Kansas State University

Alex Barnes leads deep, talented K-State backfield into new season

K-State running back Alex Barnes breaks free for a long run against Kansas. (November 26, 2016)
K-State running back Alex Barnes breaks free for a long run against Kansas. (November 26, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder tends to keep personnel decisions secret from the outside world, but he made a rare exception earlier this week in order to clear up the team’s pecking order at running back.

Alex Barnes, he said, will lead the way.

Don’t pay attention to the depth chart, which indicates K-State coaches will wait until the last minute to choose a starter for the season-opener against Central Arkansas. Barnes, a sophomore running back from Pittsburg, earned the starting spot in preseason camp after averaging 7.9 yards per carry as a freshman. Justin Silmon, a junior that has rushed for 819 yards and five touchdowns, will be the primary backup.

“There has got to be a one and we’ve distinguished a one,” Snyder said. “There has to be a two and we’ve distinguished a two, and we’ve got a distinguished three. We will kind of play them in that order, for the most part ... We’ll put Alex on the field, and we want to get the others in, but he is the No. 1 guy and he’ll play.”

A clear backfield hierarchy would be a change for the Wildcats. Last season, K-State rotated running backs like a game of musical chairs, splitting carries between Charles Jones (115), Silmon (86), Barnes (56) and Dalvin Warmack (41). Jones made 12 starts, Silmon made one and Barnes threatened to steal the show late until injuries knocked him out of the final two games.

There is no telling how K-State coaches intend to deploy their running backs this season. Will they use another committee approach? Will they look for the hot hand? Will they rotate Barnes and Silmon? Or will they roll out a feature runner? Everything could be on the table.

“They are all hard, physical runners,” K-State center Adam Holtorf said. “They are running downhill. You know they are going to get you the tough yards. That motivates me as an offensive lineman, because I know I have got somebody behind me who is going to run hard. It makes me want to finish blocks that much further, because I know they are going to fight.”

For now, Snyder seems committed to Barnes.

He makes a compelling case for the promotion. Barnes rushed for 442 yards and six touchdowns last season without losing yardage on any of his 56 carries.

“Alex Barnes looks really good,” K-State defensive back D.J. Reed said. “I know he is going to have a big season. How he takes care of his body and what he does off the field is tremendous. I could see him having a really great season.”

Of course, Snyder also expects good things from Silmon. The Tulsa native rushed for 210 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries against TCU and Texas A&M last season, and hopes to build off that. Warmack, a junior scatback, is good enough to play, too.

“Hopefully, all of them will play,” Snyder said. “I think there’s a role for each and every one of them. That is probably the deepest position that we have at this particular point in time. Justin has proven that he can play. We’ve seen some flashes with Dalvin Warmack. He’s done a nice job, and Mike McCoy has really come on as a young pup and really stepped up and proven that he can play. All of those youngsters will help us.”

One thing Snyder will look for from his running backs is versatility.

“I hate to get in that situation where somebody is specialized, where you bring them on the field and they’re only going to do one or two things,” Snyder said. “They have to be able to handle all of it, and in all reality they do.”

K-State fans will get a glimpse at some, and potentially all, of those running backs when the season begins against Central Arkansas on Saturday. Only one thing feels certain -- Barnes will make his first start.

Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett