(Editor’s note: This story is part of The Star’s annual football preview, which will appear in three special sections in the Sunday, Aug. 28 print edition and also on KansasCity.com and The Star’s Red Zone Extra app.)
A funny thing tends to happen to Kansas State football players when they try to relax around Jesse Ertz.
One by one, they lose their desire to play video games.
“I just watch television now,” K-State defensive end Jordan Willis said. “He’s beaten me too many times.”
“Never met a more competitive person in my life,” added K-State center Dalton Risner. “Jesse can’t play a game of backyard basketball without things getting serious. He is always doing anything he can to win.”
“Don’t play him at FIFA,” warned K-State safety Dante Barnett. “He’s unbeatable.”
Strangers on the Internet are starting to say the same. With teammates backing down, Ertz regularly logs onto soccer video game servers and requests games against faraway challengers. His team of choice: lightly regarded Benfica from Portugal’s Primeira Liga. His opponents typically choose powerhouse clubs like Real Madrid or Manchester United.
Not the fairest of matches, but Ertz never wavers. He wins anyway.
“They always tell me to choose a stronger team, but I don’t like playing with the best teams,” Ertz said. “Where is the fun in that? I want a challenge. I guess that goes back to the way I was as a kid with my friends. We were competitive all the time. That’s when I learned how to win and realized it sometimes comes down to who wants it more.”
That killer instinct is one of the main reasons Ertz has emerged as K-State’s presumptive starter at quarterback despite a complete lack of on-field accomplishments.
Since enrolling in 2013, Ertz hasn’t attempted a single pass. He sat out his first year with a redshirt, played at the end of blowouts as a freshman and lasted one play as a sophomore, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on an awkward tackle in his first start.
Still, those closest to him talk as if he has already proven himself.
Teammates voted him captain and now compare him to former stars Collin Klein and Jake Waters.
“The sky is the limit for Jesse,” Risner said. “People may not realize it, but the guy is such a great athlete. We go to the pool, and he is the fastest swimmer. We go to the basketball court, and no one can guard him. He never loses at video games. He is a born winner, and I can’t wait for him to prove it on the football field.”
Barometer for success
There’s an easy way to tell if K-State is on the cusp of a big season.
Just look at the team’s quarterback. He tends to be the best barometer.
Historically, K-State coach Bill Snyder wins big with a proven passer. Give him a quarterback he trusts, and you can count on the Wildcats to make a prestigious bowl.
The last six times Snyder has returned his leading passer from the previous season, K-State has won at least nine games. The Wildcats piled up 11 victories in 1998 with Michael Bishop, in 2000 with Jonathan Beasley, in 2002 and 2003 with Ell Roberson and again in 2012 with Klein. In 2014, they won nine games with Waters.
Other teams, with question marks at quarterback, weren’t as successful.
Here’s the question: Which category does Ertz belong to?
On paper, the answer is simple. He lacks experience and it’s unfair to expect big things out of him this season.
But K-State players make a compelling argument for him. They have seen Ertz chew up defenses in practice and think he is a future star. He has a strong and accurate arm, they say. He is a deceptively skilled runner, they add. The team would have won more than six games last season had he stayed healthy, they insist.
“He is probably one of the best athletes I have ever seen at quarterback,” Barnett, K-State’s top defensive back, said. “You get to chasing him when you think you have a tackle, but he will make you miss and then turn on the afterburners.”
Ertz has also put in years of work with K-State’s offense. By now, teammates and coaches know what to expect.
Yet Joe Hubener is the top returning passer on the roster, not Ertz. Hubener completed 46.7 percent of his throws for 1,837 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions a year ago. Ertz attempted one run and gained five yards.
Ertz represents an upgrade at quarterback, but it’s impossible to say how good he truly is until he makes it through a live game.
“We haven’t seen him in that competitive environment,” Snyder said. “We just don’t know.”
For that reason, Snyder is once again holding open auditions at quarterback. Ertz is the frontrunner after winning the job a year ago and starting at the spring game, but nothing has been promised.
Snyder says Ertz, Hubener and Alex Delton are all good enough to start.
“It is unresolved at this point in time,” Snyder said. “We have got three guys who will be competitive.”
Ertz is confident he will shine in preseason practice.
After all, many of his best moments in a K-State uniform have come in an empty stadium. His favorite occurred last summer. Near the end of a grueling day, Snyder told him to lead the offense on a two-minute drill. If he scored a touchdown, practice was over.
Ertz seized the moment.
“I threw one deep to Kody Cook down the sideline on a double move and he scored,” Ertz said. “I remember him dropping the football and doing the Lambeau leap. We all ran down and dogpiled on him.”
