MANHATTAN — Ask Ryan Mueller what he hopes to accomplish before his college football career ends and he lists everything short of a Heisman Trophy.
He wants to win a national championship, he wants to be chosen Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, he wants to break Kansas State’s career sacks record and he wants to convince NFL scouts he is worth an early draft pick.
Those are the lofty goals that follow a breakthrough season like the one Mueller is currently experiencing. As a junior, Mueller has made 11.5 sacks to tie K-State’s season record, he has been chosen Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year by the league’s coaches and he has made everyone forget he came to K-State as a walk-on.
Thing is, his ambitions aren’t new.
“If I shared to you my goals before the season, you probably would have laughed at me,” Mueller said. “I know I probably wasn’t high on anyone’s radar a few months ago, but in order to have success you have to expect it from yourself. I expected to perform at this level or even higher. I always have and I always will.”
Nobody will laugh now. In the past year, Mueller has transformed himself from an unknown pass-rusher from Leawood into a defensive force.
The highlight play he made against Baylor — leaping through the air and stripping the ball from quarterback Bryce Petty in one fluid motion — made him a player to watch in the Big 12. A productive season that earned him second-team All-America honors by some sources validated his improvement.
It might seem like his success came out of nowhere, but that’s not the way he sees it.
“I grew up in a cookie-cutter neighborhood, where all the houses are the same. I’m not a rags to riches story,” Mueller said. “I just like to work hard.”
Those in the K-State football program can attest to his work ethic.
“Nobody plays or practices harder than Ryan Mueller — nobody,” K-State coach Bill Snyder insists.
And teammates say it’s not rare to find Mueller running up and down the stairs at Snyder Family Stadium long before or after practices.
“If people are surprised at what Ryan Mueller can do on the football field that surprises me,” K-State linebacker Jonathan Truman said. “I know what kind of guy he is and what he does on and off the field in the weight room. He is constantly doing things to make himself better.
“He has improved every game and he has improved from last year. He has turned out to be a great pass rusher with that relentless attitude he has. He doesn’t care if he has to crawl on all fours to get to the quarterback. He is going to get there.”
He will need that passion in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. He is about to be challenged like never before.
For the first time, Mueller is expected to be a major contributor in a bowl game. Unlike trips to the Cotton Bowl and Fiesta Bowl when he was a seldom-used backup, and recent regular-season games when opponents didn’t know what to expect from him, Michigan’s offensive line has been scouting Mueller for a solid month in preparation for the Saturday’s game.
He may have entered the season in relative anonymity, but the Wolverines know all about him. He is the defensive end they have to stop, at all costs. They might use standout left tackle Taylor Lewan to keep him off the line of scrimmage. They might double-team him. They might ask a running back to help block him.
Mueller faced some special defensive schemes late in the regular season. Texas, TCU and Kansas asked their running backs to chip block him as he came off the tackle. The Longhorns surprised him with it, and he took a hit that forced him to the sideline. He was better prepared against the Horned Frogs and Jayhawks. He is planning for all possibilities against the Wolverines.
That’s life when you are in the spotlight, even if you started in obscurity.
“I have to be on the other team’s radar,” Mueller said. “Hopefully I’m not. Hopefully they look at the tape and say, ‘44 is nothing.’ I would love for that to happen. But that is probably not going to be the case. I have got to understand I need to do whatever it takes to make plays for my team.
“Sometimes you get double-teamed. You just have to take it as a compliment. If they put four guys on you, then you have to bite, scratch and crawl — do whatever you can to fight and get to that quarterback. I am looking forward to the challenge.”