MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — The cliche runs off the tongue of quarterback Jake Waters, one that is used in everyday life by millions of people but perhaps most accurately reflects that situation at Kansas State.
“What a difference a year makes,” he said.
Indeed, a year ago Waters was the junior college transfer in a heated battle with Daniel Sam to win the starting job. The Wildcats were replacing nine starters on defense. And after a loss to lower-division North Dakota State in their opener, expectations were hitting a nadir.
Now, a full 12 months later, Waters is firmly entrenched as the starter with Sams having transferred to McNeese State. The defense returns a bevy of talent led by All-Big 12 defensive end Ryan Mueller. And after winning six of their final seven games, including a blowout of Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, expectations are once against soaring.
“We learned a lot last season,” wide receiver Tyler Lockett said. “You can’t take anything for granted. If you want it, you have to come out there and get it.”
The Wildcats certainly did that during the strangest of seasons.
After beating only Louisiana-Lafayette and UMass in their first six games, people had begun to question whether longtime coach Bill Snyder still had it. Waters and Sams were alternating just about every series, and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to anything they were doing.
Then came a blowout of West Virginia. And another of Iowa State. And the next thing anybody knew, the Wildcats were looking back on a season in which their only loss after Oct. 12 came at the hands of Oklahoma, which went on to finish 11-2 and win the Sugar Bowl.
One thing is for certain: The Wildcats better get off to a quick start.
After opening the season Aug. 30 against Stephen F. Austin, they turn around and open Big 12 play at Iowa State. Week 3 brings a Thursday night showdown against Auburn, arguably one of the most intriguing nonconference games of the college football season.
As the start of the season draws near, here are five things to know.
RUNNING BACK WIDE OPEN: After the loss of three-year starter John Hubert, the race is on for the starting job. DeMarcus Robinson appears to be first in line, but Jarvis Leverett Jr., Charles Jones and freshman Dalvin Warmack will all get a shot. “All three of us can easily fill Hubert’s shoes,” Leverett said. “It’s just a matter of going out and applying what we know.”
DEFENSIVE BACK, TOO: The Wildcats have a couple veterans in safety Dante Barnett and cornerback Randall Evans, but free safety and the other cornerback spot are up for grabs. “We’ve got some guys that have been in the program but they haven’t been starters before,” defensive coordinator Tom Hays said. “We have to get them to where they don’t lose a step.”
LOCKETT HOLDS KEYS: Lockett proved to be one of college football’s most dynamic playmakers last season. Not only was he Waters’ most dependable target, he also was a dangerous punt and kick returner. Expect all eyes to be on him from the first week of the season.
MUELLER, TOO: The fifth-year senior walked onto the program as an undersized linebacker and has grown into one of the nation’s top pass rushers. He led the Big 12 with 18 1/2 tackles for loss and set a school record with 11 ½ sacks last season.
FAVORABLE SCHEDULE: Sure, the Wildcats jump right into Big 12 play, and there’s a major nonconference showdown looming Sept. 18. But the rest of the schedule shapes up nicely. Kansas State gets a week off before facing Oklahoma and doesn’t play Baylor until Dec. 6. ”
“The Michigan game gave us a great springboard into the offseason conditioning and realizing the potential of this team,” Mueller said. “They sky’s the limit, obviously, and we’ve taken that approach into our summer workouts. And now we’ll take that approach into the season.