There is no doubt in Chris Klieman's mind where the lost spring of COVID-19 had the greatest impact on his Kansas State football team.
While everybody could have benefited from an extra 15 March and April practices, nobody was counting on that time more than the Wildcats' offensive line.
"Those starters, it's five guys that have to work together as one, and they've never worked together," Klieman, now in his second season as the Wildcats' head coach, said Tuesday during a virtual news conference. "That's the biggest thing that, as we came into fall camp, we were concerned about.
"We needed to make sure that we would keep moving those guys forward, (that) the communication is really good."
Chemistry and communication up front are critical under the best of circumstances. The fact that K-State started five seniors on the offensive line a year ago made the spring practices that much more crucial. Guard Josh Rivas, now a junior and a preseason candidate for all-Big 12 honors, is the only returning lineman who was part of the rotation a year ago.
Rivas is penciled in at one of the guard positions and senior Noah Johnson, a former walk-on from Butler Community College, has all but claimed the center spot, but otherwise questions abound.
"(Johnson) is a great communicator, so he's kind of the anchor, and the guy that talks the most, so I've really been impressed with Noah," Klieman said. "It's just the other guys.
"We've probably got eight or nine guys that are battling for those positions that we couldn't get a chance throughout the spring to, 'Hey, let's try this guy at the left guard rather than the right guard. Let's try this guy at tackle, rather than guard, (and) vice versa.'
"Of trying to mix and match to get the best five, and then find out who the next one is."
The line is just one of the question marks for offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham. At running back, graduate transfers James Gilbert (737 yards, 6 touchdowns) and Jordon Brown (380, 4) have moved on.
Seniors Harry Trotter and Tyler Burns return along with a talented group of freshmen, led by Jacardia Wright and Joe Ervin, who both gained game experience without burning their redshirt year.
"I think that from an offensive line standpoint, it definitely hurt our ability to know how well they're going to communicate, how well they're actually going to execute," Messingham said. "It's four brand new guys and obviously a guy that wasn't the starter but really could have been in Josh Rivas.
"Losing the ability to see (all-Big 12 kick returner) Josh Youngblood become more of a legit wide receiver threat, that obviously hurt. Getting Harry (Trotter) and Tyler Burns and those guys some more touches, and then also getting a Jacardia (Wright) and a Joe Ervin and some of those young guys opportunities to truly become better at their craft. It hurt all of us."
Senior quarterback Skylar Thompson, who will be a third-year starter, said progress made during winter conditioning included improved team chemistry, which in turn helped bridge the gap when everybody was sent home in the spring.
"We had a lot of communication, too, through this COVID stuff," he said. "We created a team group chat that we basically talked through, throughout quarantine, and we got on Zoom .
"We did a whole bunch of things just to try to continue to build those relationships and keep that stuff going even through the midst of all that time away."
But Thompson admitted that, even for a veteran player, losing the spring practice time was a disadvantage. It was an opportunity, after reflecting on the previous season, to focus on specific aspects of his game.
"I think for me, even without spring ball, I highlighted those things and got better at those," he said. "But what I missed out on is having the live bullets flying at me.
"One of the biggest things for me was improving in my pocket presence and being able to step up in the pocket and being able to progress through my third and fourth reads. And that's just a lot different when I'm home getting beanbags thrown at me compared to (defensive ends) Wyatt Hubert and Khalid Duke coming at me."
At least the Wildcats were not alone in navigating a spring with no practices.
"All the programs in the country got put basically in the same boat," Messingham said. "When we get out there on the first Saturday that we get the opportunity to play, you're hoping that our guys have taken it upon themselves to make sure they're prepared mentally and physically, and that's part of our jobs as coaches, making sure they understand who we are and the style of football we want to play, then take it to the field and show that we're ready to play."