|Quarterback Collin Klein :: Getty Images|
When Bill Snyder talks about his Kansas State Wildcats, he speaks in a measured pace and in his low, gravelly, monotone voice. Snyder's understated style usually fits in with his often-underrated teams in a program that usually finds success not through blue-chip talent but through maximizing the hardworking players it has. Over the past year, however, K-State has also evolved into something else: one of the most exciting teams in college football.
It's not only that the Wildcats are in the midst of another dramatic turnaround under Snyder. (Which they are -- after a three-year bowl drought they've gone to back-to-back bowls and fell five yards short of a Big 12 title last season.) It's also how they're doing it. In five of their games (four of them wins) the deciding points were scored in the final four minutes of regulation or overtime. They also have a quarterback turned receiver turned quarterback who is steamrolling defenders. In 2011, his first full season under center, Collin Klein scored 27 rushing touchdowns, tied for the highest single-season total for a quarterback ever.
The returning stars from a year ago make this year's team one of the most talented in program history. Klein is a Heisman candidate, and backfield-mate John Hubert is a 1,000-yard threat. Kansas State's receivers are dangerous with the ball, especially sophomore Tyler Lockett, who as a true freshman was a Walter Camp first-team All-America return specialist. There are questions on the offensive line, but between the spring emergence of redshirt freshmen Boston Stiverson and Cody Whitehair, and the arrival of highly regarded JUCO transfer Tavon Rooks, the Wildcats should be able to provide adequate protection for Klein.
Bigger concerns are on defense: Last year K-State allowed an average of four points fewer than it scored. Linebacker Arthur Brown might end up being the Big 12's best defensive player, but Adam Davis and Vai Lutui are the only returning starters on the defensive line, and the Wildcats' secondary must replace heady safety Tysyn Hartman and scrappy corner David Garrett.
While you might not hear it in Snyder's voice, these Cats seem poised for another wild ride.
Can quarterback Collin Klein get a big year from John Hubert and an increased receiving role from tight end Travis Tannahill?
8 -- Games of nine decided by a touchdown or less that Kansas State won last season, including five games decided by four or fewer points.
Collin Klein, QB, Sr. -- Klein moved between quarterback and wide receiver in his first two seasons before emerging as an elite quarterback as a junior. He has Tebow-like size (6-foot-5, 226 pounds) and power and was named All-Big 12 honorable mention after finishing with 40 total touchdowns.
Tyler Lockett, WR-KR, So. -- As a true freshman, the speedster from Tulsa was the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year and had a 35.2-yard kickoff return average and two return scores. After catching 18 passes and three touchdowns last season, his role on the offense should grow.
Nigel Malone, CB, Sr. -- The latest JUCO success story in the Wildcats' secondary, Malone earned first-team All-Big 12 honors after leading the conference with seven picks (including two off Oklahoma's Heisman candidate Landry Jones).
John Hubert, RB, Jr. -- Hubert held off high-profile transfer Bryce Brown to earn a starting spot last year and then, teamed with Klein in an explosive option backfield, the 5-foot-7, 191-pound scatback topped 100 yards three times.
Travis Tannahill, TE, Sr. -- Already one of the best blocking tight ends in the nation, Tannahill put on a show catching passes this spring. (He had five receptions for 42 yards in the Purple-White Game.) While Kansas State is loaded with playmakers on the perimeter, the 6-foot-3, 253-pounder is set to emerge as the security blanket that Klein needs to take the next step as a passer.
Marquez Clark, WR, Jr. -- Clark could make an immediate impact as a game-breaking receiver. A first-team NJCAA All-America for Navarro (Texas) Junior College, he set NJCAA single-season records for receptions (98) and receiving yards (1,639) in 2011.
Something special was about to happen. Baylor trailed Kansas State 36-35 with three minutes to go when Robert Griffin III took a snap at his own 27. He stepped out of a potential sack and escaped the pocket to the right. It was evolving into the kind of play that landed Griffin college football's top award last season. But if RGIII was Superman, Arthur Brown turned this into a Bizarro Heisman moment.
