Dalton Risner was stunned.
Risner, a redshirt freshman center for the Kansas State football team, was trying his hardest to learn Kansas State’s blocking schemes. He showed up early for team meetings and stayed late after practices, playing so well that he earned a starting spot after one year with the scout team. Still, it wasn’t enough to satisfy his coaches. Every day, it seemed, he faced an avalanche of criticism.
You are capable of more, they said. Chase perfection. Youth is not an excuse.
“I was looking for a some leeway from the coaches,” Risner said. “You know, a little wiggle room for being the young guy. I got the opposite. If I made a mistake out there, I was getting ripped for it.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Such is life for every K-State player, from freshman to redshirt senior. When your coach is Bill Snyder, terms such as learning curve, growing pains and patience always take a back seat to perfection.
“For most people, the expectations (for a freshman) might be a little lower than they would be for someone who has been around doing it for a long time,” Snyder said. “I have always kind of viewed that as on the borderline of excuses. I have tried to share with our freshmen and younger players that our expectations are every bit as high for them or anyone else in the program.”
That philosophy is being put to the test like never before.
In most years, it is rare for more than one or two freshmen to appear on K-State’s depth chart, let alone play meaningful roles. Snyder prefers experience, and his teams are often senior-laden, filled with former walk-ons and overlooked high school players that take pride in the fundamentals.
This year, the Wildcats list 10 freshmen on their depth chart and occasionally use an 11th — receiver Zach Reuter — on passing downs. Redshirt freshman Dominique Heath, a starting receiver and punt returner, may be the team’s top playmaker. Redshirt freshman Justin Silmon is the team’s leading rusher. Redshirt freshman Winston Dimel leads the team in rushing touchdowns. And Risner directs the offensive line.
It’s an unprecedented youth movement, which creates long-term optimism.
In the short term, though, Snyder had to ponder how to handle it. This is a coach who stews over false-start penalties for days and laments turnovers for weeks. He values discipline as much as talent. But young rosters are mistake prone.
Would he enter the season expecting the occasional gaffe, and show patience when they occur? Or would he push his young players like seniors?
“We had some dialogue about that, not necessarily about freshmen, but expectations and being able to exceed expectations,” Snyder said. “Their own expectations, not mine or anybody else’s, but their own. I think with younger players there is probably a built-in patience that you do not quite have with upperclassmen. I try to not be that way, but I am probably, like the other coaches, probably do have more forgiveness for them.”
That much was on display in K-State’s last game when Heath misplayed a punt in the second half, allowing the ball to bounce off his hand for a substantial loss instead of fielding it clean or simply letting it roll to a stop. Some wondered if Snyder would continue to trust his return man in a game that went down to the wire, but he stuck with him.
Heath returned his next punt 58 yards, setting up a short K-State touchdown drive to tie the game.
“Patience becomes a virtue in that respect,” Snyder said. “I think you understand that younger guys do not have as much experience or repetitions or opportunities to do the things that you are asking them to do.”
Still, Snyder was hard on Heath afterward, describing his fumbled punt return as “a middle school mistake.”
Players expected nothing less.
“Coach Snyder is a perfectionist,” quarterback Joe Hubener said. “Every day he wants everything to be perfect, so if something is wrong he is going to get it fixed. He will let you know if something is not the way he wants it.”
Sophomore linebacker Elijah Lee describes that coaching style as an acquired taste.
When he started immediately as a freshman last season, he did not like the constant criticism, even though it was constructive. It took him two months to adjust to it.
“Whenever you first get here, it is a lot to handle,” Lee said. “You don’t expect a head coach to be too hard on freshmen, but he holds everyone accountable. It’s hard, but then you have guys from past teams come in and they tell you what coach Snyder is telling you will prepare you for the real world.
“You have to grow up fast. I like it, because no one gets complacent or too big headed. Everyone has to work hard.”
Risner tells a similar story.
Once he adjusted to Snyder’s demanding ways, he wanted the same treatment and expectations as everyone else.
“It makes me work so much harder, “ Risner said. “At first it can feel like this is too much to handle. Then you get out in the game and you realize how true everything is that he tells you. It has shaped me into the player I am right now.”
Kellis Robinett: @KellisRobinett