That type of highlight was rare for K-State last season. Ertz would like nothing more than to recreate it in front of a packed Snyder Family Stadium.
“That is something I have dreamed about my whole life,” Ertz said. “It seems to keep getting pushed back, but I am pretty excited about this season.”
That brings us to a different and perhaps more important question about Ertz: If he lives up to his preseason billing, can he stay healthy?
Few quarterbacks have been plagued by injuries more than Ertz.
First, he suffered a torn ACL in his right knee as a high school senior, prematurely ending a successful prep career in which he was chosen 2012 Iowa Gatorade Player of the Year at Mediapolis High. He was in the open field on a designed run, but crumbled to the ground when he planted his right foot and tried to cut left.
Two years later, he won the starting quarterback job at K-State and appeared poised for a big season. But that, too, was cut short on his first play from scrimmage when he suffered another torn ACL on the same knee. He took the snap on a quarterback keeper, ran to his left and got tackled awkwardly.
“A freak accident,” Ertz said.
A sellout crowd gasped and then looked on in frustration during the season as Delton, Hubener and eventually Cook, a converted receiver, struggle to take Ertz’s place, combining to complete less than half their passes.
K-State limped to a 6-7 finish, leaving many to wonder what could have been with a healthy Ertz.
Fans may soon get their answer. Ertz is healthy and ready for a second chance.
“I feel 100 percent,” Ertz said. “I have felt 100 percent since about four months after the injury, which is really fast. My rehab went so smooth compared to the first time that it didn’t even feel like the same injury. My knee feels stronger now than it ever has.”
Will it stay that way? It’s sometimes hard for football players to return after one ACL surgery, let alone two … on the same knee.
That kind of injury history will earn anyone a fragile label.
Mediapolis football coach Brian Borrison understands why some question Ertz’s knee, but he doesn’t think anyone should question his toughness.
There is a common misconception about Ertz’s first major knee injury, and Borrison is here to clear things up. When Ertz went down in the quarterfinals of the Class 2A playoffs, his season wasn’t over. He finished out the game “on one leg” and returned to the field a week later to lead his team to victory in the semifinals.
Trainers failed to properly diagnose the injury until Ertz underwent a MRI leading up to the state championship game. Only then was his season over.
“He played an entire game with a completely torn ACL and we still won,” Borrison said. “I’ve never coached a better leader.”
Ertz had surgery and spent much of the next year rehabbing his knee at K-State while he sat out with a redshirt. He appeared to emerge from the process healthy, but, looking back, there were warning signs his knee was below full strength.
“It just kind of kept bothering him,” Borrison said.
That is no longer the case.
Ertz can squat more weight than he could a year ago. He can also run faster. In a strange way, Ertz thinks his second knee injury will end up helping him in the long run.
He’s confident his knee will never buckle again.
“I honestly feel more secure now than I did before,” Ertz said. “I was doing four hours of rehab a day and my legs have come along so much. They are stronger than they ever were before the injuries. My whole body is in better shape. I am much more durable than I was, I promise.”
Dante Barnett thinks Ertz is the most popular player on the team.
“He can hang with anyone,” Barnett said.
Perhaps that is why Ertz was named captain without first proving himself in games. Or maybe it was his intensity, you know, the same one that scares away video-game challengers.
“He approaches the game like a good quarterback should,” Barnett said. “I remember the first time he got on some players for joking around during seven-on-seven. Everyone paused and was like, “Whoa.” But he gained a lot of respect for that. He can be friendly and jokey, but when he means business, he means business.”
Ertz will certainly mean business on the field this season.
There’s nothing he hates more than being told he can’t play.
Borrison, his former high school coach, illustrates that point with a story from Ertz’s sophomore season at Mediapolis. Heavy rain postponed the team’s homecoming game until Saturday that year, but the squad still played Friday night. Ertz, eager to play regardless of weather, organized a backyard game that lasted long into the night.
Mediapolis won the following day, but looked sluggish doing so. Ertz wore the team out.
“That’s the kind of kid he is,” Borrison said, “always looking to compete at something.”
Ertz has spent much of the past year competing against himself. Could he complete rehab faster than he did coming out of high school? Could he be a better teammate from the sideline? Could he record personal bests in the weight room?
He had big expectations for himself last season and didn’t get the chance to reach them.
Now he gets the rare opportunity to hit the reset button without playing a video game.
“What happened to him last year was sickening, just a punch to the gut,” Borrison said. “But he is not going to let that stop him. That kid has never let anything stop him.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett