SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Few college football players have taken a stranger path to stardom than Blake Slaughter.
The Kansas State linebacker played in nine games as a freshman, became a valuable starter as a sophomore, made three tackles as a junior and sat out what was supposed to be his senior season with a redshirt before leading the Wildcats in tackles this year.
That journey led to a Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl news conference this week, where Slaughter sat in a prime location behind a large nameplate and in front of a K-State backdrop. This is his fourth straight trip to a bowl game, but the first time he experienced anything like that.
“This is all surreal,” Slaughter said. “The high never goes away, the thrill is always there. Being part of a bowl game is always going to be exciting, and it’s always going to be big. But this feels bigger after not playing last year.”
Slaughter could have played last season. He was good enough to back up current NFL linebacker Arthur Brown and see the field on special teams. Most in his position would have settled for those secondary roles and finished their college football career in four years.
But Slaughter wanted more — a whole lot more.
So when he stumbled upon the fact that he had two years to play his final season in a K-State uniform at the conclusion of his junior season, he made the rare decision to redshirt as a senior. Some would have transferred. He opted to stay an extra year.
Looking back, that was a wise choice. Instead of receiving limited playing time in his final season, Slaughter is going out as one of K-State’s best defenders. He piled up a team-high 103 tackles this season and earned all-conference honors while helping the Wildcats win seven games.
“I can’t thank Blake enough for taking that redshirt and coming back,” K-State defensive end Ryan Mueller said. “He has done an amazing job. At the beginning of the season the No. 1 question in Blake’s face was, ‘How are you going to replace Arthur Brown?’ He did it by being himself and being the best football player and representative he can be for this team.
“He ranks in the top 10 in the Big 12 in tackles. He has just done a tremendous job of leading this team. The level he has played at is something a lot of people didn’t think he could do. Blake has definitely taken advantage of his opportunity.”
His biggest improvement came while he was an inactive member of the team.
Though he couldn’t play on Saturdays or scrimmage with the first-team defense, he showed up to practice ready to contribute. He played at full speed, whether coaches asked him to help out with the second-string defense or on the scout team.
He wanted to become a better linebacker, teammate and leader during his year away. He couldn’t do that unless he gave his all.
“He took that redshirt year, but he didn’t take any time off, that’s for sure,” K-State linebacker Jonathan Truman said. “He was helping our offense. He was giving them looks on the scout team last year, going 100 percent every practice. It was a real selfless act from him to say, ‘Hey, I’m not playing this year, but I am still going to do everything I can to make my team better.’ I have so much respect for the decision he made. Not many people would do that.”
It wasn’t an easy decision. Slaughter said he consulted with his parents, teammates and coaches before choosing to redshirt.
He knew he was onto something when he received little opposition.
“I was pleased that he came to us with that idea,” K-State football coach Bill Snyder said. “I thought it was great. He was graduating, and he had the chance to get his life started. But he stayed, and he stayed for the right reasons. I appreciate that a great deal.
“He wanted to have a chance to play full-time. That sent a message to me about how important it was to him. He has turned into a great asset for us.”
That’s what happens when you learn from Justin Tuggle, Jarell Childs and Brown for a year, while also adding experience and muscle.
There were times last year when Slaughter felt like he was watching the game as a coach, always looking for advice to share with his teammates during timeouts. Seeing the game from a new perspective helped this season.
The journey might have been strange, but he is going out on his terms.
“I made a decision based on what I thought would be best for the team and for myself,” Slaughter said. “After years of being able to contribute on a small level to now be helping out in the capacity I am is pretty special. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”