MANHATTAN, Kan. — Bill Snyder is just as keen as anybody else to see how Kansas State’s new-look offense, led by sophomore quarterback Jesse Ertz, will fare in its opener against South Dakota on Saturday.
Part of that is he doesn’t have to spend much time wondering about his defense.
One of the best units in the Big 12 last season returns most of its playmakers, including three starters in the defensive backfield. In fact, every player listed first on the depth chart has started or played significant minutes during their careers with the Wildcats.
That stands in glaring contrast to the offense, where the departure of prolific passer Jake Waters and record-setting wide receiver Tyler Lockett have produced plenty of questions.
"There are a lot of things in place that would tell you they have a chance to be pretty good," Snyder said of his defense. "Ask me after the first game. … I might have a better idea."
"Might" is the operative word. The Coyotes won just twice in the FCS last season, so there is a good chance Snyder won’t know a whole lot more after Week 1.
The strength of Kansas State’s defense is unquestionably its defensive backfield, a good thing in the pass-happy Big 12. Senior safety Dante Barnett is on watch lists for every major award, including the Walter Camp and Bednarik awards. Morgan Burns started 12 games last season, while fellow cornerback Danzel McDaniel is a preseason All-Big 12 pick.
The only newcomer to the group is Kaleb Prewett, who fought his way into the lineup with a strong fall after appearing in six games as a freshman a year ago.
"As a defense, you always want to go out there and get stops," Barnett said. "The offense, we lost a few pieces, but we have players who are ready to step up and play."
OK, even the guys on defense are curious about seeing how the offense fares.
Elijah Lee, Will Davis and Charmeachealle Moore give the Wildcats veteran linebackers, and Jordan Willis, Travis Britz, Will Geary and Marquel Bryant form a formidable front.
That’s a stiff challenge for the Coyotes, who return eight starters on offense from a group that was ravaged by injuries during their 2-10 season a year ago.
"They have a wonderful program. I think we all know the job their coach has done down there," said fourth-year coach Joe Glenn, who won national championships at Northern Colorado and Montana before a stretch in the FBS with Wyoming. "They’re very fundamentally sound."
South Dakota is flush with experience, too. Eight are back on offense and 10 on defense.
"We’re sick and tired of losing," said linebacker Keyen Lage, one of their captains. "Most of us have come from big high schools, played in big games."
They’ll be playing in another big one Saturday. Here are some things to keep in mind as the Coyotes prepare to visit the Wildcats:
SPEAKING OF BIG GAMES: Don’t expect South Dakota to be intimidated by playing at Kansas State. The Missouri Valley school visited Oregon last year, and have played just down the road at Kansas and at Northwestern the past few years.
STADIUM RENOVATIONS: The Wildcats will unveil another massive stadium renovation, this time to the north side of the field. That is where teams will enjoy spacious new locker rooms and fans will be able to view replays on a massive new video board.
QUARTERBACK COMPARISON: Ertz earned the job for Kansas State even though the sophomore has never thrown a college pass. On the opposite side, Ryan Seager will start for the fifth time for South Dakota after filling in for the injured Kevin Earl for a four-game stretch last season.
RUN, RUN, RUN: The Wildcats struggled to run last season, especially when Waters got banged up — they lean heavily on quarterback runs. But with Charles Jones returning in the backfield and an experienced offensive line, Kansas State wants to get back to its running roots.
SERIES HISTORY: Kansas State has never lost in three games against South Dakota, the last meeting in 1982. But the Coyotes have had success against schools from major conferences before, upsetting Minnesota 41-38 in 2010.