SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Some football players look forward to bowl games for the gifts. Or the warm-weather locations.
Tyler Lockett falls into another group. He is excited for the Fiesta Bowl for one simple reason: He is going to start.
When Lockett, a sophomore receiver that has provided the Wildcats a reliable deep threat and explosive kick returner, took the field at the Cotton Bowl last year, that wasn’t the case. Though he suited up for the game, he was a decoy.
His coaches wanted Arkansas to think he might play, and he wanted to dress for a game at Cowboys Stadium. But he was still recovering from a lacerated kidney, suffered late in the year at Oklahoma State. There was no way he was going in. As much as he enjoyed the bowl game’s buildup, and meeting with sick children at area hospitals, the experience felt empty from the sideline.
“Standing out there and watching the team play was hard for me to do, because you want to be out there doing something to help contribute,” Lockett said. “But all you can do is stand on the sideline and watch. That hurt, but at the same time it helped me in a lot of ways.
“It humbled me. It helped me see a bigger picture in life. It helped me in more ways than it hurt me.”
That much was evident this season, when he significantly injured his ankle against TCU despite devoting much of the summer to adding bulk that would help him play through tough and awkward hits.
The injury prevented him from finishing the game, and he was unable to play at full strength the following week at Baylor. The Bears jumped out to a sizeable first-half lead, and the Wildcats had to try to come back with Lockett unable to use his speed to break away from defenders on long throws or kick returns.
They lost 52-24. Lockett was crushed, but he kept the loss and his injury in perspective.
“It was hard, but at the same time I had to tell myself it could have been worse,” Lockett said. “Last year I hurt my kidney at the same time. When I hurt my kidney, I saw how great things happen even when bad things happen. Hurting my ankle, it was kind of like, ‘Oh man.’ But at the same time, I was like, ‘Hey, I still have a chance to play. I’m not out the whole season like last year. Things are going to work out for the good no matter what happens.’ I just had to keep that mindset.”
He did, and when he regained his strength the following game against Texas, he made one of the season’s biggest plays. Lockett broke free across the middle and caught a 55-yard touchdown pass from Klein, helping K-State snare a Big 12 co-championship.
K-State’s offense had been in a slump against TCU and Baylor, but that play seemed to give the Wildcats the momentum they needed to regain their old form.
“That was huge,” K-State co-offensive coordinator Dana Dimel said. “I said last summer I thought Tyler was going to step up and be a real impact player. He did in certain aspects, but not the level of the way I think he can. He has a higher top end. He has that breakaway quickness and that speed that no one else has in the conference.
“I think he is an elite athlete in the conference. He is really obtaining a lot of toughness with the run blocking he does, and a lot of instincts are starting to show. He’s got the good genes there. They are starting to show up for him. That part is really developing.”
Lockett caught 40 passes for 652 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore to go along with two kickoff returns for touchdowns. He is the Wildcats’ No. 2 overall receiver and top deep threat.
His father, Kevin, a former K-State great, helped him reach this point by providing him with daily pointers. He is still helping him this week in Arizona. Lockett’s father has watched him practice all week, and tried to prepare him for what he will encounter in his first bowl game.
“The Cotton Bowl was a great experience, because I was able to enjoy myself and everything around it,” Lockett said. “I got to see how blessed we were and how privileged we were in all areas in our lives. But I am enjoying every moment this week, because you never know when you are going to have another shot.”