MANHATTAN — Kansas State coach Chris Klieman is as confident as ever that Justin Hughes someday will lead Kansas State's defense.
It just won't be in 2019.
Klieman confirmed Saturday that Hughes, the Wildcats' senior middle linebacker, tore his ACL last week in practice and will be lost for the 2019 season, though he could possibly be back next year.
"I'm sick for the kid, love him," Klieman, K-State's first-year head coach, said following the Wildcats' "Spring Showcase" on Saturday at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. "He knows how I feel about him.
"In my opinion, in a short time around him, (he's) the heart and soul of our football team. The kids love him (and) the coaches love him."
Hughes was on crutches during the showcase, basically a glorified practice in front of an announced crowd of just over 11,000.
"He'll be back, and he's got an opportunity to get a medical hardship, and he's going to do that because he loves the game of football," Klieman said. "And so the challenge for Justin is to be a great leader, to be that captain that he is from the sideline next year."
Hughes, who started the last seven games as a junior and finished third on the team in tackles, had impressed both Klieman and defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton with his ability to grasp and execute K-State's new defense.
"He'll be challenged by it, but I think he'll grow from it," Klieman said. "I know that he'll be back stronger and better than ever, but he'll miss next year.
"I'm really confident he's going to be back in 2020."
Sammy Wheeler, a redshirt freshman who started out as a quarterback, has made a successful transition to tight end this spring.
With Saturday's practice winding down, he was mobbed by teammates after he made a one-handed catch in the end zone during a short scrimmage.
"I love the story of him switching to tight end," junior quarterback Skylar Thompson said of the 6-foot-4, 221-pound Wheeler. "Whenever I heard the news that we switched him, one of our younger quarterbacks came up to me, 'Hey, did you hear about Sammy?' and I was like, oh no, like I thought he left the team or something.
"I got to thinking about it and I was like, 'Shoot, he's a big kid, he's got a good frame, he can put on some weight (and) he's really athletic.
"I really hope he embraces this because if he does, he can really make a big impact on this offense. You saw today, that one catch he made in the end zone with one hand finishing up."
Klieman said that the goal with Wheeler, who played at Lenexa's St. James Academy, was to take advantage of his physical gifts when it became apparent that he was not likely to battle for the top two quarterback spots.
"He came to us and we came to him and said, 'Sammy, we think you're a pretty good athlete. We want to see you do something else, can you get on the field for us,' " Klieman said. "He' said, 'Absolutely, I want to,' and tight end is a position that is of need for us.
"He embraced it, jumped in, and I think we've had him there probably the last eight or nine practices. I've been really impressed; he'll be in the mix for us next year."
Lynch alive, kicking
Junior kicker Blake Lynch, who burst on the scene last year for the Wildcats, only to be slowed by an injury, pronounced himself fit for the upcoming season.
Lynch, who got off to a fast start before missing three games, said he tried to get back too fast last year and never was at full strength the rest of the way.
"I was just trying to get the ball through the uprights," he said.
Despite the injury, Lynch made 14 of 16 field goal attempts and 19 of 20 extra points.
"I'm pretty happy (with the spring)," he said. "Just coming off the injury and stuff, I've struggled with consistency a little bit, which comes from just getting stronger.
"I had to develop some bad habits during the season so I could kick during the season, but I'm just getting back to where I used to be. I feel a lot stronger than before I got injured."