MANHATTAN — Curry Sexton wants you to know a story about Ty Zimmerman. It’s a story few outside the Kansas State football team know, but one he thinks everyone should hear. The more it gets told, the fewer people who will be shocked by Zimmerman’s successful junior season.
It’s the story of Zimmerman’s best play, and it happened long before he became the first K-State player of the Bill Snyder era to intercept a pass in four straight games.
It goes like this: The Wildcats’ first-string offense was driving against their first-string defense in an August scrimmage. Unless the defense could force a turnover, the offense was about to score. The coaching staff got aggressive and decided to test Zimmerman near the goal line. Tramaine Thompson and Tyler Lockett lined up on opposite sides of the field, but came right at him on post routes. Thompson darted in front and Lockett went long. No way he could cover both.
Collin Klein waited for Zimmerman to engage one of the receivers. When Zimmerman stared down Thompson, Klein heaved the ball deep, thinking he had a sure touchdown.
Against most strong safeties, he would have. Against Zimmerman, he threw an interception.
“Collin threw behind him and he just head-whipped and made one of the best plays on the ball I’ve ever seen,” Sexton said. “Not many people could make that play. When he did that, everyone on the team was just like, ‘Wow.’ ”
Zimmerman is beginning to get similar reactions from fans. He has intercepted a pass in the past four games, and is one of the main reasons why No. 4 K-State’s defense hasn’t allowed more than 21 points this season. He has made 33 tackles, he recovered a key fumble against Oklahoma and he never gets caught out of position.
That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering he won a starting spot as a freshman. But when you consider that he didn’t start playing defense full-time until college, well, it is a little shocking that he is the only defensive back to pick off West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith this season. K-State linebacker Arthur Brown also intercepted Smith last week, but with the help of a tipped ball.
When Zimmerman did it, it was a thing of beauty. Late in the game, West Virginia tried to go deep against him. He knew the Mountaineers were desperate for a big play, so he positioned himself well in front of the nearest West Virginia receiver, making Smith think he had blown his zone-coverage assignment.
Even Brown was fooled.
“From my point of view, he was wide open,” Brown said.
But when Smith let go of the ball, Zimmerman sprinted upfield and made a leaping catch.
Sexton chuckled as he watched from the sideline. He had seen that before.
“He baited him into that throw,” Sexton said. “He’s always been one of the best athletes on the field, but he’s the smartest guy out there, too.”
Those traits come, at least in part, to the fact that Zimmerman used to be a quarterback. He was one of the best high school passers in the state as a high school senior and led Junction City to a Class 6A championship as a senior. But he didn’t land many scholarship offers from Division I programs. Until K-State came along, he was planning on playing for Washburn.
Three years later, Snyder is thrilled he got him.
“He has a tremendous capacity to be able to have a global understanding of both defenses and offenses,” Snyder said. “Coming from the offensive side of the ball to defense, you have a better understanding, particularly at that position, of what offenses do and what they are trying to do and how they go about doing it. That is certainly a great asset of the position that he plays.”
Perhaps that’s why Zimmerman didn’t argue when Snyder suggested the position change during his first week of practice. He had played both receiver and safety before. And he spent a year off between high school and college, serving as an assistant coach for his father at Junction City. He realized his skills would translate to defense. With Klein in front of him at quarterback and little depth at defensive back, he was all for it. This was his chance to help the Wildcats right away.
Klein recalls Zimmerman being so excited about the switch that he forgot to take off his green quarterback jersey before running defensive drills.
“I remember on the first day just being like, ‘Wow,’ he really sees the field and reacted quickly,” Klein said. “The first day he was making tackles two or three yards downfield or at the line of scrimmage.”
Still, did Zimmerman envision this kind of success?
“You know, not really,” Zimmerman said shortly after K-State beat West Virginia. “But I had a lot of guys help me with the transition. I just try to look at it week by week and try to go out there and make as many plays as I can that come to me. I’m surrounded by 10 guys who play their hearts out. It makes it easier.
“If I was still a quarterback I would probably still be backing up on the sidelines. Just to be out there and able to contribute so early in my career was uplifting.”
Midway through his junior season, expectations are much higher. Can he continue to live up to them? His teammates think so. He is a captain, and he has taken it upon himself to raise the level of play around him. Fellow safety Jarard Milo has made 45 tackles in his first season as a starter and cornerback Randall Evans has made an impact right away, too.
Even K-State’s receivers are playing better. It helps that they all practice with Zimmerman.
“He has grown so much since he got here,” Sexton said. “He’s one of the best safeties in the country.”