MANHATTAN — Meshak Williams hopes his friend will forgive him for saying this publicly, but his first impression of Cornelius Lucas was not good.
Williams, a Kansas State senior defensive end, was going up against Lucas, a junior left tackle, in practice last year. He had just transferred from Hutchinson Community College, while Lucas had been part of the program since 2009. Naturally, he thought he was in for a tough matchup. It didn’t turn out that way.
“It was my first year, and I was getting around him easy,” Williams said.
He faces a more difficult challenge today, though. It’s easy to tell Lucas has raised his level of play in a short time. He’s gone from a reserve lineman that few expected to play meaningful snaps to starting at left tackle on an offensive line that ranks among the Big 12’s best.
With Lucas (6-foot-9, 322 pounds) anchoring the left side, the Wildcats have found success running left and Collin Klein has been sacked five times in seven games.
“I feel like I stepped into big shoes,” Lucas said, “and I’m trying to do my best to fill them.”
K-State coaches certainly demanded a lot from Lucas when it became obvious he was the best option at left tackle. Most expected Manase Foketi to play there because he opened each of the last two seasons as the team’s starter. But when he unexpectedly left the program to seek a transfer last summer, the job fell to Lucas.
He had to follow in the footsteps of Zach Hanson, who filled in admirably for Foketi last year after he suffered an injury, and other successful left tackles before him.
Lucas always thought he was good enough to play every down, but something held him back. He’s not sure what, exactly.
Maybe he needed to feel some pressure for a change. He never used to fret about mistakes. Now when you ask about his first false-start penalty of the year he says, “I would probably give my left arm to get it back.”
Whatever the case, his rise began the moment he realized his team needed him.
“This year was when I finally stepped up,” Lucas said. “My work ethic is becoming better each and every day. You have to step up so you don’t let your teammates down.”
Sophomore center B.J. Finney started to notice a difference in Lucas during spring practices. Lucas was suddenly using his size to his advantage. He spent more time in the video room, his fundamentals improved and he was more sociable away from the field.
“The switch just turned on and Cornelius was a different guy,” Finney said. “Props to him for finding what it was to get him going. You can tell that mentally, he completely changed everything. It was awesome.”
Williams didn’t just notice the difference. He felt it in practice.
Still is, actually.
“It’s hard to get around him now,” Williams said. “He’s built up his run blocking and pass blocking. Now you really have to spend time scheming how you’re going to get past him. It came out of nowhere. One practice I was going against him and I was like, ‘Oh man, something happened.’ But I’m proud of him. He got a lot better and stood up to the role of a starter we needed him to play.”