MANHATTAN — Kansas State free safety Dante Barnett has a story to tell about the day he met Tyler Lockett. They were at a youth football practice in Tulsa, they were in the fifth grade and would soon be teammates.
At first glance, though, Barnett had his doubts. Lockett was so short that Barnett questioned why he was on the field. He remembers turning to his coach and asking, “Who is this third-grader?”
“Next thing I know he caught a ball and took off and scored,” Barnett said. “I said, ‘Wow, coach, I want to keep him on the team. I like this third-grader.’”
In many ways, that first encounter between friends mirrors Lockett’s rise at Kansas State. Lockett, an explosive junior wide receiver, came to the Wildcats as a lightly recruited high school player who was ignored by the Big 12 schools in his home state. He is still a tad undersized at 5-foot-11, and when he arrived in Manhattan no one expected him to make an immediate impact. He wanted to redshirt and began planning for the future.
But those plans changed when he looked like a starter in preseason practices. K-State coaches convinced him he was ready to play, and he became a reliable receiver and a dangerous return specialist. He improved as a sophomore, developing into the Wildcats’ No. 2 receiver and one of the nation’s top kick returners.
Now, as a junior, he is the complete package — team captain, all-conference kick returner and record-setting receiver.
“I will always say he is the best receiver in the league,” Barnett said.
Lockett is certainly in the conversation. He is one of the top deep threats in the Big 12 and is on pace to have one of the best individual seasons in K-State history. Through four games, Lockett leads the Big 12 in both catches (29) and receiving yards (469). His 237-yard game against Texas was good enough to break K-State’s single-game record for receiving yards (214), by NFL standout Jordy Nelson. Only four K-State receivers have topped 1,000 receiving yards in a season.
On Saturday, Lockett will make a trip close to where his football career began when K-State takes on No. 21 Oklahoma State. Stillwater is the closest Big 12 town to Tulsa, which means he will play in front of a larger-than-usual group of friends and family. He will also get another chance to prove that the Cowboys were foolish to overlook him and his bloodline. Lockett’s father, Kevin, is K-State’s career receiving yards leader. Lockett’s uncle, Aaron, ranks fourth.
Oh, and he returns to the venue where his freshman season was cut short by a lacerated kidney in a wild game. Lockett went bonkers that night, piling up 315 all-purpose yards and scoring a touchdown, but Oklahoma State won 52-45.
It’s easy to see why Lockett says this game feels bigger than others.
“The memories I have (of playing at Oklahoma State) are when you give it all you have and leave it all on the field and you still wind up empty, you can’t do anything about it,” Lockett said. “I think that was the kind of feeling that you got. Man, usually when you give it all that you’ve got you come out on top and you usually win. To do that and you don’t come out with the win, I think that really hurt. You can’t do anything about it. Sometimes all you can do is cry. Sometimes you don’t know what to think.”
Redemption will certainly be on Lockett’s mind this week. He has pushed himself to become a better overall player over the past two years, and he wants to prove K-State is now capable of beating Oklahoma State on the road, something the Wildcats haven’t accomplished since 1999.
“The last time we went to Oklahoma State we ended up losing, and this is my last time playing at Oklahoma State,” Lockett said. “When you look back at it, you do not want the same thing to happen again.”
Lockett says K-State players are still angry about the way they lost to Texas in their last game and are motivated to get back on the field.
He helped fuel those emotions by taking on a vocal role during K-State’s open week.
“He is a wonderful young man,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “He tries to do everything right. He has a very complete value system, and he runs fast. He can catch the ball. He has talent in a number of areas. He likes poetry and he can write poetry. He is a diversified young man who is good at everything he does.”
K-State quarterbacks certainly like what their top receiver can do.
“He is unbelievable,” starting quarterback Jake Waters said following the Texas game. “You’ve got a guy like him, I just threw it up to him a couple times and said, ‘OK, Lockett, go make a play for us.’ When you’ve got a guy like that, it is definitely special so you have to get the ball to him.”
Added backup Daniel Sams: “You can count on big plays from him. There are certain plays that, as soon as you get the call and you see the matchup, you know he is going to be open.”
Lockett did most of his damage as a returner two years ago. He expects to be effective in all areas in his final visit to Stillwater.
Becoming a complete receiver was his top priority during the offseason. Those who know him best aren’t surprised by his success.
“He loves to compete,” Barnett said. “He doesn’t like to lose. He isn’t the most vocal person, but his actions show everything about him. That’s what I like about Tyler.”