SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Before he was a Heisman Trophy finalist and one of the best quarterbacks to play at Kansas State, Collin Klein spent three years in anonymity.
He took a redshirt. He fought for playing time wherever he could find it. He played in 12 games as a receiver. He started two games as a quarterback. No one was sure where he would end up.
That was hard on him. Klein was the man on his high school team in Loveland, Colo., running an efficient offense that nearly won a state championship when he was a junior and made the playoffs when he was a senior. But at K-State he was unable to win the quarterback job on teams that lost as often as they won.
Doubts entered his mind, but one person kept him upbeat. Del Miller, the K-State quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator, reminded Klein to keep pushing and aim high. Miller told Klein good things – maybe even great things – would happen if he continued working hard.
So Klein did. He has since guided the Wildcats to a 21-4 record as a full-time starter.
“I wouldn’t be the player I am today if it wasn’t for his investment,” Klein said Sunday during a Fiesta Bowl news conference. “He supported me and believed in me from the beginning when it was uncertain what my career was going to look like. I owe a lot to him. I appreciate the heck out of him.”
Miller, 62, has been coaching for 40 years, with stops at Iowa, Oklahoma State, San Diego State and K-State as an assistant and Missouri State as a head coach, but his tutelage of Klein might be the finest work of his career.
When Klein came to K-State, he had the size, toughness and leadership skills necessary to guide the Wildcats to big wins. But he was hardly a finished product.
His throwing motion needed work, he had to learn how to read college defenses and he had to figure out when to take chances downfield and when to tuck the ball and fight for yards on the ground.
Still, Miller saw a future all-star.
“When I first started with Collin I told him, ‘Collin, you have the ability to be every bit as good as Tim Tebow. You maybe don’t know that right now, but you can be,’ ” Miller said. “I believe that he has done that.”
What did he need to reach such a high level?
Three things: A tweak to the angle of his release, which added velocity to his throws, encouragement and time.
“There were a few mechanics we had to work on,” Miller said. “But the great thing with Collin is he is almost the perfect player to work with. When you give him something to work on, he will work on it and then some. At that time he was doing some mirror throws to change his throwing motion a little bit. He did that every day on a regular basis.”
Miller watched, offering advice when he could and repeating his favorite phrase – “play fast, play with confidence.” Klein always listened.
“Coach Miller cares so much,” Klein said. “He really does have a heart for each one of his players and is very demanding like Coach (Bill) Snyder. He has helped me so much in my knowledge of the game of football, top to bottom.”
Co-offensive coordinator Dana Dimel has watched Klein and Miller build a relationship during their time together. It is so strong that Klein invited Miller to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York, and they regularly talk about various topics.
“He is very professional with his players and he is very detailed with them,” Dimel said of Miller. “He has been around so many programs and experienced success. He has brought that with him here. He is very detailed, has great understanding for what the quarterback needs to know in the run game and the pass game … Him and Collin have a really personable relationship. They respect each other a lot and work well together.”
Their time together is almost over, though. As soon as the Fiesta Bowl ends, Miller will turn his full focus to grooming Klein’s successor. He has been working with backup quarterback Daniel Sams for two years, but will soon welcome highly touted junior-college transfer Jake Waters to campus.
Sams is an athletically gifted quarterback who might be K-State’s fastest player. Waters threw for 3,501 yards and 39 touchdowns while leading Iowa Western Community College to a national championship. He signed with K-State over Penn State in part because of an already-close relationship with his future quarterbacks coach.
Miller is high on both players, describing Waters as a “highly successful, highly versatile winner” with a skills similar to Klein and Sams as a player who has “progressed a lot from where he started.”
They both have potential, but the pressure will be on Miller to help them reach it. He helped Klein blossom. Can he do it again? K-State returns its entire offensive line, all but one receiver and its starting running back next season. A capable quarterback could step in and have immediate success.
Regardless, saying goodbye to Klein won’t be easy.
“Collin is a terrific player,” Miller said. “He brings so many things to the table. You talk about that guy with the ‘W’ on his chest, Collin has all the attributes you would want as a winner. Now you have to develop that with your younger players coming in.”
Miller is ready.
Helping quarterbacks like Klein reach his full potential is not only his job, it is his passion.
“That’s what has kept me in coaching all these years,” Miller said. “I enjoy watching young men develop, not just from a quarterback standpoint but also as young men. Once they are done playing, what they do 10 years, 20 years after they are done … I have players coming back now with daughters and sons who are very successful in football and other fields. That is very gratifying.”