MANHATTAN — Sometimes you just have to “cowboy up.”

Those are the words Kansas State defensive end Tanner Wood lives by. Whether he is on the football field preparing to make a tackle, in the woods hunting or at home helping his parents work cattle, he refuses to back down from a challenge.

Even when things take longer than expected, such as his rise up K-State’s depth chart, he keeps working until the job is done. Bad weather and cold temperatures never stopped him from working outside at his family farm. A redshirt year and three seasons as a backup never prevented him from reaching his goal for the Wildcats.

Five years after breaking Kansas high school records at Conway Springs, Wood is finally coming into his own as a college football player. The senior is having his best season in a K-State uniform, emerging as the Wildcats’ top pass rusher, a solid run-stuffer and one of the most versatile defensive linemen in the Big 12.

Since taking over as a full-time starter in September, he has made 27 tackles, knocked down four passes and delivered two sacks. His best efforts have come lately, as he has recorded a tackle for loss in five straight games.

“You have to cowboy up and just go sometimes,” Wood said. “That’s how I am, having been around cattle my whole life. You just want to go get ‘em — that’s always been my mindset, and I definitely try to use that on the football field.”

At long last, Wood is living up to the expectations he set for himself as a freshman.

It was only a matter of time, given his relentless approach.

“Tanner has played well all season,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “He is just a young guy who works extremely hard. He cares, and he is a guy who wants to do it right. He is a good teammate. When you go to the practice field, you know that he is going to make the effort to become a better player on that given day. It is just a natural growth that comes to players who have that kind of an attitude.”

Big man on campus

When Wood signed with the Wildcats, he thought his football future would resemble his football past.

The 6-foot-5, 260-pound former high school star did everything for Conway Springs, lining up at quarterback, linebacker, defensive end and fullback while helping the team go 45-5 and win a Class 3A state championship during his four years.

He was so talented that he ran for a state record 659 yards and nine touchdowns in a single game.

Conway Springs coach Matt Biehler has a story to tell about that magical performance. It came against a tough opponent, Chaparral, and his team was dealing with injuries. He asked Wood to do some heavy lifting before kickoff, and again at halftime when the score was tied 48-48.

Conway Springs went on to win 84-56, with Wood also making stops on defense, but everyone was so focused on the game no one realized a record had been set.

“Tanner just kept rolling,” Biehler said. “They knew what was coming, and they still couldn’t stop him. That’s what made it so great. I think the old rushing record was set by someone in a game that wasn’t competitive. But we needed every one of Tanner’s touchdowns.”

Wood found out about the record during a postgame radio interview.

“OK, that is cool. I have got to go now. That’s all he told the radio guy,” said Wood’s mother, Michele. “It wasn’t like he planned to do all that, and there was another game to play the next week. That’s where his focus was.”

Later, he was named Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year.

A college star appeared to be born.

Cowboy tough

Wood arrived at K-State hoping to make an immediate impact at multiple positions. Instead, he spent his first months learning how to pass-rush. Though he showed promise at defensive end, he needed two years of practice to crack K-State’s playing rotation.

He helped on special teams as a freshman and made 34 tackles as a sophomore. Wood played well when he was on the field, but injuries and other factors limited his playing time. He hoped for a breakthrough season as a junior, but had to settle for another 34 tackles while starting just two games.

Those are the type of setbacks that lead some to transfer. Not Wood.

“When Tanner gives his word, he is going to follow through,” said Wood’s father, Tim. “Tanner wasn’t even interested in talking to other schools after he committed to K-State. TCU wanted him and Tennessee was real hot on him. That didn’t matter to him. He wouldn’t take their calls.”

When his college career got off to a slow start, Wood didn’t panic. He didn’t pout. He simply put his head down and kept working until he became the every-down player you see today.

It’s the same approach he used to take with his chores.

“Coming from our agricultural background, you develop a certain kind of toughness,” said K-State teammate Jayd Kirby, who grew up on a ranch in Blooming Grove, Texas. “You grow up throwing down steers and roping calves. You have to go to work every day, whether it is hot or cold or raining, and get things done. That carries over to football.”

Wood has been one of the Wildcats’ best defensive players this season, but he can’t stop now. K-State (4-4, 2-3 Big 12) will need a strong finish to make a bowl game. Up next is a road game against high-octane Texas Tech (4-4, 1-4). Slowing the Red Raiders won’t be easy, but Wood knows what it will take.

Time to “cowboy up.”