MANHATTAN — At about this time last year, Justin Tuggle was trying to make a choice about his future.
Did he want to stick with the position he loved and came to Kansas State to play – quarterback – or would he be better off switching to the position his father excelled at in the NFL – linebacker?
A difficult decision that took time to make.
But now that his career is almost over, and he is preparing for his final game in the Fiesta Bowl, he only needs a few seconds to reflect on it.
“I’m definitely happy I made the switch,” Tuggle said. “At this time last year I was happy for the team. I wasn’t happy with my position on the team and what I was doing. I wanted to help out. I feel like this year I have played a good role and helped out a lot. It feels good.”
Tuggle’s lone season on defense saw the positives outweigh the negatives.
The senior linebacker made a quick transition to his new position and came through with some of the Wildcats’ biggest plays. Perhaps even the biggest. When K-State fans look back, many will remember Tuggle sacking Landry Jones near the goal line for a season-defining victory at Oklahoma. He lined up at defensive end and hit Jones from behind, knocking the ball free. Linebacker Jarell Childs scooped it up and scored a touchdown that catapulted the Wildcats to victory and an eventual 10-0 start.
Of the 18 tackles, including three sacks, he made this year, Tuggle remembers that one best.
“There are a lot of things that ignited this run. I’m glad people can look back and see that as maybe one of the reasons,” Tuggle said. “But there was a lot that went on this year. We had a lot of guys step up and make big plays. It’s big to be on a defense like that. We all swarm to the ball and go out there to make big plays. It’s really fun.”
Tuggle had his struggles, too, coming up empty in tackles in some games and rarely seeing playing time against pass-happy offenses. But he wouldn’t have contributed nearly as much had he stayed at quarterback.
Though he came to K-State as a highly-touted junior college transfer, who started his career at Boston College, he realized he didn’t have a future throwing passes for the Wildcats. He knew Collin Klein was going to be the starter this season, and, as a senior, Tuggle didn’t want to spend his final season on the bench.
So while K-State was preparing for the Cotton Bowl, he asked coach Bill Snyder if he could switch to defense.
The answer: You bet. At 6-foot-3, 237 pounds, Tuggle had the ideal body to play linebacker. And his speed allowed him to play a hybrid position, where he could rush the quarterback, drop back into coverage and defend against the run.
Snyder was happy to utilize one of his best athletes on defense.
“He has played very well,” Snyder said. “I appreciate Justin very well, because he has never stopped trying to learn. He tried to improve his capabilities, tried to improve his presence on the field.
“He’s very diligent about what he does. He is a very good athlete; otherwise he wouldn’t make a transition like that quite so easily. He jumped in right at the beginning and said, ‘Let’s go,’ and has worked very hard with his coaches and his teammates to enhance his capabilities and our defense.”
The switch felt strange at first. Even when Tuggle made his first tackle, part of him yearned to return to offense and touch the ball every day during practice. But those emotions went away with big hits and forced fumbles.
“I haven’t touched the ball in a longtime, but I don’t really miss it to tell you the truth,” Tuggle said. “I’m having fun out there on defense, making plays. It was a good move.”