Kansas State football coach Chris Klieman isn’t afraid to try new things during preseason camp.
That much was obvious when Walter Neil lined up at cornerback earlier this week at the team’s first practice of the summer.
Neil, a 5-foot-9 junior from Lawton, Oklahoma, has spent most of his K-State career at nickelback, a hybrid position that requires a defender to both tackle like a linebacker and cover like a corner. Coaches raved about his play there last spring, and he seemed destined to remain there this season. That still might be where he eventually ends up, but, for now, Neil seems more likely to start opposite A.J. Parker on the perimeter.
So who will take over at nickel? That’s a question the Wildcats will answer through experimentation this month.
“Johnathan Durham is running with the ones right now at nickel,” Klieman said. “We’ve tried Jonathan Alexander there, we’re going to try (Jahron) McPherson there. I know Walt can play in there. We’ve played Ross Elder in there. We’re just trying to keep moving guys around to see if we can find that niche.”
The competition for nickel might be the most noteworthy position battle of the preseason for K-State. With so many candidates vying for one starting spot, there’s truly no telling who will top the depth chart.
That’s a big contrast from the rest of the defense, where starting spots seem all but set at most positions.
Durham brings the most experience. The senior from Aledo, Texas started six games at corner last season and has 25 career tackles to his name. McPherson saw action in 10 games last season and made 19 tackles. Elder has played mostly on special teams. Alexander is a newcomer that spent last year in junior college.
None of them seem better suited for the position than Neil, but Klieman thinks the Wildcats need him at corner while they develop young defenders like Kevion McGee, Darreyl Patterson, Lance Robinson and Ekow Boye-Doe.
“We need to continue to get those guys repetitions so that they feel comfortable within the structure of the defense and we feel comfortable,” Klieman said. “Once that happens, it would maybe allow Walt to be interchangeable with corner and nickel. Right now, we wanted to just lock him into one spot ... in the fall and then if we have to move him over we potentially could.”
Neil isn’t the only player Klieman feels comfortable moving around on defense.
Eric Gallon, a senior, has been getting some work on the defensive line as well as linebacker.
“We’ll slide him in and out of fronts,” Klieman said. “We’re playing him at linebacker and we’re playing him a little bit at defensive end, because he’s a senior who wants to help the football team. He’s got a skill set that we think we can utilize.”
Klieman is open to moving even more players around this month. He’s always looking for ways to get his best athletes on the field.
But there is one position he’s not ready to touch — running back. Clyde Price and Jacardia Wright were recruited to carry the ball for K-State, and that is what they will train to do this season, even though they have size and high school experience at linebacker.
Defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton can forget about converting any running backs to the other side of the ball.
“He’d take Jacardia, he’d take Clyde, he’d take a lot of those guys,” Klieman said. “But they were brought in here as running backs and we want to make sure we solidify that position and try to make sure that we have the ability to play two and three at one time. They’re both really good athletes, all those running backs. You can take Thomas Grayson, you can take Joe Ervin, they’re good enough to play somewhere. That’s what we’re excited about, they’re not one dimensional. We’ll just see how it plays out, but all those guys are truly running backs right now.”