If ever there was an appropriate time for Kansas State to say goodbye to one of the greatest quarterbacks in school history, it might be now.
Look at what the Wildcats return on offense: veteran running back John Hubert, proven receivers Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson and all five starters on the offensive line. K-State should be able to move the ball with either Jake Waters or Daniel Sams at quarterback.
Still, Collin Klein was Collin Klein. You always knew what you were going to get from Klein, a Heisman Trophy finalist who led the Wildcats to 21 victories, two major bowls and a Big 12 championship as a full-time starter. He played through injuries and was a model student.
“I’m a nervous wreck about starting a new quarterback,” K-State co-offensive coordinator Dana Dimel said. “That is always a concern for me, because that is such a critical position and we had a guy there last year who did such a remarkable job.”
“You are not going to have another Collin Klein,” added K-State co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Del Miller.
Instead, K-State will move on with Waters or Sams. The two have been in a dead heat for the job since spring football began, with coach Bill Snyder using a coin toss to choose his starting quarterback for the spring game, but they both played equal time and put up huge numbers. A winner will be chosen this week, during final preparations for the Aug. 30 season opener against North Dakota State, but the competition may continue.
No matter who starts the first game, Dimel has said, both quarterbacks will play.
“I don’t think they have stopped improving,” Snyder said of Waters and Sams. “I appreciate the competitiveness of it and also the fact that they are providing quality leadership. They are helping each other and showing a tremendous amount of unselfishness.”
Whomever Snyder picks will be seen as a quality replacement, and he will be asked to do big things right away. But he won’t be asked to run things the same way Klein did. Waters and Sams will bring new styles.
With Waters, the offense could open up in the air. The junior-college transfer has a stronger arm than Klein and has already proven himself capable of hitting receivers in stride, even when faced with solid coverage. K-State receivers rave about his ability to complete passes in tight windows and spread the field in ways Klein could not.
“Unlike anyone we have seen, he puts the ball in different spots,” junior receiver Curry Sexton said. “If there is a tight window in a certain route where a guy looks like he is covered, somehow he fits it in there. He has that ‘wow’ factor.”
Waters completed difficult passes in the spring game that haven’t been seen at K-State since the days of current Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman. Not that Waters is trying to live up to the standard of any former K-State quarterbacks.
“I will have higher expectations for myself than anyone on the outside will,” Waters said. “I can’t think of it as replacing Collin Klein or trying to do what he did. Collin was a one-of-a-kind quarterback. No one is going to be able to come in and do what he did.
“I’ve just got to go and use the guys that are back to help me, use that line to my advantage, use those receivers and use John Hubert to my advantage to make things easy on me and make me look better.”
Waters is also an underrated runner. Though he doesn’t possess breakaway speed or the size to run consistently between the tackles, he is mobile. He can extend plays by scrambling or keep the ball on designed running plays.
Still, this is new ground for Waters. He came to K-State from Iowa Western Community College, and he has been fighting to prove himself for years. Waters didn’t receive a single major-college scholarship offer in high school and ended up playing for the local junior college. He has also never experienced a neck-and-neck competition for a starting job.
Is Waters ready to make the transition to the Big 12? We won’t know for sure until he takes the field, but he outplayed Sams by a slim margin in the spring game and by a more noticeable margin at K-State’s lone open practice last week. So far, he seems to be handling the spotlight just fine. He hasn’t lost a step from his fantastic sophomore season at Iowa Western, where he threw for 3,501 yards and 39 touchdowns and led his team to an undefeated season and national championship.
When it was over, Waters had all sorts of big-time coaches calling. He ended up choosing K-State over Penn State and several other suitors. The day he arrived on campus for his first class felt like a victory. This is what he had been working and waiting for. Then he had to tell himself to chase a new dream. Sure, it was nice to be at K-State, but he didn’t come this far to watch from the sideline.
Now he wants to be the starting quarterback.
“I have always had that chip on my shoulder, that maybe I’m not good enough,” Waters said. “No coach has ever really wanted me. Once I got here I knew I made it. But I made a new goal. I’ve got to keep going. Now it starts over. I’ve got to make it to the point where I can become the starter. That’s my goal, to become the best that I can.”
Sams shares that mind-set.
If he wins the job, the offense could open up on the ground. Sams is one of the fastest players on K-State’s roster. The sophomore rushed for 235 yards and three touchdowns in relief of Klein last season and should be able to keep K-State’s quarterback-based running game going strong. He might even add some elements to it with his ability to make plays in the open field. That, combined with his experience, could help him become the starter.
But his arm is unproven.
Dimel often allowed Klein to call his own plays last season, but he was reluctant to allow Sams to throw. Sams completed six of eight passes for 55 yards and didn’t attempt a single deep ball. Some of that is due to the fact that Sams played mostly at the end of blowouts, when running was the priority.
Sams doesn’t have a beautiful throwing motion and is still learning how to read defenses and fighting the urge to try for big gains all the time.
“I am finally learning that on second-and-long, we are trying to get half back,” Sams said. “I am that guy who says, ‘It’s second-and-long, let’s go get the first.’ I am still learning how to be more conservative and just not take those chances, but at the same time Coach Snyder doesn’t jump on me too much, because he knows I am trying to make a play.”
Avoiding mistakes is something that made Klein an exceptional quarterback. He threw nine interceptions last season, and always made smart, methodical decisions.
He was also a role model to younger players. That combination made him special.
“What I loved about Collin is he wasn’t hypocritical,” Sams said. “He was a very spiritual guy and he talked about the Bible a lot, but he really did live that in his everyday life. The hardest thing about following in Collin’s footsteps is doing things right off the field. Not just talking, but also walking.”
Sams thinks he is making progress in those areas. For now, that’s all he’s focused on.
“I try not to really think back and sit on what I need to do to be a starter, I just try to do what is expected of me plus more,” Sams said. “That is what a quarterback is supposed to do. Whether that is watching extra film or working on routes with receivers, if I just do that, everything will fall into place.”
As uneasy as K-State coaches are to move on from Klein, they couldn’t ask for more out of Waters and Sams.
The offense should remain in good hands.
“Quarterbacks do so much on their own that I always see a big step from them when we start practices,” Dimel said. “But I’ve seen an even bigger step than usual from them. I have been really pleased with where they are. We threw it all at them — wham! — and they handled it perfectly.”