Kansas State's end game: How Felix Anudike-Uzomah and Jaylen Pickle fit into new defense
MANHATTAN — Jaylen Pickle and Felix Anudike-Uzomah came to their new positions in Kansas State's defense from different backgrounds.
But in their own ways, both have thrived as defensive ends on the Wildcats' revamped three-man line.
For Pickle, a tackle by trade, it was quite an adjustment. Anudike-Uzomah, on the other hand, saw it more as a return to what came naturally.
"I played it a lot in high school, so it wasn't really that big of a change," said Anudike-Uzomah, a 6-foot-3, 255-pound sophomore from Kansas City, Missouri, who was part of a three-man front at Lee's Summit High School. "Just a couple of techniques that I had to change from high school to now with the three down (linemen)."
The bigger adjustment for him came last year as a true freshman, when he also lined up at end, but in a traditional four-man front.
"Learning the four down was kind of difficult for me, but I kind of adapted to it and I'm playing fast at both now," he said.
As for Pickle, a regular in the Wildcats' tackle rotation last year, moving outside at 6-4, 300 pounds, was an eye-opener.
"In the spring, it wasn't so easy because it had been four years, five years since high school since I played out there," said Pickle, a fourth-year junior from Cimarron. "So I am getting a little more used to it.
"You have to play faster and expect different types of blocks, but it definitely is a lot easier on your body, not taking double-teams from a tackle and guard. For the most part, the transition has been pretty easy."
K-State unveiled the three-man front in the season opener against Stanford and held the Cardinal to 233 total yards in a 24-7 victory. They followed that up by limiting Southern Illinois to 276 yards and did not allow a second-half point as the Wildcats rallied to win, 31-23.
Pickle had two tackles against Stanford and one in the SIU game, where he also got a rare interception by a lineman on a tipped ball. K-State coach Chris Klieman said after the opener that he was encouraged by Pickle's play.
"He liked it. He was playing some defensive end, and he'll play d-end and he'll play d-tackle based on the fronts we're in," Klieman said.
"That's a big, long athletic body that can get his hands up that can be disruptive, and that's the benefit. We can play Pick in a number of different spots as well as we can probably Eli (Huggins)."
Anudike-Uzomah, the more natural defensive end, had just one tackle against Stanford, but enjoyed a breakout game last week in the SIU game, recording five stops with three sacks. He also created turnovers by stripping the ball from quarterback Nic Baker on both of his fourth-quarter sacks to help preserve the victory.
For his effort against the Salukis, Anudike-Uzomah was named Big 12 newcomer of the week.
"My teammates are giving me a lot of stuff about it, which is funny," he said with a smile. "They're just like, 'Ooh, newcomer of the week.' They just give me that and I laugh about it all the time.
"I'm honored to have that and it's a big accomplishment, but now I'm focused on next week."
K-State's defense will face its biggest challenge at 1 p.m. Saturday at Bill Snyder Family Stadium against a high-octane Nevada offense that has averaged 479 yards in victories over California (22-17) and Idaho State (49-10).
"Nevada is definitely the most explosive offense we've played because they throw the ball a lot and stretch the field out, and with the quarterback you have to understand they can play the whole field," Pickle said of the Wolf Pack and quarterback Carson Strong. "They're really explosive and we have to do a good job of containing the quarterback."
The Wildcats rank 15th nationally in total defense through the first two games and have been effective getting to the quarterback with nine total. In addition to Anudike-Uzomah, end Khalid Duke and linebacker Cody Fletcher both have one in each game.
Pickle has yet to record a sack, but he's still a force.
"He's very good in the run game and he's good at the passing game, too," Anudike-Uzomah said of Pickle. "He's very strong.
"He's probably the strongest of all K-State players. He plays with a lot of physicality on the line."
What has impressed senior safety Russ Yeast the most about K-State's line is it depth and versatility. The Wildcats have rotated at least nine different people at the three or four spots.
"I like how everybody that comes in the game, they can make an impact," Yeast said. "We don't rely on just three d-linemen. We go like nine deep.
"It keeps them fresh, so late in the game we're still getting a good pass rush, and ultimately it helps out the (secondary)."
Pickle said he gets more comfortable by the day at end.
"It's just knowing everything, because when I played inside we only had to know two positions, where when we're outside we have to know all three, and then the back two or three linebackers," he said. "(But) I love it, actually.
"It's pretty fun playing outside."