July 17, 2008

Defense needs to toughen up interior

In order to fully grasp the magnitude of success once achieved by the Kansas State defense, all defensive tackle Brandon Balkcom needed to do was spend a few minutes with Quintin Echols, the one-time stalwart in the middle of the Wildcats line. Balkcom was still a few years from joining K-State when the team captured the 2003 Big 12 Championship. Yet Echols' words still resonate with Balkcom as the 6-foot-1, 292-pounder prepares to embark on his senior season.

"(Echols) talked about how the team was just so together and didn't settle for less, about how the defense was just unbeatable and about their will to win," Balkcom said one afternoon in early July. "I want to be back there so bad. I'm willing to do anything to get back to that."

A lofty aspiration? Well, considering among the landscape of K-State defenses, only the 2006 ranking in total defense (70th nationally) was lower than 2007 (69th) since the 1993 season. The 2007 defense allowed 400.6 yards per game, or 54.8 yards more than any other K-State defense in the last 14 years.

The Wildcats also finished 49th nationally and seventh in the league against the run (141.6) and 99th and eighth against the pass (259.0) last season.

Achieving the heights of a 2003 defense that ranked No. 6 in the nation and second in the Big 12 in giving up just 283.1 yards per game would make the Wildcats' defense one of the more compelling stories in 2008.

Balkcom doesn't back down from the possibility.

"That's what we need to be," he said, "and I feel like we have that this year."

The middle of the Wildcats' defense, a growing weakness that spurred a domino effect at times and one that offenses routinely exploited during the second half of last season, could key a turnaround of fortune in the fall. <

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