'Cats kick things off with Bison
By ARNE GREEN
Special to The Hays Daily News
MANHATTAN - If anybody knows first-hand how far Kansas State's defense has come since the spring, it's B.J. Finney.
As Kansas State's starting center, going against a completely rebuilt front seven daily in practice, he has had a front-row seat.
"We do get to see them every day and we get to see them improve," Finney said of a defensive unit that will put nine new starters on the field when they open the season at 7:30 tonight against North Dakota State at sold-out Bill Snyder Family Stadium. "They're extremely hard-working guys, they know the task before them, they have their work cut out for them and they're just trying to be the best they can.
"From the spring to this point, there's been vast improvement in our defense."
That's good news for Wildcat fans who have stressed over a defense with no starting experience up front and a linebacking corps that lost Big 12 defensive player of the year Arthur Brown. Especially facing North Dakota State, which is not your typical first-game Football Championship Subdivision opponent.
The Bison are two-time defending national champions and ranked No. 1 again in the preseason polls. They have won six of their last nine games against FBS opponents, including three straight on the road.
"There are a lot of things that stand out," K-State coach Bill Snyder said of the Bison. "I think number one, this is a faster football team than people want to envision.
"Sometimes on tape you can't really identify that, but they run well. Secondly, they're probably as aggressive and tough a football team as you'll line up and play."
Though the Bison were best known for their defense last year, they also return nine starters from an offense that ranked 21st in rushing with two individual 1,000-yard rushers and a quarterback, Brock Jensen, now in his fourth season.
"They're a really good team," said K-State sophomore defensive tackle Travis Britz, who outside of junior end Ryan Mueller is the Wildcats' most experienced lineman. "They run the ball really well and they're pretty good passing, too, so we really have to be on our game."
The Wildcat defense has the added burden of proving itself to a skeptical audience eager to see how it will perform as a unit.
"I think that every defense would have some kind of pressure opening the season and making a statement," said Britz, who will start on the inside next to senior nose tackle Chaquil Reed. "We want to show that we really can compete in college football and this conference.
"Yeah, we have a new stadium and a good opponent coming in, but I feel that it is just like every other year. We'll reload and keep working hard to prove to people that we are a great defense."
Practicing against an offense that returns its entire line, leading rusher and a veteran group of receivers not only has helped the defense improve, but also to gauge its readiness.
"It has definitely helped us grow as a team and as a defense especially," said redshirt freshman Will Davis, a backup linebacker getting ready for his first game as a Wildcat. "There are a lot of veteran guys on the offensive side of the ball and we try to battle every day and we're trying to win against our offense every day."
Britz especially has benefited going against a battle-tested offensive line.
"It's so much help this fall camp and in the spring, knowing that these guys are a pretty good offensive line, maybe the best in the Big 12," he said.
Joining Britz, Reed and Mueller as first-time starters on the defensive line is sophomore end Marquel Bryant. Junior Jonathan Truman will make his starting debut at weak-side linebacker.
Senior middle linebacker Blake Slaughter redshirted last season and was a backup two years ago, but started four games as a sophomore in 2010. Strong-side starter Tre Walker, another senior, started 11 games as a sophomore and four of eight last year before going down with a season-ending knee injury.
In the secondary, senior free safety Ty Zimmerman is a fourth-year starter who earned all-Big 12 honors last year. Sophomore strong safety Dante Barnett started two games in place of an injured Zimmerman last season.
Junior Randall Evans, who started seven games as a nickel back last year, returns at that spot but also could start at cornerback in the Wildcats' base defense. The other corner, making his first start, is senior Dorrian Roberts.
Like Finney, Bill Snyder said he has seen the defense get better over time.
"I see the steady improvement that I think we're making," he said. "Ask me Saturday morning and I'll probably have a little better answer, but I think they're getting a feel for each other (and) I think there's a greater continuity right now then there was at the outset.
"I think they have a better understanding of the global concept, so to speak."
On offense, junior college transfer Jake Waters will make his first appearance and first start at quarterback against a North Dakota State defense that ranked No. 1 overall in the FCS, both in yards and points allowed.