Bill Snyder has never witnessed a college football team suffer as many injuries as the one he currently coaches.
In its first six games, Kansas State dealt with the losses of four defensive backs, three quarterbacks, a linebacker, an offensive lineman and a kicker. Some are out for the season. Others may return Saturday against Texas. The constant turnover has pushed the Wildcats’ next-man-up culture to its limit. Players have switched positions and shed redshirts.
It’s a challenging situation for all involved, but it has produced some individual success stories.
The best one so far may belong to Duke Shelley, a freshman cornerback who showed promising cover skills against TCU and Oklahoma after he planned to redshirt and sat out the first four games.
The Horned Frogs barely threw his way. The Sooners tried to take advantage of his inexperience and threw his way often, lining up skilled receiver Dede Westbrook across from him in hopes of creating a one-on-one matchup. Westbrook managed five catches for 85 yards and a touchdown, but Shelley held his own by breaking up two passes.
On one play, Westbrook beat Shelley on a post route, but Shelley recovered and knocked the ball out of Westbook’s hands as he attempted to catch it. On another play, he swatted a pass from Baker Mayfield before it got anywhere near Westbrook.
“Shelley has been impressive this particular drive,” ABC analyst Ray Bentley said on the TV broadcast. “Mayfield had little chance of completing that ball.”
Oklahoma quarterbacks ended up spreading the ball around to 12 receivers.
“I feel like they were trying to pick on me early,” Shelley said. “They must have seen some things on film they wanted to try to get at, but coming back on the sideline, making a few adjustments, dealing with the pressure, helped me a lot. Being able to break on balls and make some plays with the ball in the air is always a positive thing.”
Shelley started in place of senior Danzel McDaniel against Oklahoma, and he took the place of senior Morgan Burns against TCU. Both usual starters were injured. McDaniel may be healthy enough to play against Texas, but that might not change Shelley’s status.
Shalley, a native of Tucker, Ga., has played so well that K-State coaches may not want to take him off the field.
“You have to have guys who step up,” Snyder said. “You have seen a number of guys who have stepped up this season … and played pretty well. We have seen Duke Shelley do the same thing and play well.”
Shelley was prepared to do exactly that the moment he arrived on campus as a four-star recruit.
When asked if he expected to redshirt this season, Shelley grinned and shook his head.
“Not at all, but some things happened,” Shelley said. “Having two corners, two seniors in front of you it is always the best decision to redshirt. But someone went down, and being able to step up and actually perform well was a good thing. I feel like I just need to keep rolling.”
Snyder said he didn’t consider playing Shelley until Burns was unable to go against TCU, but he moved Shelley up the depth chart and used him with the second-string defense during practices.
His talent was obvious.
“I don’t think there was ever a time when we didn’t think he was capable of that,” Snyder said, “coming in and playing early.”
Shelley will likely help K-State’s secondary the rest of the season. So should sophomore safety Sean Newlan, who replaced an injured Kaleb Prewett and made 14 tackles against Oklahoma.
There is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding K-State’s secondary, but Shelley said the unit has strong chemistry. Injuries, he said, don’t faze the players.
A friendly matchup against run-heavy Texas could help them bounce back from a 55-0 loss to Oklahoma, but Shelley says K-State’s defensive backs need to improve regardless of opponent. None of them have intercepted a pass this season.
That needs to change fast, and he said that he is ready to help make it happen.
“In the secondary, we have a really good group of guys,” Shelley said. “We all stick together, no matter what, win or lose. Things just didn’t go our way (Saturday) and we have to bounce back.”
Kellis Robinett: @KellisRobinett