Top 50 Countdown: No. 49 Kansas State

Coach: Ron Prince | Staff
In 2006: 7-6; 4-4 Big 12. Lost to Rutgers 37-10 in Texas Bowl
Returning starters: Offense: 8. Defense: 8.
Key losses: WR Yamon Figures; T Michael Frieson; LB Brandon Archer, SS Kyle Williams
2007 breakdown: Top 10 players | Outlook | Offense | Defense | Special teams | Coaching | Schedule

Breaking down the offense

Overview: Developing consistency is the top priority for an offense which scored 45 points against Texas and 31 against Oklahoma State, but was held to 10 points or fewer four times. The Wildcats managed just 10 points in a Texas Bowl lost to Rutgers. K-State is counting on youthful Josh Freeman and Leon Patton to continue progressing, but the offensive line play may determine whether Kansas State builds on last year's seven-win campaign.

KANSAS STATE TOP 10
Jordy Nelson will be Kansas State's top target this season.

1. DE Rob Jackson
2. OLB Ian Campbell
3. S Marcus Watts
4. WR Jordy Nelson
5. RB James Johnson
6. RB Leon Patton
7. CB Joshua Moore
8. QB Josh Freeman
9. ILB Justin Roland
10. C Jordan Bedore
Best player: WR Jordy Nelson
All signs point to a breakout year for Nelson. He played through a knee injury last year, and had to adjust to a true freshman quarterback. He should top his 547 receiving yards from last season.

Most overrated: QB Josh Freeman
Freeman got much of the credit after upsetting Texas last season, but it was downhill after that. The true freshman had five interceptions and lost four fumbles in the final two games against Kansas and Rutgers.

Most underrated: Center Jordan Bedore
Kansas State's offensive line struggled last year, but it was better when Bedore was healthy.

Must step up: Freeman showed flashes of brilliance as a true freshman in 2006. Now, he needs to be steadier and cut down on turnovers after throwing 15 interceptions last season.

Impact newcomer: Junior college All-American OT Alesana Alesana is being counted on heavily. He isn't supposed to just fill a vacant tackle positions, he's expected to be an upgrade there.

Position battle: Sophomore RB Leon Patton showed big-play ability in his first season, but senior James Johnson will challenge for the starting job. They will likely share time, and will be on the field together in some sets.

New in 2007: In the first year under coach Ron Prince - and with a freshman quarterback - the Wildcats' simplified their offensive system in 2006. This season expect the Wildcats to be more diverse with formations, new wrinkles and audibles.

Grade the units:
QB: C. Freeman guided Kansas State to three consecutive wins at midseason but collapsed late. He finished with 15 interceptions and just six touchdowns.
RB: A. Leon Patton rushed for a freshman record 609 yards last year. James Johnson added 403 yards.
WR: B. The departures of Yamon Figurs and Jermaine Moreira hurt, but Jordy Nelson is primed for a big season.
OL: C. The line struggled last year, but seven players with starting experience - along with three JUCO transfers - are on the roster.

Breaking down the defense

Overview: The Wildcats were efficient defensively for most of 2006, but allowed an average of 39.3 points in each of the last three games. Eight starters return, including sack master Ian Campbell. His presence raises optimism that the Wildcats will be stingier in '07. A move to a 3-4 set will be interesting, especially with two starting linebackers from 2006 having completed their eligibility.

Best player: DE Rob Jackson
The JUCO transfer built on his 4.5 sacks from last year and was the best defender during the spring.

Most overrated: CB Justin McKinney
McKinney makes his share of big plays. He had eight pass break ups last year, but he's also prone to giving up big plays and personal fouls.

Most underrated: DE Rob Jackson
Jackson improved last year as the season went on, but remained in the shadow of Ian Campbell. An all-conference linebacker, Campbell finished with 11.5 sacks.

Must step up: Inside linebacker Justin Roland played well as a reserve and on special teams last season. However, Roland will be asked to match the production of Zach Diles. Last season, Diles posted 99 tackles for the Wildcats.

Kansas State Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 at Auburn
Sept. 8 San Jose State
Sept. 15 Missouri State
Sept. 29 at Texas
Oct. 6 Kansas
Oct. 13 Colorado
Oct. 20 at Oklahoma State
Oct. 27 Baylor
Nov. 3 at Iowa State
Nov. 10 at Nebraska
Nov. 17 Missouri
Nov. 24 at Fresno State
Shoes to fill: NT Alphonso Moran played well as a spot starter in '06, but he must replace Quinton Echols. A solid nose tackle, K-State fans hope Echols won't be missed too much. Plus, the move to a 3-4 puts more responsibility on the nose tackle.

Impact newcomer: Kansas State is expecting big-time help with the arrival of junior college transfer Chris Patterson, ranked a four-star prospect by Rivals.com.

Position battle: Five experienced players are vying for the two starting spots at cornerback.

New in 2007: The Wildcats are changing from the 4-3 alignment they ran for years under Bill Snyder in favor of a 3-4, which will have All-Big 12 defensive end Ian Campbell moving to linebacker.

Grade the units:
DL: C+. Ian Campbell moves to linebacker in the 3-4, leaving Rob Jackson to anchor the line.
LB: B. The line's loss is the linebackers' gain with Campbell. The rest of the group is inexperienced. Reggie Walker's nine starts leading the way.
DB: A-. Marcus Watts leads the safeties and welcomes JUCO transfer Gary Chandler.

Breaking down the special teams

Overview: Finding a replacement for kicker Jeff Snodgrass is a major concern, and the Wildcats won't have Yamon Figures returning punts. Punter Tim Reyer is solid, and the kickoff return duo of Leon Patton and Justin McKinney is spectacular. Both returned kickoffs for touchdowns last year, and this season they should benefit from the new rule in which teams must kick off from the 30.

Best player: Punter Tim Reyer
Reyer was a top-30 punter, averaging 42.1 yards per attempt.

Grade the units:
Kicker: C. Kansas State is looking for a replacement for reliable Jeff Snodgrass.
P: A. Reyer has averaged at least 40 yards per punt in each of the last three years.
KR: A. Justin McKinley and Leon Patton are a formidable duo. Both returned kicks for touchdowns last year.
PR: B. Unit faces a dropoff with the loss of Yamon Figurs, who had 14.7 yards per punt and two touchdowns.

Breaking down the coaching

Season outlook with bowl forecast
Enough experience returns to expect the Wildcats to improve on last year's seven victories. However, trips to Auburn, Texas, Oklahoma State and Nebraska won't make it easy. The Wildcats are getting better, but may not be ready to challenge for the Big 12 championship. They will likely end up in a second-tier bowl game.

Overview: In his inaugural year on the job, Ron Prince supervised a successful season in which the Wildcats reached a bowl game after consecutive losing seasons. An upset of Texas was the obvious highlight, but the Wildcats' six other victories came over opponents with a combined record of 32-42. That includes a win over Division I-AA Illinois State, which was 9-4. To keep the program moving forward, Prince gave the defensive coordinator position to Tim Tibesar, who was extremely successful as the special teams coordinator last year.

Grade the coaches:
Head coach: B. Kansas State returned to a bowl game for the first time since 2003 and scored a major upset of Texas under rookie coach Ron Prince.
Offense: B-. The key this season will be the improvement of Josh Freeman in his second year as starter.
Defense: B. New coordinator Tim Tibesar will transition the team to a 3-4.
Special teams: B+. Special teams have always been a plus for the Wildcats and continued to be in 2006.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

Rivals.com is counting down our Preseason Top 50. Coming tomorrow: No. 48.

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