Ryan Mueller looked to his right and then to his left. What he saw made him smile.
Mueller, the Kansas State senior defensive end from Leawood was sitting between four Wildcats football players Tuesday at Big 12 Media Days, all of them with backgrounds similar to his own.
Receiver Tyler Lockett was overlooked by the two biggest football programs in his home state, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Quarterback Jake Waters didn’t receive his first Division I scholarship offer until he was a sophomore in junior college. Jonathan Truman and B.J. Finney — like Mueller — both joined the Wildcats as walk-ons. Little was expected out of them as they exited high school. Now, all five of them are receiving national attention.
“That’s right,” Mueller said. “We are here in full force.”
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The group was a fitting representation of K-State’s football program. None of them were blue-chip results, but years of hard work have turned them into captains on a team that was picked third in the Big 12’s preseason poll and that is expected to build on a 2013 season that ended with a victory over Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
They stood out in a room filled with more privileged playmakers.
“For this year that is probably the face of this team,” Mueller said. “This team is led by college walk-ons.”
K-State coach Bill Snyder couldn’t be happier about that statement. In previous years he has skipped the opportunity to make an opening statement in front of the media at this preseason gathering, but on Tuesday he opened up his news conference by praising his team captains.
“All people that I’m immensely proud of,” Snyder said, “people that have had a great impact on our program. As you visit with them, you’ll realize that they’re quality young men and wonderful people, great representatives of our university and great representatives of the conference.”
That being said, he hopes they realize how much work lies ahead.
Sure, they have exceeded expectations as players. And Snyder says he is cautiously optimistic about the upcoming season. Even with challenging games at Iowa State and at home against Auburn in the first month, he thinks the Wildcats have the ideal personnel, and, more importantly, the ability to capatilize on the momentum they built by winning six of their final seven games in 2013. But they returned plenty of talent last year and started 2-4 with a stunning loss to North Dakota State.
His slogan for the upcoming season could be: Don’t Take Anything for Granted.
“We had five returning starters on our offensive line last year and we averaged 1.8 yards per attempt rushing against North Dakota State,” Snyder said. “We had 41 yards of rushing against them. Part of that was they were a good defensive football team, but it wasn’t that we were a bad offensive line. Later in the season we proved that we were good. But they took their performance for granted and we took North Dakota State for granted and we lost. It’s as simple as that.”
Lockett doesn’t think that will be a problem.
After years in struggling in openers — hard-fought victories over Eastern Kentucky and Missouri State and a loss to North Dakota State — he says players have circled Stephen F. Austin, not Auburn, as the most important nonconference game on the schedule.
“We have been on teams that experienced pretty much everything,” Lockett said. “We are at a place where we know if we are down 10 points we can come back. If we are up 20 in a game we know how to sustain that lead. We are at a place now where we know how to win and we can help the young players on the team.”
Winning six of their final seven games last year taught this group a lot.
“Ending the season on a victory and getting young guys rep in bowl practice is great primer for the next season,” Finney said. “It keeps guys motivated. It’s really hard to swallow after a loss going into the offseason because our offseason is pretty brutal in terms of workouts. Keeping guys motivated was really helpful with that win. I thought we had a good attitude last season, but this season it has improved dramatically. Guys have a great attitude. They are hungry, they want to get started.”
Teams led by former walk-ons and overlooked players always do.
“Coach gives opportunities to guys who don’t earn scholarships at other places,” Finney said. “We want to be part of the machine and we want to play. We are going to do the work that is required and we are going to play to the best of our abilities. You see the crew we brought today, I just think it goes to show or illustrate how blue collar we really are as a program.”