MANHATTAN — Only one thing mattered to Daniel Sams during the final moments of a discouraging loss to Oklahoma last week.
He had to find Jake Waters.
It had been a long day for both of Kansas State’s quarterbacks. Sams, a sophomore, barely played despite entering the game as the team’s leading rusher. Waters, a junior, made some impressive throws while taking nearly every snap, but he also lost two critical interceptions.
It would have been easy — heck, maybe even understandable — for Sams to have blamed the loss on Waters or K-State’s coaching staff. The Wildcats rushed for a mere 24 yards, and his absence didn’t help. But those thoughts never entered his mind. Sams took the selfish path early in the season, pouting alone while Waters failed to lead a comeback against Texas, and that didn’t do any good. K-State went on to lose three in a row. This time, he vowed to put the team first.
So when he found Waters on a crowded sideline, he put his right arm around him and said, “Don’t worry about it. We are going to get better from this.”
“He is always there for me,” Waters said later. “I love him to death. That meant a lot to me. He wanted to play more, obviously, but for him to comfort me at that time, it meant a lot.”
It was also a sign that the Wildcats’ two-quarterback system is here to stay. Most teams avoid using multiple quarterbacks, and K-State coach Bill Snyder admits he would rather not rotate players at the game’s most important position. But here he is nearing the end of a season in which he has used Sams and Waters in every game.
He thinks they complement each other. Sams is a gifted runner, a natural leader and one of the top athletes on the roster. Waters is a pure passer capable of stretching the field and picking up yards with his feet. Their skills are so different that Snyder can design single plays or full drives for each of them.
The possibilities kept Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops guessing to the point he remarked, “It’s like they have two different offenses.”
In a way, the Wildcats do.
Sams and Waters have both done well in limited action. Waters has completed 128 of 212 passes for 2,038 yards and 13 touchdowns. Sams has rushed for 791 yards and 11 touchdowns. And they both have passer efficiency ratings above 153. In the Big 12, only Baylor’s Bryce Petty (194.1) has done better.
“It has worked reasonably well for us,” Snyder said of the two-quarterback system. “Both guys work hard, are good players and deserve the opportunity to play. That’s what has happened. A lot of people say when you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one. I don’t think that is the case for us. We legitimately have two good quarterbacks.”
But that isn’t why Sams and Waters are able to co-exist at a position where playing time is rarely shared. Their personalities make that possible.
Against all odds, they have found a way to work together. They have learned to put their competition aside and focus on the team, even if it means subbing in and out the way running backs and receivers do. Sams tells Waters, “It’s your turn,” on the way out of games. Waters tells Sams, “Give us that spark,” whenever he comes in.
They act like tag-team wrestlers more than competing quarterbacks.
“That means a lot coming from Jake,” Sams said. “Obviously, I’m coming to take you out of the game. For him to say, ‘Give us that spark,’ it shows he is all about this team the same way I am. It’s little stuff like that that draws us together.”
They have also grown close off the field and consider each other great friends.
“That helps the team out a lot,” receiver Tyler Lockett said. “Since we’ve seen them grow together and not go head-to-head and clash, it’s taught us that we can trust both of them. We have confidence with whoever is in there.”
But make no mistake, it wasn’t always this easy. Waters and Sams competed for the starting job throughout preseason practices, and Sams was devastated when Waters won the job. Sams worked his way into playing time with a touchdown run against North Dakota State, but he used to hang his head and trudge off the field when Waters came in.
Waters wanted the job all to himself, too. He still admits that, deep down, every quarterback “wants to be the main guy.”
But, near the end of a 2-4 start, Waters and Sams decided to stop thinking that way. A few days after losing to Texas, Waters and Sams met in K-State’s film room and had a season-altering conversation.
It went like this:
Waters: “We have got to find a way to get both of us on the field.”
Sams: “You really feel that way?”
Waters: “You are too good an athlete to be on the sidelines.”
Sams: “We’ve got to forget about this competition between me and you. Let’s play for the team.”
“We made a pact with each other,” Waters recalls. “Whatever helps this team, we are all for it. We are going to put our egos aside. We kind of went from there.”
Added Sams: “It was tough at first, especially when we were losing and we were both thinking, if we weren’t switching back and forth we wouldn’t be going through this. But once we threw that competition away, we came a lot closer. That is when I felt the offense and the defense come together. When they saw how we were communicating at practice, that’s when I really felt like we were going places.”
K-State responded by playing Oklahoma State and Baylor, a pair of top-10 teams, close and then winning four straight to become bowl eligible. If it beats Kansas on Saturday in the regular-season finale, it will clinch a winning record.
The quarterback rotation that once seemed outlandish now feels normal.
“We don’t even look at it as a two-quarterback system anymore,” Sams said. “We look at it as a good offense that wins games.”