MANHATTAN — His time as a Kansas State linebacker is over, but you couldn’t tell that by listening to Arthur Brown following the Fiesta Bowl.
When the senior spoke with media in the aftermath of the Wildcats’ 35-17 loss to Oregon at University of Phoenix Stadium on Thursday night, he looked ahead to the future as if he was returning for another season rather than pursuing a NFL roster spot.
“This is not the end,” Brown said. “This is the beginning of a new season. We’re building for the future. Like Coach (Bill) Snyder said, he would like for us all to stay attached to the program, to focus on the young guys, just continue to lead. Our leadership as seniors is not over with. We need to continue to invest ourselves leading on in the future.”
The Wildcats will gladly take all the guidance he and K-State’s departing group of seniors — 21-5 and back-to-back major bowls in their final two years — can provide. K-State will be a much different team next season – experienced on offense, young on defense and breaking in unproven players at key positions.
This senior class laid a solid foundation for the future, but now it is up to underclassmen, backups and incoming recruits to build on it.
“I’m very glad I was able to play with this group of seniors,” sophomore receiver Tyler Lockett said. “They taught us a lot of things about football and life. I am going to miss them.”
It was obvious that many other young players shared Lockett’s admiration for veterans such as Collin Klein, Chris Harper, Meshak Williams, Braden Wilson and Travis Tannahill. When Klein returned to the locker room following his media obligations, teammates were waiting for him, lining up from all directions to say goodbye.
It was an emotional scene. Everyone in the room wanted K-State to end its losing streak in bowl games – it has lost five straight dating back to 2002 – and to win 12 games for the first time. But a sluggish start, combined with uncharacteristic mistakes late in the second quarter and an inability to keep up with Oregon’s high-powered offense, prevented that from happening.
Players struggled to explain why they continue to fall short in the postseason. Lockett said the team was tense. Tannahill, a tight end, thought Oregon simply out-played K-State. He said Arkansas did the same last year in the Cotton Bowl and an icy field was partially to blame against Syracuse in the 2010 Pinstripe Bowl.
Whatever the case, K-State will try to reverse that trend next year with the offensive line likely leading the way. The group that played well during this 11-win season returns intact, with sophomore center B.J. Finney likely to remain a captain. Coaches will also lean on running back John Hubert, who will be a three-year starter, and a receiving corps that loses only Chris Harper from its main rotation.
The main question is who replaces Klein. K-State’s offense will have a different look without the Heisman Trophy finalist. Redshirt freshman Daniel Sams and junior-college transfer Jake Waters figure to compete for the job.
Waters is a seasoned passer with dual-threat capabilities who led Iowa Western Community College to a national championship. Sams is one of the fastest players on the team, and had success running this year in relief of Klein, but he hasn’t proven himself as a passer.
“We will find a way, especially offensively,” Tannahill said. “They will get creative with the talent we have. This last team was built around Collin. You will see a lot of John next year. I’m excited to watch them.”
Outside of quarterback, the biggest questions will come on defense, where safety Ty Zimmerman, linebacker Tre Walker and defensive back Randall Evans are the major contributors returning. K-State will need to rebuild its entire defensive line, and most of its secondary.
There are backups waiting to make bigger contributions and a handful of promising incoming recruits to capable of playing immediately. A weak nonconference slate will help them ease into their new roles, but they will need to mature quickly to challenge for another Big 12 championship.
The Wildcats will likely be picked to finish near the middle of the pack in the conference. Of course, that’s where most expected this team to finish, too.
“I’m just so proud to be a part of a team that did that,” Klein said, “and didn’t allow anyone to tell us how good or bad we were going to be, not to let ourselves tell ourselves how good or bad we could be. It’s overshadowed right now, but that is something to hang our hat on. I’m proud to have been a part of it.”
K-State has shattered preseason expectations in back-to-back seasons. That’s a tradition K-State hopes to continue. It has the blueprint. Now it’s up to a new group to follow it.