MANHATTAN — Two years ago, BJ Finney was a walk-on offensive lineman for Kansas State — a scout team terror out of Andale who won the team’s Red Raider award as the top player on the practice squad.
Last season, he became one of the biggest surprises for the Wildcats on their way to a surprising 10-3 season and Cotton Bowl berth, starting every game for Kansas State – the first at right guard and the rest at center – on his way to freshman All-American and Big 12 honorable mention honors.
This year, he’s a Remington Award candidate for the nation’s top center and will be the player Kansas State builds its offensive line around. He’s also a team captain.
And the role fits him like a glove.
“I do feel like I’m the leader on the offensive line because I’m the center, I’m the guy in the middle of everything,” said Finney, 6-foot-4 and 303 pounds. “I’m accepting where I’m at and learning new things … the guys on the line, we know that the better our unit is the better the team will be as a whole.”
That’s not to say there aren’t big questions on the offensive line – four full or part-time starters are gone, but a group of talented newcomers is waiting in the wings to take their place, along with another Kansas native who played alongside Finney most of last season.
Senior Nick Puetz, 6-3 and 304 pounds, started the last 12 games next to Finney at left guard after transferring from Wyoming.
“We’ve definitely got a lot of young guys, but the preparation for them pretty much began right after last season was over,” said Puetz, a Salina native who also played at Coffeyville Community College. “And a good thing about our group is we don’t make excuses for anybody … it’s about everyone being accountable for each other and I think when you have that environment where guys aren’t afraid to push each other and call each other out, you can get results.”
Last year’s group provided results that were among some of the best in the nation behind a breakout year from quarterback Collin Klein, who rushed for 1,141 yards and a school-record 27 touchdowns. Ideally, the Wildcats would like Klein to improve his passing numbers (1,918 yards, 13 touchdowns) and avoid taking the physical pounding he took in 2011.
“We don’t want Collin to take the beating he took last year,” Puetz said. “But because of who he is, we know he will do what he has to do to help us win. We just have to be up to the task.”
A pair of redshirt freshmen – Andover Central’s Boston Stiverson and Abilene’s Cody Whitehair – appear poised to move into starting roles. Junior-college transfer Tavon Rooks, a highly-touted recruit out of Navarro College, could also help right away.
“With only two returning starters, you tell yourself ‘OK, we’re not going to worry about this spot’” Kansas State co-offensive coordinator Dana Dimel said. “You don’t want to take those guys for granted, but they have to be consistent for us. They have to provide leadership.”
And they have to help win games.
“We need to be ready when our opponents come knocking, to be ready to grind,” Finney said. “As an offense, we need to be more balanced, to be a little more unpredictable. I don’t know if want to give our coaches the heart attack we gave them a few times last season, but we need to be ready for whatever happens in our games. To understand that no matter what, we’re never out of it.”