Dante Barnett is stumped.
The Kansas State defensive back was asked to compare Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey to a football player he has personally lined up against, and he doesn’t know how to answer.
“That’s tough,” Barnett said after several seconds of thought. “Right now, I would probably say no one, because of how versatile he is.”
Indeed, the Wildcats will face a daunting challenge when they try to tackle Stanford’s top playmaker on Friday. McCaffrey is a unique talent, capable of blazing up field on a traditional handoff, beating coverage as a receiver and scoring as a kick returner.
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McCaffrey did it all last season, amassing 2,664 yards from scrimmage while scoring 13 touchdowns. He helped the Cardinal win 12 games, including the Rose Bowl in which he ran wild for a record 368 all-purpose yards, and finished the year as a Heisman finalist.
“He can do anything on the football field,” Barnett said.
McCaffrey enters the 2016 season in his own class as the Heisman front-runner, but K-State coach Bill Snyder is not intimidated. He is asking players to embrace the challenge by reminding them that the Wildcats have excelled against many former star running backs.
Snyder illustrated that point by citing a 1998 blowout victory over Texas during a team meeting on Monday. He shared a history lesson on the time K-State held Ricky Williams to 43 yards on 25 carries. Williams went on to rush for 2,124 yards and 27 touchdowns that season. He also won the Heisman. But he was a non factor in a 48-7 loss to K-State.
Realistic or not, Snyder wants the same results against McCaffrey.
“That was a challenge he proposed to us,” K-State linebacker Charmeachealle Moore said. “When Ricky Williams came in here they held him to a certain amount of yards. That’s what we want to do.”
It won’t be easy.
K-State defenders will need to keep tabs on him, realizing he is a constant touchdown threat, without showing him too much respect. Stanford has other offensive weapons.
“Being able to identify where he is and why he’s there becomes important,” Snyder said. “He can line up in a lot of different positions and (we need to) not get baited out of position because of where his linemen are. They have to understand what he can, but also equally important, what he can’t do from certain positions.”
Fans should learn a lot about K-State’s defense in the opener.
Though K-State returns nine defensive starters, shutting down the opposing team’s best player wasn’t exactly its forte last season. The Wildcats ranked 106th nationally in total defense last year, allowing an average of 452.2 yards. But they did have their moments against the run.
Healthy and excited to return to the field, internal expectations are high.
“We have had some time to get back on our feet, to get bigger, faster, stronger,” K-State linebacker Elijah Lee said. “That is something we worked on and now we have a lot more confidence. The more confidence you have the better you play.”
How much better can they play this season? Stanford and McCaffrey may provide an early answer.
“He can be a deceptive runner, he can be a powerful runner, and obviously he’s got a good deal of speed,” Snyder said. “We have to be great.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett