MANHATTAN — For four years now, Kansas State football coaches have asked themselves the same question about Braden Wilson.
What’s the best way to use him?
Even though it only takes one look at the 6-foot-4, 254-pound senior fullback to realize he belongs on the field, no one views him as an every-down player. Not because of a lack of talent, toughness or intelligence — NFL Draft guru Mel Kiper projects Wilson as the top NFL-style fullback in college football — but because of the position he plays.
Sure, Wilson is a devastating blocker, moves upfield with more speed than the average power runner and receiver Chris Harper describes him as “a throwback bruiser.” But those skills aren’t coveted the way they were 20 years ago.
Fullbacks are a dying breed, practically an endangered species in the Big 12. Spread offenses have eliminated the need for lead blockers. In an age where trick plays are used more often than the I-formation, most players with Wilson’s skills are shifted to other positions.
But K-State coach Bill Snyder would much rather worry about how to fit his best old-school player into a modern offense that features quarterback keepers, quick passes and handoffs out of the single-back formation than use Wilson on the defensive line.
“We need to (play him more). We should. Hopefully we do,” Snyder said. “I tell our offensive coaches all the time, ‘Look at him and look at how hard he plays. Do something with him.’ ”
To their credit, K-State’s co-offensive coordinators Dana Dimel and Del Miller have come up with creative ways to use Wilson the past three seasons.
He lined up as the lone backfield threat behind Collin Klein. He moved around before the snap as a blocker in various ways. They have thrown to him downfield and in the flats. This season, he may do more.
“You want to get Braden as much as you can out in the open field, because we have seen that is a good matchup for us,” Dimel said. “When we move him around and use his athleticism and his size and his toughness, it creates matchup problems because no one else in the conference does what we do with creating different angles and possibilities by moving your fullback around.”
Wilson is happy to play anywhere.
He might have a future in the NFL, but that doesn’t mean he’s upset about gaining 141 total yards in his college career. When he first came to K-State, he wasn’t sure if he would ever touch the football. Simply being on the field was enough.
“I thought I was going to play defense,” Wilson said. “When I rolled over to offense, I was just kind of going with the flow. Whatever they asked me to do, I was going to do. I wasn’t complaining.”
It helped that Wilson was a difference-maker right away. After playing running back out of the wishbone formation at Smith Center, he had experience running for touchdowns and blocking for others. Fullback came naturally.
He spent his first two seasons playing in front of current NFL running back Daniel Thomas, and helped him rush for more than 1,200 yards in back-to-back seasons. Though K-State used Thomas predominantly out of the single-back and wildcat formations, Snyder praised Wilson’s work ethic and he saw time as a lead blocker.
But right when he had mastered the traditional fullback role, Thomas moved on and Klein became the team’s main rushing threat last season.
All those quarterback keepers didn’t leave much need for a traditional lead blocker. Wilson faced limited playing time until his coaches asked him to learn a new set of skills.
Not that he minded that, either.
“I kind of like doing what I do as much as I move around,” Wilson said. “I’m really indifferent about how I line up, I just like doing what I do … I would say over time they have incorporated me into things a little more.”
That’s why he doesn’t worry about how often K-State uses the I-formation or getting handoffs in short-yardage situations.
Even though that is what could inevitably make him a professional fullback, he showed up for summer workouts focused simply on working with his coaches to become more versatile — no matter how many times friends told him about Kiper.
“He put me up at the top, but if I don’t have a good year that won’t mean anything,” Wilson said. “I’ve got to prove him right.”
Wilson has already taken one large step toward that goal.
When the newest Wildcats showed up for the start of summer workouts in June, few Wilson. After playing alongside him for two months, they now look up to him.
“Braden was the guy who helped make sure everyone was where they needed to be and kept the offense moving,” freshman receiver Deante Burton said. “He set an example.”
What’s the best way for K-State coaches to use Wilson in his final season?
As it turns out, the answer might not be that complicated.
“He is an old-school player and he loves the game,” Dimel said. “I want to see us get the ball in his hands any way we can.”