It’s a hot day in early August and the Kansas State football team is preparing for the 2016 season.
Offensive coordinator Dana Dimel is fired up. He is talking about the potential he sees in the Wildcats’ top playmakers. There is a lot to cover. Quarterback Jesse Ertz looks sharp, the offensive line looks solid, receiver Byron Pringle catches everything, running backs Alex Barnes and Justin Silmon are on the rise. Dimel is eager to see what they can do together – in the upcoming season and beyond.
“As good as we are going to be this year, we are going to be even better next year,” Dimel said more than a year ago. “We won’t lose a soul. Everybody is coming back. We are as young and talented as we have been in a long time.”
Fast forward to the 2017 preseason and his enthusiasm is spreading.
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No. 20 K-State enters the year with legitimate Big 12 championship hopes, in large part because of its experienced offense. Ertz, a senior, is back to lead the unit after amassing 2,767 yards and scoring 21 touchdowns last season. Dominique Heath and Pringle, his top two receivers, are back as juniors. The offensive line returns four blockers with starting experience. And K-State’s backfield appears loaded.
“We are ready to roll,” K-State right tackle Dalton Risner said. “Jesse is back, the majority of our offensive line is back, our running backs are back. We are returning our whole offense, pretty much. We know we have the ability to be great. It will all come down to mindset. As long as we don’t get complacent, we should be good. If we come back and push hard and tell each other we have a lot of room to grow, I feel like we can get a lot better. The sky is the limit.”
For months, the Wildcats have boasted that they return eight starters on offense. But that number is a bit misleading, as it references only full-time starters and doesn’t account for returning backups that outplayed the starter at their positions.
Receiver Deante Burton, right guard Terrale Johnson and running back Charles Jones – all regular starters last season – have moved on, but K-State returns nine players that started games on offense a year ago, as well as their two most productive running backs. Those numbers would be even higher if not for the unexpected loss of center Reid Najvar. The only thing they lack is seniors. Ertz is the only one listed on K-State’s two-deep.
Still, the same core players that helped K-State average 388.8 yards and 32.2 points last season are back and ready for more.
“We can be one of the best offenses in the Big 12, if not the country,” Barnes, a sophomore running back, said. “Just seeing how much work everybody has put in, especially Jesse and the wide receivers, gives me a lot of confidence.”
Last year, K-State started off slow in its first game, scoring just 13 points in a loss to Stanford. Things got better against over-matched opponents at home, but K-State took a step back at the start of Big 12 play with a 17-16 loss to West Virginia. The Wildcats didn’t hit their stride, ironically, until Ertz injured his shoulder against Oklahoma and played through pain in the final seven games. They finished 6-1, averaging 428.3 yards and 33 points along the way.
Dimel asked Ertz to attempt mostly short passes as the season went on, at times giving the offense an unbalanced look. Now that Ertz is healthy, the Wildcats are aiming for a faster start and a more wide-open look.
“We need to be more balanced in what we do,” Dimel said. “We don’t necessarily want to throw the ball more or run the ball more. But when we decide to throw the ball, we have to be more efficient. Our completion percentage has always been in the mid 60s. We didn’t do that last year. We weren’t as efficient as we wanted to be throwing the football, so we want to increase our efficiency and be better at what we do.”
All signs point to more yards and more points as K-State prepares for its first game against Central Arkansas at 6:10 p.m. on Saturday at Snyder Family Stadium.
K-State coach Bill Snyder has traditionally had his best seasons with a quarterback he trusts. This year, you could say he trusts the entire offense.
“The opportunity is there. They have the talent to be a very qualify offensive football unit,” Snyder said. “But they still have to do it. It’s a matter of if they continue to prepare themselves well and play hard and play smart during the course of the ball game. (If they do) then I think we should be a better offensive football team.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett
Central Arkansas at Kansas State
- When: 6:10 p.m. Saturday
- Where: Snyder Family Stadium, Manhattan
- Radio: KQAM, 1480-AM; 102.5 FM
- TV: ESPN3
- Line: N/A