The uncertainty — at least outside the program — surrounding Kansas State's quarterback situation leaves one constant heading into Saturday's game at TCU.
Regardless of whether senior Skylar Thompson returns from injury or if true freshman Will Howard gets his first career start, the Wildcats' inexperienced offensive line will have to protect them against what traditionally is a stout TCU defense.
"We've got a big challenge this week," senior center Noah Johnson said Tuesday about the 3 p.m. matchup against the Horned Frogs at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, Texas. "TCU's a good team. They've got a good defensive front and front seven, so we've got to have a good week in practice."
K-State, 2-1 overall, currently sits atop the Big 12 standings with Oklahoma State and Iowa State at 2-0. TCU (1-1, 1-1) bounced back from season-opening 37-34 loss to Iowa State by beating then-No. 9 Texas on the road last week.
"You just mention the name Gary Patterson (TCU head coach) and defense and you know it's going to be a terrific defense," K-State coach Chris Klieman said. "He's one of the best in the country and always has been."
In last week's 31-21, come-from-behind victory against Texas Tech, Howard came on for the injured Thompson halfway through the second quarter and led the Wildcats to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns after they had fallen behind, 21-17.
K-State's offensive line, which did not return a starter from a year ago, allowed just one sack against the Red Raiders. When right tackle Cooper Beebe went down, the Wildcats moved Christian Duffie from the left to the right side and put Kaitori Leveston in at left tackle, where he had started the first two games. True freshman Carver Willis also saw action at left tackle.
"I think we're moving in the right direction," said Johnson, who was hurt in the season opener but returned for victories over No. 3-ranked Oklahoma and then Tech last week. "Saturday was probably our best game so far, but there's still a lot of room for improvement.
"Individually and as a whole group, we've got to keep being physical and keep sustaining blocks and keep communicating at a high level. And protecting. The last two weeks, we've done a good job in protection."
Klieman said Monday and Tuesday that he hoped to have Thompson back behind center for the TCU game, but offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham was noncommittal during a Thursday media conference.
"It's a little bit more of kind of a work in progress of how things flow and how Skylar continues to come along," Messingham said. "The biggest thing is for us, we all have to stay mentally in what they do.
"Because TCU obviously, everybody knows over the last 20 years, has had great defenses. We have to really understand what they're trying to do and take care of the football and just do a good job of executing, whichever guy is in there."
Much of that falls back on the offensive line, which along with Johnson and the tackles includes left guard Josh Rivas, the most experienced of the five, and Ben Adler at right guard.
"They played much better than they did the week before," Klieman said of the line's performance against Texas Tech. "I thought we came off ball exceptionally well. I thought we connected and (identified) people on their double teams and got to the next level really well.
"I thought we played more physical, our protection was much better, and it's going to be a work in progress. We've talked about that. When you've got a bunch of guys that haven't played together, it's going to take some time to jell."
TCU ranks seventh in the Big 12 in total defense, allowing 405.5 yards per game, and eighth in scoring defense, allowing an average of 34 points. But don't be fooled, Klieman cautioned.
"They're a really good defense that I know Gary is probably frustrated like I am as a defensive coach when you give up some explosive plays, because that's the thing that you try to prevent is the explosive play," Klieman said. "That's going to be the key to the game — which offense can get the explosive play?
"Because I think both defenses are good, and at times exceptional. You just have to prevent that explosive play, and then the turnover margin."
It was a pair of fourth-quarter explosive plays — a 66-yard pass to tight end Briley Moore and a 70-yarder to running back Deuce Vaughn — that proved to be the difference for K-State in the Texas Tech game. And through the first three games, the Wildcats have yet to turn the ball over while forcing seven of their own.