcoming football season, one looms noticeably larger than the rest.
How will the Wildcats rebuild their defense?
The bulk of their playmakers — nine starters to be exact — are gone from last year’s productive unit, including standout linebacker Arthur Brown and all four starters on the defensive line. That’s a lot to replace.
With Ty Zimmerman, a senior safety, returning as one of the top defenders in the Big 12, and senior linebacker Tre Walker providing leadership coming off injury, they have a strong core. But they don’t have much else.
"The dynamics change each and every year, but you normally don’t have to replace that many guys," Zimmerman said Monday at Big 12 Media Days. "It is going to be tough.
"Camaraderie is important on defense. It is all about trusting each other. Last year we had guys who had been there and had experience for a year or two. Knowing they are gone, it’s hard."
Still, Zimmerman spoke confidently about the future.
"We have guys who have stepped up. We have come together over the summer. Hopefully we can carry that over into the season," Zimmerman said. "K-State has built an identity of flying under the radar, not being a flashy team but just a team that goes about its business each and every week and gets better. We will do that again. We are going to be the same type of defense as last year."
Walker took things a step further. After spending time with their inexperienced teammates throughout spring practices and summer workouts, he is more than cautiously optimistic.
Walker praised defensive lineman Travis Britz, defensive back Kip Daily and linebackers Jonathan Truman and Blake Slaughter for their improvement during the offseason. Combine that group with a handful of players few fans would recognize, Walker said, and K-State’s defense might surprise people the same way it did two seasons ago when it played well enough to help the team win 10 games and reach the Cotton Bowl after being picked eighth in the Big 12’s preseason media poll.
"There is always someone waiting in the wings," Walker said. "We have a lot of people in the secondary who know what it’s like to be in that big-game atmosphere. We have a lot of names you’ve never heard of. That isn’t a bad thing.
"Not too many people knew about Collin Klein until the quarterback before him left. Nobody knew what kind of quarterback Collin could be. Nobody knew who Arthur Brown was, other than that he had played at Miami. There is always somebody ready to show what they have and make an impact."
The Wildcats certainly return some talent from last year’s defense. Randall Evans has proven himself at K-State’s safety/cornerback hybrid position. Britz showed potential as a freshman. Defensive lineman Ryan Mueller seems ready to play on a more consistent basis. Freshman linebacker and Conway Springs native Tanner Wood could play immediately. And Dante Barnett will benefit from the time he spent on the field filling in for an injured Zimmerman late last season.
But K-State will need across-the-board production from new players for it to match its play from last season, when it ranked in the top half of the Big 12 in most defensive statistical categories and allowed 375.3 yards and 22.1 points per game.
K-State coach Bill Snyder worries a lack of depth and experience could spread to other areas, too.
"When you lose as many as we did on defense that can have an impact on your special teams, because so many of your defensive players play on special teams," Snyder said. "We've been fortunate to have pretty good special teams units. They ranked us No. 1 at the end of the season in special teams last year, but an awful lot of the personnel on those units, those six units, were defensive players as well. So it will certainly alter things."
On the other side of the ball, K-State returns the bulk of its talent, including its entire starting offensive line, all but one starting receiver and John Hubert, a running back who has eclipsed 900 rushing yards in back-to-back seasons. It will be breaking in a new quarterback, but the offense should keep chugging along.
Perhaps an emphasis on running the ball, and controlling the clock, could help K-State’s defense. After all, a fresh unit will be able to perform better. Then again, maybe not.
"No matter what we do on offense, it's not going to slow the opponent's offenses down," Snyder said. "Our defenses will have a tremendous challenge, because of the speed or the tempo of so many football teams in the Big 12."
The schedule could help K-State in that area. It opens with home games against North Dakota State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Massachusetts. It will have time to grow before traveling to Texas for the conference opener.
By then, the Wildcats hope their defense will no longer be a question mark.
"I’m not very worried about our defense, because I have faith in the guys who are over there working hard," said senior center B.J. Finney. "I know the coaching staff and I know what they are going to do for these players and how they are going to help them develop into starting Big 12 players. I am not worried … they will turn into something successful."