MANHATTAN — Ty Zimmerman’s college football resume reads like he was once a high-profile recruit.
Freshman All-American. Two-time all-conference player. Team captain.
The Kansas State junior has started 15 games at safety and still has two years to go.
Though his numbers — 58 tackles and two interceptions last season — don’t cause double-takes, no one complains about the way he plays. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time, and his mistake-free style makes him one of the most dependable defensive backs around.
Few Division I football players could hope for more so early. Those that can are often the coveted high school stars that college coaches drool over.
Yet, that is not who Zimmerman was as a teenager. True, he was the starting quarterback at Junction City, where he won a Class 6A state championship as a senior, but he was anything but a hot commodity on the recruiting trail.
“K-State was the only major Division I school that gave me a shot,” Zimmerman said.
And even the Wildcats wouldn’t take him right away. He remembers having two choices on national signing day: Accept a scholarship offer from Division II Washburn, where he could play immediately, or take a grayshirt offer from K-State, which would force him to put off enrolling for a semester and delay him from playing college football for a year.
It was a difficult decision, but he had high expectations for himself.
“I wanted to play major Division-I football,” Zimmerman said. “This was the route I had to take.”
Three years later, K-State coaches wouldn’t dream of asking him to step away from the team for a series of plays. They are ready to lean on him, and view him as the type of defender they can build a secondary around.
“He’s a caring young guy, he’s a disciplined young guy, he’s a hard working young guy and he’s a responsible person,” said K-State football coach Bill Snyder. “He’s got perseverance. He has all those values we talk about.”
As a freshman, he won a starting spot despite competing against Emmanuel Lamur and Tysyn Hartman, two established defenders who are currently pursuing NFL careers. Few expected him to do so, but when Zimmerman got his big break and saw the field while Lamur sat with a concussion, he took advantage. He played so well that coaches moved Lamur to linebacker when he returned.
Now it’s up to Zimmerman to help an unproven group of defensive backs make the same leap.
“Tysyn and Emmanuel, those guys helped me with that transition,” Zimmerman said. “This year, having two years experience under my belt, I want to be in that same role and help those younger guys come up and get used to stuff right away.”
Zimmerman will help teammates such as Thomas Ferguson and Jarard Milo before games start in September, but they won’t be able to walk the same path he did. That would require a semester away from Manhattan.
During his semester away from K-State, he served as an assistant coach for Junction City. He had an in with the coach, his father Randall, so the job wasn’t hard to get. But he pushed himself like it was. He worked with quarterbacks on a daily basis, compiled and studied film on future opponents and was a valuable worker during school hours.
“He probably did more than any of our other coaches that year,” Randall said. “We leaned on him. He did a little bit of everything.”
Zimmerman also worked out and tried to add as much muscle as he could in the weight room. But what he remembers most about that time was the perspective he gained.
Watching high school games from the press box allowed him to see football in a new way. Helping players during practices improved his work ethic. He appreciated what it took to be a coach.
“He looked at it from another angle,” Randall said. “A lot of people look at him and say, ‘How could he go from playing quarterback to defense and understand everything so fast?’ Well, he studied the game.
“His head has always been his best tool. He’s very smart. He has worked his way into being a very good athlete, but it’s the way he approaches the game that makes him good. He is always looking for little angles that will help him.”
Maybe that’s why he didn’t put up a fight when Snyder approached him about switching from quarterback to defensive back during his first week of practice.
He started as a receiver at Junction City and occasionally played safety, too. He thought his experience throwing passes would translate well into defending them.
“I made the switch to defense and I’ve loved every moment since,” Zimmerman said. “I knew it would be easier to get on the field early, and it gave me the chance to help on special teams. But it wasn’t really about that. Snyder thought it was a good idea, and so did I. I was able to get over there and contribute right away.”