The next great Kansas State quarterback may just be its current quarterback.
Jesse Ertz will get the opportunity this season to join the likes of Michael Bishop, Jonathan Beasley, Ell Roberson, Collin Klein and Jake Waters as one of the best passers to play for K-State coach Bill Snyder season. All he has to do is follow in their footsteps.
As a returning starter, Ertz already has something in common with the others. The best K-State quarterbacks each spent multiple seasons in command of the offense. The Wildcats historically have their best seasons when Snyder returns his leading passer from the previous year. The last six times K-State has been blessed with a proven quarterback, it has gone on to win at least nine games while typically averaging 11 victories.
When K-State started 11-0 in 1998, Bishop was a senior. When K-State won the Big 12 in 2003, Roberson was a senior. When K-State rose to No. 1 in the BCS standings in 2012, Klein was a senior.
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A year after leading K-State to a 9-4 record and a victory in the Texas Bowl, Ertz is now a senior. Expectations are high.
“Every possession, I want to put it in the end zone,” Ertz said. “A field goal is disappointing.”
Returning quarterbacks are a blessing in every offense, at all levels. But they seem to have enhanced value at K-State. Give Snyder a quarterback he trusts, and you can bank on the Wildcats contending for a Big 12 championship. Give him an inexperienced passer, and simply making a bowl game can be difficult.
What is it about K-State’s offense that puts that kind of premium on experience?
“It’s all about the expansiveness of our system and all the things we do,” K-State offensive coordinator Dana Dimel said. “We probably have as expansive of a passing game in practice as anybody does. We have all kinds of intricacies to our passing game. People might not think of K-State as having all those things, but when we practice we are throwing the ball all over the field. Our quarterbacks have four or five reads in their progression, so it takes time for them to get that mastered. The more experience they have with that, the better they typically play.”
Ertz faced a learning curve when he began taking snaps for the Wildcats, spending his first season on the sideline with a redshirt and then backing up Waters in his second. He missed the majority of his third season because of a knee injury and played through a shoulder injury last season. Now, in his fifth and final season, he is healthy and he knows the playbook inside and out.
Historically, that’s the perfect combination for a big year.
“Our offense has a lot to it,” Ertz said. “We have quarterback run game, run game, pistol, shotgun, option. There are just so many things to learn. To be good at all those things and to operate quickly and efficiently, experience is just huge. To come back and know what you are seeing and facing in game situations, you can’t put a value on that.”
The biggest challenge facing Ertz as a senior seems to be balance. Though he was an adequate passer a year ago, running was his forte. He completed 152 of 264 passes for 1,755 yards and nine touchdowns, but had issues connecting with receivers on deep throws until late in the season. Even then, they were mostly catch-and-runs, not 50-yard bombs. K-State coaches asked him to do more with his feet, and he responded by rushing for a team-high 1,012 yards and 12 touchdowns.
This season, Ertz would like to (ideally) double his passing numbers and increase his average rush of 5.5 yards. With eight starters returning on offense, including top receivers Byron Pringle and Dominique Heath, he wants to be more of a distributor.
“The passing game is going to be special,” K-State running back Alex Barnes said. “There are some really good connections going on with Jesse and the receivers.”
Snyder admits the Wildcats will have a high ceiling when throwing the ball this year. That should allow them to be more aggressive on offense. At times last season, K-State seemed afraid to ask Ertz to throw the ball beyond the first-down marker. This season, there could be a more wide-open look.
“He’s gotten stronger and stronger and stronger,” Snyder said of Ertz, “and I think he readily admits right now that he’s throwing the ball better than he ever has.”
The proverbial stars could be aligning for Ertz. He even has one advantage over the great K-State quarterbacks of old. He has an ideal mentor.
Not only does Ertz have a year of starting experience to his name, his position coach (Klein) has two. After every series this season, a former Heisman Trophy finalist that led K-State to 11 victories and a Big 12 championship as a senior will be there to offer Ertz pointers.
Many are eager to see what they can do together.
“That dude works harder than anybody I know and gives everything to this game,” K-State fullback Winston Dimel said of Ertz. “He is up here watching film all the time. Just everything that a champion does, he does. To have him as my quarterback, I could not ask for anything else.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett