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December 19, 2011

My Kansas Sportsman of the Year

Last week I asked readers of my blog to throw out some names for the 2011 Kansas Sportsman of the Year, as chosen by, well, me.

This is going to be an annual thing on the blog, I hope. “Sports Illustrated” has for decades honored a Sportsman of the Year and this year the honor is shared by Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and Tennessee women’s coach Pat Summitt. Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein is my choice for Kansas Sportsman of the Year for 2011. The candidates here in Kansas are interesting: Some of you suggested Wichita State basketball coach Gregg Marshall, or Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen. Others went with Pittsburg State football coach Tim Beck, whose Gorillas won the NCAA Division II championship by beating Wayne (Mich.) State on Saturday in Florence, Ala. There were other worthy names mentioned, too.

For me, though, it boiled down to two: Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder, who once again worked the magic that has made him an iconic figure in college athletics, and K-State junior quarterback Collin Klein, the Tim Tebow of the college game.

I’m going with Klein, who dedication and performance on the field is matched by his devotion to faith and leadership off the field.

Klein didn’t exactly come out of nowhere to have one of the finest offensive seasons in Kansas State football history. But there couldn’t have been anyone who would have predicted the success he has had: 293 carries for 1,099 yards and – get this – 26 touchdowns. In all of the highest level of college football only Wisconsin running back Montee Ball scored more touchdowns on the ground (32).

Imagine 293 carries for a quarterback. Imagine the pounding that Klein’s 6-foot-6, 230-pound body took over the course of 12 games. And there were times when he showed himself to be a solid passer by throwing for 145.4 yards per game and 12 touchdowns.

Kansas State lost what was to be its biggest offensive weapon – running back Bryce Brown – early on. But Brown was easily replaced by John Hubert and the running ability of Klein, a big man with quick feet who doesn’t just plow for yardage but has the innate ability to dodge tacklers with fancy footwork.

Klein was a must-see player in college football this season. His 1,099 rushing yards were more than the previous K-State record for a quarterback set by Ell Roberson (227 carries for 975 yards) in 2003.

Klein rushed for 100 or more yards in five of 12 games. During a five-game Big 12 stretch against Texas Tech, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, Klein rushed for 110, 92, 92, 144 and 103 yards. His 29-carry, 144-yard effort against Oklahoma State in Stillwater might have been the most impressive performance ever by a Kansas State offensive player in an individual game, considering OSU was ranked No. 2 at the time.

And yes, I know K-State has had many dynamic offensive players over the years, including Roberson, Michael Bishop and Darren Sproles.

Klein ranks as the nation’s 41st leading rusher, an incredible accomplishment in this day of spread offenses. He’s a run-first QB, a dying breed. It’s a credit to Snyder for recognizing what he has in Klein and by avoiding what must be a strong temptation to stop putting his quarterback in harm’s way. That Klein went through the season without serious injury is a credit to his toughness and to the K-State offensive line.

Klein, though, was sacked 36 times, resulting in 278 lost yards. Take those out and Klein has 1,377 rushing yards.

Klein is the biggest reason that you don’t count Kansas State out of any game, including its upcoming Cotton Bowl clash with Arkansas. I was astounded that Texas was able to hold down Klein in a late-season game, limiting him to only four yards rushing on 26 carries. That might be the defensive effort of the season, considering how lethal Klein has been against most teams. But even in the game against Texas, Klein rushed for one touchdown and threw for another.

He finds a way to make noise every time he’s on the football field. Yet he remains humble and devoted to his faith without being overbearing.

There is so much to respect about Klein, a true role model. Kansas State fans are fortunate to have him. He’s made a believer out of me, a hard skeptic, this season. The list of non-believers, I presume, is short.

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