Two minutes earlier Brown had intercepted a Griffin pass to set up K-State's go-ahead field goal. Now, spying from his middle linebacker position, Brown began his pursuit. Griffin, realizing this was the rare instance he couldn't simply outrun a linebacker, put out a stiff arm, only to have Brown wrap him up at the ankles, dumping the Baylor quarterback three yards behind the line of scrimmage and sending him tumbling. Three plays later (one of them Brown's stop of running back Terrance Ganaway on third-and-four) Griffin threw incomplete on fourth down, and the Wildcats were triumphant.
"You know how RGIII went to the Olympic trials?" asked Chris Cosh, then the K-State defensive coordinator, now at South Florida. "I said after that game that maybe Arthur should be going to the Olympic trials because he caught him."
Brown was essential to the Wildcats' turnaround last year. With an underwhelming line in front of him and a secondary long on grit but short on coverage skills behind him, the 6-foot-1, 228-pound Brown was a wrecking ball, racking up 101 tackles.
But Brown didn't close in on stardom as quickly as he closes in on a ballcarrier. Considered the best linebacker recruit in the nation coming out of Wichita High School East in 2007, he originally signed with Miami. Expectations were absurdly high. Even as Brown struggled as a freshman, then coach Randy Shannon didn't hesitate to mention Brown and Ray Lewis in the same breath. But Brown never broke through on the depth chart. After two seasons of mostly special teams play, Brown's star had faded. "I honestly can't [say anything negative]," Brown said of his time at Miami. "Those years really helped me develop and [prepare] for this opportunity now."
After the 2009 season the Wichita native returned to his home state for a second chance. His arrival in Manhattan was overshadowed by his younger brother, Bryce. A running back and the nation's top overall recruit in '08, Bryce came to K-State following an unhappy season-plus at Tennessee. After failing to earn a start with the Wildcats, Bryce quit the team last September to prepare for the NFL draft. (The Eagles took him in the seventh round.)
Arthur, meanwhile, had quietly gone to work. At Miami he had become a film-room junkie, and watching from the Kansas State sideline during his transfer year in 2010 gave him a new perspective. "You could see [early on] that he was going to outwork everybody," said Cosh. "He outworks a lot of coaches.... He's one of the best leaders I've been around."
This year the defensive line is again thin, and the secondary is regrouping. But Brown is a constant. A potential first-round pick, he passed on a chance to go to the NFL. "My time in college has been a process of growth," he said. "To finish it out [is] an opportunity to further develop myself. And when I leave here, I want to leave my teammates on a solid foundation."
Four years after arriving in Miami as the nation's best linebacker recruit, Brown is set to end his college career in his home state as one of the nation's best linebackers.
SI: Does last season's loss at Oklahoma State stick with you?
BS: The wins you forget, but the losses are with you forever. We had an opportunity to score from the five-yard line at the end of the fourth quarter, and we would have gone for two points and either won or lost the ball game. We just didn't get into the end zone. That will linger with me for quite some time.
SI: Your team surprised a lot of people in 2011. Were you surprised?
BS: I really don't have expectations because I'm always wrong. But the answer is, no. You get to the point where nothing surprises you.
SI: Does this team have a goal to win the conference this year?
BS: I'm not naive enough to believe that players don't set those kinds of goals. [But as a program our goals] do not define X number of wins or championships; they're strictly intrinsic values, and if you achieve these intrinsic values, successes will follow.
SI: This will be your 21st year at K-State. Are you happy with where the program is?
BS: We're on track. It gets to a point where the capacity for improvement becomes far more difficult to come by, and we are probably close to reaching that point. In returning here [after the 2008 season, I wanted] to attempt to smooth the waters with our fan base and with the people of Kansas State. We have gotten very close to that.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Big 12 Preview.