MANHATTAN — For all its far-reaching effects, the coronavirus pandemic robbed Kansas State's offensive line of the one thing it could never replace.
What the Wildcats' front five needed more than anything was time. Time and experience.
But after missing out on spring practice and a good portion of summer conditioning, that's where K-State's revamped line finds itself heading into Saturday's 11 a.m. season opener against Arkansas State at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
With all five starters gone from a year ago, it's time to see just how far along their replacements are.
"It is the challenge," K-State offensive line coach Conor Riley said of the lost preparation time. "The thing we continually talk about (and) the biggest thing that we lack is experience.
"There's not anything that we can do that we have control over right now that would gain that experience. I'm primarily talking about game experience. So we have that much more urgency in our preparation."
That was nearly a month ago. Riley said the linemen took advantage of every opportunity to meet online via Zoom during the shutdown, focusing instead on mental repetitions.
K-State head coach Chris Klieman said Tuesday that he has been pleased with the progress.
"I feel comfortable," Klieman said. "Coach Riley has done a tremendous job with those guys. We're going to play a number of guys up front.
"They need snaps. They need experience. We're going to make some mistakes in the offensive line, (but) I like our athleticism. I like our aggressiveness."
The only projected starter with significant game experience is junior left guard Josh Rivas, who was a regular part of the line rotation a year ago. But senior center Noah Johnson has emerged as a vocal leader in the group, and recently was named a team captain.
And Johnson has taken a philosophical approach to the challenge ahead.
"One thing I've thought about, because I've been hearing that ever since the season ended last year about how inexperienced we are," he said. "But at some point Scott Frantz had to start his first game. He didn't walk in as a 30-game starter.
"At some point you have to be a little inexperienced and I will gladly trade a little bit of inexperience for a group of guys who are just playing hungry and playing driven and playing together, and I think that's what we have."
Frantz was a fourth-year starter at tackle on last year's line.
The starters listed Monday on K-State's two-deep for the Arkansas State game were sophomore Kaitori Leveston at left tackle, Rivas at left guard, Johnson at center, junior Ben Adler at right guard and sophomore Christian Duffie at right tackle. Leveston, Rivas and Adler all weigh in at 330-plus pounds, which could make this the biggest Wildcat line since the late 1990s.
"We know how big and physical we can be," Rivas said. "Last year we were physical and big, but I feel like this year, since we have a year under our belt in this offense and (know) how Coach Riley wants everything to work, I feel like we can all accomplish that together.
"Our communication throughout everything is just fantastic."
This year's line does have the advantage of spending a full season under second-year coaches Klieman, Riley and offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham. A year ago, the Wildcats' veteran line had to learn a whole new offense.
Johnson also pointed to last year's bowl preparation, part of which was spent developing younger players, as an advantage.
"I think having about a month of taking heavy reps with each other really put us in a good place," Johnson said. "Missing 15 (spring) practices of getting to go against our defense, like (linemen) Wyatt Hubert, Khalid Duke, Drew Wiley, Eli Huggins and (linebackers) Eli Sullivan and J-Ball (Justin Hughes), that's tough.
"Obviously you're going to get a lot better from that."
The line will cut its teeth Saturday against an Arkansas State defense that surrendered 502 yards total offense, including 227 rushing, last week in a 37-24 loss to Memphis.
"I think all of the offensive linemen have that little chip, trying to prove people wrong," Rivas said. "We saw that stuff on Twitter during our little break that we had this spring, and they're saying, like, 'Kansas State's offensive line is going to be the weakest point of the team,' or, 'They're so inexperienced. They don't know how fast games move,' and stuff like that.
"I see that (to) a point, but this offensive line is just hungry to play."