Wade Weibert enjoys telling stories about his teammates and is unafraid to share his opinions about football. Ask him a question, and odds are he won't hesitate to answer.
But there is one topic that always made the well-spoken senior offensive lineman pause this summer: The way Kansas State finished last season.
"That was disappointing," said Weibert, before sighing and shaking his head. "We were so close. It was all there for us."
Indeed, the Wildcats were on top of the Big 12 North with two games remaining. Their 6-4 record was good enough to put them within one win of the conference championship game and a bowl trip.
They appeared to be peaking at the right time, too. During the previous seven weeks, K-State had won five times and put a scare into favored Oklahoma on the road.
None of K-State's players said so publicly, but with matchups against then-sputtering Missouri and Nebraska remaining on the schedule, many within the program expected to soon be wearing commemorative rings of a North division title.
It never happened.
The Tigers got their high-powered offense on track and waxed the Wildcats 38-12 the next week at Snyder Family Stadium. They went on to play in the Texas Bowl. Then the Cornhuskers put it all together, and held off visiting K-State 17-3 in front of a national TV audience. They went on to a big win in the Holiday Bowl.
The results were hard to stomach. While its conference rivals finished the season strong and went on the postseason, K-State fizzled and ended the season at .500, failing to qualify for a 13th game.
Throughout the middle of the season, the Wildcats were controlling clock with their running game and limiting mistakes. The formula turned into wins. But in the final two games, K-State couldn't find the end zone. Its offense went from averaging 26 points to relying exclusively on kicker Josh Cherry for point production.
In order to get back on track this fall, an emphasis was placed on conditioning, and togetherness during the offseason. Junior safety Tysyn Hartman said K-State's returning players are in tremendous physical shape. Weibert made an effort to become better friends with his teammates on the offensive line, and says practices have never been better.
"I think this team is capable of creating a lot of noise in the Big 12," Weibert said. "I'm not going to make any type of predictions, but we're looking at a much-improved team. A much improved product on the field.
"I feel like we're going to start at a higher level than last year, and if we keep following the progression of improving, then naturally we're going to be able to finish better than last year."
The Wildcats will need to. Their season, for the second straight year, will end in difficult fashion. They start with four home games and an off week sandwiched around a trip to Arrowhead Stadium to play Iowa State. UCLA in the season opener and a nationally-televised Thursday game against Nebraska will be key. So will winnable road games at Kansas and Baylor in the middle of the season. To get to a bowl game, K-State needs to pile up victories early.
After that, the schedule toughens. Two difficult home tests against Oklahoma State and Texas come next, and road games at Missouri, Colorado and North Texas round out the year.
The Wildcats didn't win a true road game last season, and will once again be challenged down the stretch.
But K-State was hampered with injuries near the end of 2009. QB Grant Gregory was playing through assorted of nagging injuries that kept him from throwing the deep ball. RB Daniel Thomas was hampered by a bum shoulder.
Thomas is healthy now, and three able quarterbacks — Carson Coffman, Collin Klein and Sammuel Lamur — are battling to replace Gregory. Whoever wins the job will be asked to avoid mistakes and manage a good huddle.
After leading the Big 12 in rushing last season, Thomas will be the centerpiece of K-State's offense. Four returning starters will block for him on the offensive line.
The Wildcats will have promising, new targets at receiver in Chris Harper, Aubrey Quarles and Brodrick Smith. But they will only need to take pressure off Thomas for the Wildcats' offense to be successful.
On defense, K-State is set in the secondary with Emmanuel Lamur and Hartman returning at the safety positions. But it might be difficult for the Wildcats to replace Joshua Moore at cornerback. Former freshman All-American Brandon Harold returns to anchor the defensive line and provide a pass rush that was seldom present last year.
The big question is at linebacker. Aside from Alex Hrebec, K-State is uncertain about the position. But competition is strong at most positions heading into the season.
If those battles bring out the best in the Wildcats, they could once again enter the tail end of their schedule fighting for a bowl. How well they finish will decide whether they get to one.