MANHATTAN — In a Big 12 Conference that features three of the country’s top running backs, Dalvin Warmack believes Kansas State’s backfield stacks up with just about any of them.
Warmack certainly is familiar with the likes of Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill, Iowa State’s David Montgomery and Oklahoma’s Rodney Anderson. Each of those standout runners eclipsed the 1,100-yard mark and reached double digits in rushing touchdowns in 2017.
K-State, conversely, didn’t have a running back with more than 819 yards or seven scores. But don’t try to tell Warmack that the Wildcats take a backfield backseat to those three or anyone else.
“I believe that we have the ability to be not only one of the best in the Big 12, but up there in the country as long as we go out there and do what we need to do every week,” Warmack said earlier this month during K-State’s media day. “If we keep progressing like we are right now, it’s a very attainable goal.”
K-State enters Saturday night’s season opener against South Dakota with junior Alex Barnes leading a running back contingent that features strength and versatility.
“We all do different things,” Warmack said. “You don’t know whether you’re going to get hit with power, speed or what.”
Warmack made those comments before 6-foot-3 sophomore Mike McCoy suffered an undisclosed injury that will sideline him indefinitely. But even without the bruising Topeka High product, K-State’s backfield appears well stocked with Barnes, Warmack and senior Justin Silmon.
Barnes figures to get the majority of K-State’s carries again this year. In fact, many pundits and players alike believe he is poised to join guys like Hill, Montgomery and Anderson as a 1,000-yard rusher.
“If Alex Barnes doesn’t have a good year this year, that’s on us,” said senior tackle Dalton Risner, one of five returning starters along the offensive line for K-State.
Barnes has admitted he was frustrated at times last year and worked diligently during the offseason to improve his strength and conditioning to better withstand the rigors of Big 12 play. Despite leading the team with 819 yards and 146 carries, the former Pittsburg High Purple Dragon was used sporadically, finishing the season with seven games of 10 or fewer rushing attempts.
The most confounding usage of Barnes came in Game 7 against Oklahoma. The 6-foot-1 back bolted for a 75-yard touchdown on the second play from scrimmage, but was largely forgotten the rest of the day. He finished with 108 yards on a mere six attempts, an average of 18 yards per carry.
“I’d say I’ve moved on and grown a lot personally from that experience — as a man moreso than as a football player,” Barnes said of coping with last year’s frustrations. “I think I needed that in my life and it really helped me.”
Barnes now is excited by the prospects of a new season under first-year offensive coordinator Andre Coleman, who was promoted after Dana Dimel left to become head coach at UTEP.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Barnes said. “We’re going to get a lot of opportunities to show what we’ve got; coach Coleman’s made that very clear to us. It’s about taking advantage of those opportunities.
“Our o-line’s going to be a huge help to us because they’re so experienced, so it’s going to be about really getting out there on Saturdays and showing people what we have.”
Silmon, a 5-10 senior from Tulsa, Okla., and Barnes are two of only 30 players in school history with 1,000 career rushing yards. Silmon also is tied for sixth in the program’s annals with an average of 5.04 yards per carry.
Warmack, listed Tuesday as Barnes’ backup on the Week 1 depth chart, came to K-State as the two-time Missouri Gatorade Player of the Year and has more than 500 career yards. In addition to his ball-carrying duties, he also could give K-State's passing game a boost this year under Coleman.
“Each and every day we’re pushing each other as individuals,” Barnes said. “We all know that if you make a mistake there’s going to be three other guys there to hold you to it and make sure that you start doing things the right way, and I think that’s something we’ve all done very well this year.”