Kansas State football players are chanting Jesse Ertz’s middle name.
It’s 2 p.m. on a sunny day at Rice University and the Wildcats are ready for their final practice before the Texas Bowl, but they don’t want to begin without their starting quarterback, who is currently speaking with media. So they delay jogging and stretching to yell at him from across the field.
“Sisco! Sisco! Sisco!” they call out in unison, the chant growing louder with each passing second.
Ertz does his best to block out the distraction, but it’s clear his mind is already with his teammates. As the interview ends, he turns to them and waves. They cheer and point him to the front of the pack. They want him to lead, much as he has all season.
“I give Jesse crap about getting all the attention, but he deserves it,” K-State right tackle Dalton Risner said. “He does a lot and our offense requires a lot. No one runs as much as Jesse or takes as many hits as Jesse. He is diving for a lot of first downs when most quarterbacks are sliding. He’s just one of those guys who is going to get it done. We all appreciate him.”
Ertz has the look of an up-and-coming star, but the dual-threat quarterback took a winding path to this point. The junior from Burlington, Iowa, battled back from a twice-torn knee ligament to win K-State’s starting job this season and then fought through the harsh learning curve and physical punishment that comes with leading a Bill Snyder offense to guide his team to an 8-4 record and a postseason game against Texas A&M.
Some wondered if the Wildcats would be better off with a different quarterback when the team started 3-3 and Ertz struggled to complete half his throws. But those concerns faded.
Now, most fans are eager to see what he is capable of next season, especially with eight starters returning around him. K-State quarterbacks tend to make enormous leaps forward as second-year starters – Collin Klein became a Heisman Trophy finalist and Jake Waters broke K-State’s single-season yardage record. Perhaps Ertz will also benefit with experience on his side.
“I have a lot of room to improve, and I believe I will improve,” Ertz said. “Throughout the whole season, I think my play was about what you would expect. Looking back, I was pretty inexperienced. A lot of the guys on offense were pretty inexperienced. As a unit we continued to get better. Hopefully next year is the same.”
His improvement is already noticeable.
“You have just seen his performance level grow and grow and grow,” K-State coach Snyder said Tuesday at a Texas Bowl news conference. “So many people think of Jesse as a returning starting quarterback, but he only played one snap last year. He was a fresh, young pup when it came to the middle of this year. He has stepped up and gotten better and better and better.”
The Wildcats got better right along with him.
Ertz led K-State to a 5-1 finish and emerged as one of the nation’s top running quarterbacks. His 945 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns already rank as the fourth best season of any K-State quarterback. He could vault higher with a strong showing against Texas A&M at the Texas Bowl. He trails Klein’s 2011 rushing total by 128 yards and is within 119 yards of Ell Roberson’s top season in 2002.
His runs are rarely explosive, but he knows how to gain yards. Few, if any, quarterbacks have a better stiff arm.
“What makes him unique and special is his running ability,” said ESPN college football analyst and former NFL quarterback Jesse Palmer. “He can break a lot of tackles and he is very patient when he waits for his blocks. The surprising thing is his speed. It’s deceptive. It doesn’t really look like he is running very fast, but, at the same time, he is running away from guys. He is legitimately fast. I don’t know if people really respect that about him.
“Then you throw in his toughness. He reminds me of Collin Klein. Guys on the team seem to love playing for him.”
The craziest thing about Ertz’s season is that he hit his stride while battling a multitude of injuries. His completion percentage and rushing yardage both increased after he suffered a significant injury to his throwing shoulder in a loss at Oklahoma.
He didn’t rush for 100 yards in any of his first six games and only topped 150 passing yards twice. But he cleared 100 rushing yards three times in his final six games and topped 150 passing yards four times. He had 329 yards and two touchdowns in the regular-season finale at TCU.
“We have seen if coming for a while,” defensive back Dante Barnett said. “He is the type of person who is only going to get better.”
Snyder says Ertz is “the epitome” of improvement.
“It’s just a confidence thing,” Ertz said. “I know how everything works now. I know how it goes. You stop over estimating your opponent. When you are a new starter, you prepare for somebody to do something crazy and over time you realize it’s probably not going to happen. You think this (defender) is going to jump this (pass), but you just have to trust it and throw the ball. Question marks have been answered. That’s been the biggest thing.”
Ertz proved a lot to himself this season. He also proved a lot to his teammates.
They don’t want to do anything — even job or stretch before practice — without him.
“The way he fights for everything, grinding out yards, putting his shoulder down, stiff arming people says a lot,” senior running back Charles Jones said. “You don’t really see that much from quarterbacks. Seeing that makes you say, ‘Man, I will go down fighting for this guy.’”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett