Kansas State football heads into Saturday’s Big 12 opener against Central Florida shrouded in uncertainty when it comes to its injury situation.
On Tuesday, head coach Chris Klieman said senior quarterback Will Howard was “questionable” to play versus UCF and senior running back Treshaun Ward was “doubtful.”
Howard suffered a lower-body injury last Saturday versus Missouri that greatly hampered his mobility, and as of Tuesday, the senior was not able to practice.
If Howard does not improve a satisfactory amount by the end of the week, the starting duties would fall to true freshman Avery Johnson.
Johnson saw the field in relief in the season-opener versus Southeast Missouri and was incorporated in the offense as a runner last week at Missouri. He’s the only other quarterback to see the field so far this season, overtaking sophomore Jake Rubley as the back-up.
The freshman is 3-of-4 through the air for 55 yards this season and has 56 rushing yards, 24 of which came last week, but the former Maize standout and four-star prospect impressed coaches and teammates both in practice and with preparation since arriving on campus in the spring.
“We’ve got all the confidence in Avery,” senior center Hayden Gillum said. “He’s super talented. Even on Saturday, when he came in for a little bit, I thought he did a great job communicating, just stepping in right where Will was. He’s very smart, so we’re good with it.”
Klieman said despite Johnson’s limited time on the field, the entirety of the K-State offensive playbook will be available for him if he starts on Saturday.
“He can do everything, and we will do everything with him,” Klieman said.
One could easily draw parallels back to Howard’s true freshman season, when he was forced into action early after Skylar Thompson went down. Unlike Thompson that season, Howard is expected back long before the end of the season, but the highs and lows the Wildcats’ senior signal caller experienced helped form him into the player he is today.
“One thing I knew about Will Howard back then, and I know about Avery now, is the stage isn’t going to be too big,” Klieman said. “But in the same respect, collectively as a football team, we can’t put it all on their shoulders. It’s got to be what we do on defense, what we do on special teams (and) the offensive support staff that’s got to make it easier for him to operate.”
Meanwhile, Ward’s injury is unknown. The Wildcats have had nearly a 50/50 split in the backfield between the senior Florida State transfer and sophomore D.J. Giddens, Each has 36 carries so far this season and Ward barely edges out Giddens in receptions by three.
Expect Giddens role to increase if Ward is unable to play, and sophomore Anthony Frias II, sophomore La’James White and senior Jordan Schippers to come in to relieve him.
What might help the Wildcats’ ground game against a UCF defense that ranks just outside the top 50 in rushing defense is the return of senior right tackle Christian Duffie. Duffie was injured prior to fall camp and has missed the last three games, but has slowly worked his way back to the point where Klieman expects him to have anywhere from 20 to 30 snaps on Saturday.
Senior Cooper Beebe has had to cover at right tackle at times as junior back-up Carver Willis has struggled off and on versus some very good defensive fronts through the first three games. Having Duffie back would really be the ideal situation for K-State as it would allow the Wildcats to permanently move Beebe back inside, which the Wildcats hope will get their rushing attack back where they want it.
“Having (Duffie) out there is big,” Gillum said. “He’s played a lot of football, and he’s experienced. Just having him around and in the action is huge. He’s a really good player. Once we get him integrated in, (we’ll) be able to take the load off some other places and let guys play their natural spots. It should be a big help.”
UCF, coached by former national championship winning coach Gus Malzahn, is dealing with some injury issues of its own. The Knights lost starting quarterback John Rhys Plumlee to injury after their second game of the season versus Boise State, but back-up Timmy McClain led UCF to an easy 34-point win over FCS Villanova last week.
It was just the first game that McClain has started since November of 2021. While that inexperience is certainly exploitable for the K-State defense, Klieman expects Malzahn and the Knights, who lead the country in total offense, to give McClain his best chance to leave Manhattan with a win on Saturday.
“(McClain) is going to be playing for Gus Malzahn, so he’s going to know what he’s doing,” Klieman said. “Gus is a great teacher of the game and teacher of his offense, and he’s going to put him in positions to be successful, and that’s the way we have to look at it. I don’t care if he’s experienced or inexperienced. If you’re playing for Gus, you’re pretty dang good.”
K-State and UCF kickoff Saturday at 7 p.m. at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. The game will be televised on Fox Sports 1.