Wildcats hope to build on 2013 momentum
By ARNE GREEN
By ARNE GREEN
Special to The Hays Daily News
MANHATTAN - Bill Snyder is a big believer in momentum.
He has seen it shape his Kansas State teams both from one year to the next and in the middle of a season, for better and for worse.
But Snyder also is adamant you don't build momentum in either direction by accident. There's always an explanation.
So as the No. 20-ranked Wildcats look to build on the end of a topsy-turvy 2013 season that saw them drop four of their first six games, only to finish with a flurry, he repeated the same mantra that has guided his teams in good times and bad.
"My major concern is always young people taking things for granted," said Snyder, whose Wildcats open their season at 6 p.m. Saturday against Stephen F. Austin at Snyder Family Stadium. "Not taking our performance level, our talent level for granted, not taking the preparation for opponents for granted and not taking our workouts during the course of the summer for granted.
"I think that's probably a feeling that permeates collegiate athletics across the board."
Snyder suspects that complacency -- not to mention breaking in a pair of quarterbacks and nine new defensive starters -- slowed any momentum the Wildcats carried into last year after claiming their first Big 12 championship in a decade. A Fiesta Bowl loss to Oregon to close out the 2012 campaign didn't help, either.
With junior college transfer Jake Waters making his first career start at quarterback and sharing the job with Daniel Sams, and with the defense still a work in progress, the Wildcats laid an egg in their opener against Football Championship Subdivision power North Dakota State. That 24-21 loss, one of four by 10 points or less, pushed their backs against the wall early.
But during the open week that followed, the Wildcats took stock and quickly righted the ship, reeling off five victories in their last six games and earning an invitation to play a storied Michigan program in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
The Wildcats manhandled Michigan, 35-14, to end a five-game bowl losing streak.
"Probably the period of time that I was most proud of the young people in our program was the approach that they took to our preparation for the bowl game," Snyder said. "We've been to (15) bowls at Kansas State, but I can't recall a preparation that was as pleasing to me as the one that took place this past season."
Snyder challenged the Wildcats to seize on the momentum from the bowl game as they went through offseason conditioning, spring drills and now fall camp.
"The Michigan game gave us a great springboard to offseason conditioning and realizing the potential with the team," said senior defensive end Ryan Mueller, who enjoyed a breakout year as a first-time starter, tying the school single-season record with 11 1/2 sacks. "Taking that mindset into summer workouts of 'We ended the season on a great note, how are we going to start the next season? Are we going to start it the way we finished it or are we going to start it in the way we started it?'
"North Dakota State is a great reminder of that and just trying to climb the ladder of success."
The pieces certainly are in place for the Wildcats, who were picked third in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma and Baylor and achieved their highest national preseason ranking since 2004. They have a veteran quarterback, a deep and talented receiving corps and several key players back on the offensive line while the five returning defensive starters provide experience at every level.
But it is the return of Waters, now a senior with 13 career starts, that best feeds the historic formula for success under Snyder. Over the past 16 years, every time the Wildcats returned a full-time starter at quarterback, they won at least 11 games.
With Sams transferring to McNeese State after spring drills, Waters had the job to himself and now exudes a confidence that only comes with experience.
"I'm definitely comfortable," said Waters, who looks to join Michael Bishop, Jonathan Beasley, Ell Roberson and Collin Klein on the list of quarterbacks that elevated their teams as second-year starters. "It's all about preparing well for the season and executing the plays that present themselves.
"We have a bunch of guys returning and we've been through the battles and the ups and downs of last season, (so) we know what to do and what not to do."
Waters, who transferred to K-State after leading Iowa Western to a national junior college championship, capped an up-and-down junior year with a brilliant bowl performance against Michigan. He completed 21 of 27 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns, giving him 2,469 yards and 18 TDs for the season.
Tyler Lockett was on the receiving end of all three bowl touchdowns, and finds himself on several preseason All-America lists after catching 81 passes for 1,262 yards last year. He already ranks among the top five in school history in career receptions, yards and touchdowns, well within striking distance of his father Kevin at the top of those charts.
The Wildcats also bring back senior Curry Sexton at wide receiver, senior Zach Trujillo at tight end and senior B.J. Finney at center. Cody Whitehair started all 13 games at left guard and has moved to left tackle, while fellow junior Boston Stiverson will switch from right to left guard.
No clear favorite has yet emerged at running back, where sophomore Charles Jones and fifth-year senior DeMarcus Robinson are vying to replace three-year starter John Hubert. Versatile sophomore Glenn Gronkowski returns at fullback.
Mueller fuels defense
The defense starts up front with Mueller, the Big 12 defensive lineman of the year, at end and junior Travis Britz at tackle. Senior Jonathan Truman returns at weak-side linebacker, junior Dante Barnett at strong safety and senior Randall Evans as a third-year starter at nickelback.
On special teams, kicker Jack Cantele returns for his junior year along with sophomore Ian Patterson, the kickoff specialist, while redshirt freshmen Nick Walsh and Mitch Lochbihler battle to take over at punter.
Lockett already has received All-America honors as a kickoff return man and could add punt returns to his resume.
The schedule presents a number of challenges, most notably a Thursday night home game against national runner-up Auburn on Sept. 18. The Wildcats also open Big 12 play early, on Sept. 6 at Iowa State, and have another Thursday game Nov. 20 at West Virginia.